1868. The world's shipping nations believe the Pacific has
been invaded by a leviathan that is indiscriminately sinking
warships. In fact, it is a hugely advanced submarine boat.
Its commander, Captain Nemo, is waging a war against war as
he seeks his own independence from a mankind he regards as
brutalised beyond endurance. After one attack, he nevertheless
takes on board three men: a harpoonist, a marine professor
and the professor's assistant...
Walt Disney was one of Hollywood's more conservative filmmakers,
politically as well as in terms of taste and judgement. It
is an irony then, that among the many dynamic, romantic and
influential characters he personally guided to the screen,
one also merits description as a mass murderer and terrorist.
That character is, of course, Captain Nemo, as featured in
the 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under
The studio has re-released the film on a feature-packed two-disc
DVD which invites us to see it as the Terminator 2
of its day (20kL vs. T2, perhaps), a logistical
nightmare that saw the comparatively small company overcome
all manner of technical challenges and the threat of bankruptcy
to deliver a classic piece of mega-budget entertainment. So
much is true, yet it is just part of the reason why the film
endures. This is also a blockbuster with a brain.
Only a fool would say that 20kL endorses Nemo's take
on direct action. However it is listening and also poses the
dilemma that while we know he is wrong, can we in turn say
what is right. Much of this comes from Verne, and the filmmakers'
fidelity to his ideas - but it is emphasised by the performances,
contrasts drawn between the characters and some important
changes made to the story, particularly at the climax.
Mason's performance as Nemo is a good place to start. Unlike
most of Britain's exports to Hollywood, Mason was a very internal
actor, closer in some respects to the American Method school
than the declamatory style of the West End. On top of that,
he was a thoroughly committed pacifist whose refusal to serve
in World War II led to a serious rift with his family. He
was the ideal to play an intense, conflicted and fantastically
intelligent man prepared to impose peace with the most sophisticated
and terrifying weapons available.
Deliberately offset against Mason are Kirk Douglas as the
harpoonist Ned Land and Paul Lukas as the French Professor
Arronax, scuttled by and then reluctantly taken on board the
Nautilus. Thus an intriguing dramatic triangle is formed,
although the forces at play are not resolved.
bravado performance has been criticised as too hammy, but
it is rightly all-surface and all-physical to play off the
cerebral and mechanically-destructive Nemo. Land might be
the 'hero', but he is also a bully, taken to acting first
and thinking later. He is even 'all-American' to the extent
that while he acts to "strike a blow for freedom", he instead
strikes the flame that lights a conflagration.
meanwhile, gives us the traditional intellectual, the man
of consideration but no physical action whatsoever. He wants
to find a way of bringing Nemo and the marvels he has created
into the mainstream. He turns out to be utterly impotent.
where does this dynamic lead us? In the biggest diversion
from the novel - and it wouldn't be Disney, if they didn't
change the ending - the answer is not Verne's natural maelstrom
but the climactic explosion of what is clearly meant to be
a nuclear bomb, adding hundreds more deaths to those caused
by the Nautilus ramming warships.
There is plenty of evidence that this does not solely occur
in the name of spectacle, even though the film's sophisticated
design, superb FX, and glorious Technicolor and CinemaScope
photography all position 20kL as a 'popcorn' movie.
Disney his due. His predecessors have been obsessed with a
family entertainment brand to the point of putting children
first, but Uncle Walt saw himself as very much a mainstream
player. He wanted to reach out to the widest part of the audience,
not just a segment of it. Part of his genius also lay in offering
unsettling visions and images, hidden away within an apparently
innocuous story - think of Pinocchio and friends being changed
into donkeys, the death of Bambi's mother or the nightmarish
images in Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs. Put it this
way, one suspects Ariel and Quasimodo would have met their
makers had he still been around.
there is Disney's choice of director, Richard Fleischer, son
of his great animation rival, Max. Before taking on this immense
project, Fleischer Jr. had built up a reputation making film
noir entries such as The Narrow Margin, with its
famously bleak twist-in-the-tale. After 20kL, his interest
in contemporary and future dystopias would continue in the
great Soylent Green and two of the first serial killer
films, The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place.
It's also noted on the DVD that screenwriter Earl Felton was
very much Fleischer's choice.
sure, the film is not meant to be the most penetrating examination
of humanity's bleaker side, but it is intelligent enough to
know that the themes are there and must be addressed. Moreover,
these themes continue to have a contemporary relevance; they
make the film current, even as it approaches its golden anniversary.
top of all that head-scratching stuff, there is The Look.
This vision of the Nautilus can fairly be described as iconic,
from the design of the hull, through to the retro-tech Victorian
fittings inside. The balance is so well achieved, as masterminded
by designer Harper Goff, that the film does not feel at all
dated - particularly when seen in the luscious DVD 2.55:1
was simply a genius. Consider how far short even the great
Ray Harryhausen fell when he sought to find another way of
realising the Nautilus for 1961's Mysterious Island.
His predecessor had simply exhausted his options. Then compare
20kL and its twist on Victoriana with the much more
recent Will Smith film from The Wild Wild West. Goff
still wins by a country mile.
is another, more unexpected visual pleasure in the film. Today,
most of the FX would be realised digitally, but in 1954, it
was all down to miniatures, matte paintings and very primitive
animatronics. The strange thing is that as our eyes have now
perhaps become jaded of CGI, this film's organic approach
suddenly seems fresh. Granted, the giant squid will today
frighten only the youngest viewers, but I would still defy
anyone not to feel a sudden rush as the Nautilus rams its
first victim. Has the wheel of technology turned full circle?
masses of extras underline the craft involved in every aspect
of the film. The highlight is a 90-minute retrospective, which
includes recently discovered colour 16mm film shot alongside
the main production and excellent interviews with surviving
crew members. What the film has to say may get only the briefest
of mentions - given that this package dates from after September
11, that's perhaps understandable - but if you want to know
how movies are made, the documentary alone justifies the purchase.
Yet there are many other delights to be had. Fleischer contributes
a splendid technical commentary. Two brief featurettes look
at the work of composer Paul Smith and at how Verne and Disney
were linked by their interest in technology. There is a reconstruction
of the originally-shot battle between the Nautilus and the
giant squid, which was completely junked and reshot for being
unintentionally comic. And there is archive footage from the
film's TV promo on Disneyland (better known to Brits
as The Wonderful World of Disney).
Meanwhile, if you want to hear what a dubbing session sounds
like, there are clips of Peter Lorre at work - he had, after
all, the voice that launched more impressionists' careers
than Tommy Cooper's. Or perhaps you'd rather trawl through
the hundreds of stills, storyboards, memos and other production
documents, including an enlightening (and sometimes hilariously
misspelt) memo that Goff sent to a magazine explaining his
crying out loud, there's even the Donald Duck CinemaScope
cartoon that accompanied the original release and still other
stuff beyond that, but why don't you just buy the bloody thing
and find out about those goodies for yourself?
it does skirt around the film's central thematic dilemma,
this remains such a beautifully prepared DVD package that
it seems churlish to criticise. And, at any rate, the serious
themes are still there in the film itself.
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