I love Jules Verne’s novels. After having read many of them when I was a kid, I can easily say that what turned them into such great adventures was the author’s ability to make the reader believe that the fantastical technology and achievements were indeed possible. Go around the world in merely 80 days the way Phileas Fogg did? Why not? Journey to the center of the Earth… where dinosaurs live? Sure. Hop onboard the Nautilus and discover the secrets of the depths? You bet.
In 1868, Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are headed to Saigon, but are stopped in San Francisco. Lately, ships have been attacked in the Pacific Ocean and a lot of people believe that a sea monster sunk them. Aronnax is very skeptical, but agrees to join an American expedition that intends to find out what’s behind the attacks. One day the monster is suddenly spotted. As it is obviously preparing to ram the ship, the crew fires cannons at it, but to no avail. The ship is hit and the professor falls into the water, along with the harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas); the ever loyal Conseil follows them.
They drift for a while until they come across the “monster” – which turns out to be a man-made, submerging vessel. At first, the ship seems to be abandoned, but they soon find out that its crew is busy conducting an underwater funeral. When they return, the three castaways are captured. The captain of the vessel introduces himself as Nemo (James Mason) – and Aronnax realizes that this is a man with a bold vision.
Filmmakers try to match Verne’s technological vision
The first live-action feature film that Walt Disney ever produced, this is a family-friendly take on Verne’s novel, complete with a charming pet seal. But not so fast. 20000 Leagues Under the Sea was a technological marvel to behold in 1954, and it didn’t shy away from the darkness of the original story. One of the remarkable things about this movie is that it really doesn’t have any one-hundred per cent likable characters – everybody’s flawed. Douglas plays an archetypal hero, sure, but his cockiness often gets the better of him. Lukas’s professor truly believes in science as a force of good… but is prepared to sacrifice anyone, including himself, for his fanatical beliefs. And then there’s Nemo. He is indeed a man with a bold vision, who believes in peace but is willing to kill whoever stands in his way of achieving it (perhaps peace would require the invention of a super energy source like the one propelling Nautilus?).
As these characters clash, and Lorre’s poor Conseil tries to make up his mind whom to support, we’re left pondering the value of world peace and what sacrifices we’re willing to make. As for the technology, Verne was way ahead of his time; the filmmakers try to match it with topnotch production design and visual effects – as well as beautiful color cinematography depicting the wonders of the ocean, almost as a precursor to Jean-Jacques Cousteau’s documentary The Silent World (1956).
Douglas and Lorre do what we expect them to do, but Mason is particularly memorable as the complex captain, a cult leader chasing a dream.
The most famous sequence in the film is a gloriously silly, but still surprisingly engaging, showdown between the crew of Nautilus and a giant squid. Lorre allegedly once quipped that the squid got the role that was usually reserved for him. He was right, to some extent. He does play the kind of cowardly, unreliable yet childish character that we know from many earlier films… but the squid upstages him. Darker themes aside, Richard Fleischer’s film is above all fun for the whole family.
20000 Leagues Under the Sea 1954-U.S. 127 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Walt Disney. Directed by Richard Fleischer. Screenplay: Earl Felton. Novel: Jules Verne. Cinematography: Franz Planer. Art Direction: John Meehan. