Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

When it’s on: Thursday, 31 August (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Race from outer space to seven miles below the sea … with amazing aquanauts of the deep!

Anyone who thinks that movies about freak weather conditions are a recent phenomenon has clearly forgotten the work of Irwin Allen, the disaster flick connoisseur who at the turn of the 1960s was busy serving up Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a science fantasy that revolves around an environmental disaster. Sure, you could pick up any number of elements contained in the film and hold them up for ridicule. Things take place that simply couldn’t (sinking chunks of ice!) happen, but cinema’s sense of licence back then occurs still, as Dara O Briain’s expert deconstruction of the ‘science’ behind 2012 demonstrates. These were just more innocent times, with the movies to match, and personally I have a lot of affection for this sort of caper. It’s gloriously silly. Allen, in conjunction with veteran screen writer Charles Bennett, throws just about every cliche he can dream of at the screen. This means that alongside the tense submarine drama there are collisions with giant octopuses and our heroes drifting into minefields, which presumably had been carelessly left in the middle of the ocean at some point, and yet it’s a lot of fun. I don’t see much wrong with that.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea opens with a title song from Frankie Avalon, the Billboard sensation who also takes a supporting role in the film. Admiral Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) has built a state of the art nuclear submarine, the Seaview, which he is testing in the Arctic Ocean. His captain, Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) is showing a team of visiting delegates around the vessel, including Joan Fontaine as Susan Hiller, a psychologist who wants to review the mental effects of working on a submarine among the crew. Disaster strikes with the revelation that the Van Allen radiation belt circling the earth has been hit by meteors, setting it on fire and heating up the planet. The United Nations boffins, led by Henry Daniell’s German (obviously) physicist, believe the skies will return to normal once it’s burned itself out, but Nelson thinks this is folly and only a hit from one of the Seaview’s atomic bombs, delivered at a precise time and location, can save the world from destruction. Discredited and hounded out of the UN, Nelson guides his submarine towards its date with destiny, pursued by the authorities, which now consider him to be a dangerous renegade, as the crew similarly begins to doubt him.

There’s the germ of a very suspenseful thriller here. Steadily, those working on the Seaview turn against their leader, partly out of a desire to get back to their families – if these are to be their last moments, then they want to spend them with the people they love. Even Captain Crane’s loyalty comes into question as the odds start mounting, and this puts him into conflict with his wife (Barbara Eden) who also happens to be the Admiral’s PA. Only Peter Lorre’s retired scientist remains as a staunch ally, amid concerns that the old man’s propensity for playing with sharks in the sub’s tanks aren’t ovewhelming proof of his sanity. Rumours circulate about a saboteur on board, and then there’s the presence of a new age Christian (Michael Ansara) who reaches for his bag of Bible quotes with every fresh peril, each new portent of doom.

But there wasn’t the sustained interest in turning this into a serious drama. Instead, the film opts for spectacle and matinee thrills, attempting a broad entertainment that by and large works. You know what you’re getting when the Seaview stops on the seabed to attempt a communication with the American president by tapping the Rio-London cable, and falls foul of a squid that is understandably annoyed by having its slumber interrupted and attacks the captain. Later, the crew agree that the solution to being fired upon by an enemy submarine is to dive down into the Mariana Trench, the logic being that only the Seaview can go so deep and not implode due to the pressure. While all this is going on the Admiral and Lorre hole up in his quarters, poring through scientific data and chain-smoking, resolute that their theory is correct. Barbara Eden flits between them and the Captain, tottering around on high heels when not jiving to the trumpeting serenades from Mr Avalon’s firebrand junior officer.

