20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (region 1 edition)

Starring: James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre
Walt Disney Home Video
RRP: $29.99
Certificate: G
Available now

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 Sea.

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.

James 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.

Douglas' 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.

Lukas, 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.

And 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.

Give 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.

Then, 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.

For 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.

On 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 transfer.

Goff 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.

There 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?

The 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 design decisions.

For 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?

While 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.

Paul Dempsey

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