Matthew Kresal orders sauté of unborn octopus...
There are films that not only stand the test of time but become icons in their own right. They are films that define a genre, sometimes without meaning to. This 1954 Disney film of Jules Verne's classic work 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is one of those films. It is so thanks to an unlikely combination of factors that has managed to help it pass the test of time quite beautifully, despite the passing of more than sixty years since its original release.
One of the biggest factors lies in its casting, especially of Captain Nemo. James Mason had already established his career in films like Odd Man Out and The Desert Fox but it was with the role of Nemo that he earned cinematic immortality. Mason's Nemo is an incredible character: a man who is equal parts genius and haunted by a past that's hinted at but never quite revealed. There's a maverick nature to Mason in the role and he plays all of these elements beautifully. Yet there's a softer, more human side to his performance where he's almost a poet laureate of the deep, such as in a scene about half-way through the film where Nemo explains why he won't share his technology. It's a wonderful performance and a measured one that rises above the potential cliches of the genre.
The rest of the cast is solid, if not always up to Mason's level. There's Kirk Douglas as harpooner Ned Land in a performance that varies from comic foil to action hero, a combination that's unlikely but works for the most part, though the comic elements stand up well for a film made six decades ago. Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre as Conseil round off the four main characters and both do decently, though it's perhaps Lorre, cast against type as an academic rather than as a villain, who comes across the better of the two. With the addition of the crew of the submarine Nautilus who have a few lines here and there, it's a solid cast all around.
What stands out more than the cast, even Mason's Nemo, is the production design. Decades before the steampunk genre had been founded, let alone that term first being coined by K.W. Jeter, this film established much of the feel of that genre with its design of the Nautilus both inside and out. While Verne described something that was quite akin to the modern submarine, the production design of Harper Goff came up with something that was far more cinematic, combining Victorian style with more futuristic technology, something that would become a hallmark of steampunk. Alongside some excellent costume design for the Nautilus crew, especially the diving suits, it's something that gives the film not only one of its biggest strengths but also perhaps its most iconic element.
Outside of these elements, there's plenty of other things to recommend the film for. The Oscar winning special effects that bring Goff's visions to life are a perfect example. Using a combination of old-school techniques including some incredibly effective model shots, the film beautifully brings to life some great moments and visuals. The effects are perfect, though, as can be seen in some of the back projection shots used to illustrate what characters are looking at, are a bit dodgy at times. Those instances are rare and, on the whole, the effects stand up very well for a film of this age.
Then there's the combination of the script by Elmer Fenton and the direction of Richard Fleischer which brings Verne's tale to life. Anyone who has ever read the original novel will know that, by virtue of it having been written as a serial originally, it's quite episodic with little in terms of an actual plot. Fenton's script manages to find a way to bring many of the incidents from Verne's tale together while also adding new elements here and there as well as changing the occasional piece of detail such as Nemo's hinted background. With this in hand, Fleischer's direction helps to keep the film moving throughout which stops it from being bogged down in details or extended sequences, while also adding an occasionally campy tone that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.
Elsewhere, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea displays some strong production values that illustrate some of the finest big-budget Hollywood work of the era. The cinematography for the film is fantastic throughout, highlighted perhaps by the sequences inside the Nautilus which are a sight to behold. There's also the excellently filmed underwater sequences which expertly mix together shots with doubles and inserts with the actors to bring sequences to life. The score by Paul Smith, while definitely a product of the era with a sound that only classic Hollywood could produce, serves the film well throughout, creating a strong sense of atmosphere from the early scenes aboard the US Navy warship, the Abraham Lincoln, to the underwater sequences which portray both the extreme beauty and the mystery of the deep.
Nowhere though does this all of these elements come together better than in the film's signature sequence: the fight with the giant squid. Combining performances from the actors, effects ranging from model shots to a full sized attacking squid as well as practical rain and lightning, excellent cinematography and the music of Paul Smith, the results were gripping for audiences both then and now as man battles beast with not only their lives at stake but the fate of the Nautilus as well. It's something that is all the more amazing as the sequence was originally very different in every way (something that can be glimpsed in the extras on the DVD release) and that didn't have half the power and spectacle of the final version. Thankfully, Walt Disney himself ordered it to be redone and the result gives the film its best sequence and one of the most incredible action scenes ever produced for the screen.
The term “classic” can be thrown around quite easily but there's little doubt that it can be applied here. From Mason's Nemo to iconic production design that continues to influence the steampunk genre, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is a film that has become iconic in ways that Disney and his filmmakers could never have imagined. As well as remaining one of the best adaptations of a novel to the screen, it also remains as watchable today as it was then. If that doesn't make this a classic, I'm not sure what does.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.