By the end, the sense of astonishment that such a lot has been packed into the film’s 100 minute running time is palpable. A great deal happens, told in an episodic ‘the next damn thing’ way, and maybe the speed of events and the movie’s casual, almost random way of killing its cast members are enough to prevent viewers from thinking too much about the dodgy science behind it all. Certainly, the latter became the subject of many scathing reviews, though this wasn’t enough to put the paying public off. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea made a healthy profit and helped to spawn the successful TV series, which recycled both the plot and many of the film’s sets. In its favour it looks great, L. B. Abbott’s visual effects put to good use in showing us those angry red skies that seem to imprison the Earth and everybody on it. There’s a pleasing mix of contemporary storytelling and grab-bagging from the nautical yarns of Jules Verne, and besides it’s a bit of a treat to watch a film of this kind that doesn’t try to beat us over the head by yelling all this is happening because of mankind’s folly. Instead it’s a romp, a yarn, very much a tall tale, one that wastes half its cast (no really good reason for the presence of Fontaine or Lorre) but aims innocently to please, and for the most part manages it.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: ***

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

When it’s on: Friday, 11 May (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.

Film4 spoil us with an end of the week treat in the shape of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney production into which serious money was sunk and one that found itself the second highest grossing picture of the year (behind White Christmas).

As always, I read various peoples’ reviews of films after watching them and here, more than usual, I found critical opinion often giving way to the warm glow of nostalgic memories. By all accounts, going to see 20,000 Leagues in 1954 was a magical experience, exactly the sensation Walt Disney wished to elicit from his movies. The closest I guess we kids of the next generation came to it was Star Wars, yet in a way 20,000 Leagues was more important because of the respect it paid to its audience. Both flicks are at heart adventure yarns, but the earlier release has something profound to say about the world. Captain Nemo lives underwater and attacks warships due to a disillusionment with the world. He’s terrified about giving up the secrets of the Nautilus because of what people might do with the technology. I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that Nemo’s concerns would have chimed with Cold War era audiences.

Nemo is played by the great James Mason, oscillating ever between genius and madness. Mason was a casting coup for Disney, who didn’t normally attract performers of his calibre, and the role requires a heavyweight, someone who can convey his character’s conflict and come across as a villain, but not altogether evil. Into his watery world comes Professor Pierre Arounax (Paul Lukas), who’s been researching accounts of the sea monster that devours ships (i.e. being rammed by the Nautilus, which appears above the surface of the sea as an oncoming, terrifying  pair of huge green eyes) and in whom Nemo senses a kindred spirit. The academic brings along his apprentice, Conseil (Peter Lorre), and a salty seaman with the ironic name of Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

Lorre is on hand as the largely comic sidekick, whilst Douglas provides the broad-shouldered muscle. I’m used to seeing the latter play far more intense characters in serious films, so catching him in a light-hearted role was a real surprise. Watch! Douglas sings! He performs with a seal! He’s actually very good value as the guitar strumming Land, and apparently he had great fun making the film.

Fun is the bottom line as the Nautilus goes about its underwater business, demonstrating that life can be enjoyed to the full beneath the waves, providing you like smoking seaweed cigars. The effects work is breathtaking for the era – the model filming isn’t as obvious as it so clearly appears to be in other pictures, and even the giant squid attack works. No Ray Harryhausen style stop motion stuff here. The tentacle wires and animatronics are masked largely by the decision to film the scene in a thunderstorm at night, which also has the nice side effect of increasing the drama. Filming the scene was something of a struggle, and no less a figure than Disney himself ordered a full retake when the original, set in a calm sea, exposed too much of the squid’s artificial workings. My DVD contains the original squid attack as an extra; they made the right choice.

Richard Fleischer directs steadily, letting the film flag slightly in the middle as the full scale of what the Nautilus can do is revealed. Even by 1954 standards, as the USA launched its first nuclear submarine, there must have been a feeling of ‘Huh?’ from viewers who were quite used to a world containing submersibles. It’s for this reason the film retains the Victorian era setting, the one in which Jules Verne wrote his novel. This ensures the submarine is a set of considerable delights, with its rivets, brass instruments and Nemo’s amazing pipe organ.

Elsewhere, 20,000 Leagues may very well be the perfect family film. The Disney formula of cute animals, songs and lame gags is minimised in favour of action and a refreshing philosophical undertone. This is why it’s a gift of a film, especially in an era when what we get from cross-generational visits to the cinema are computer animations and telegraphed narratives.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: *****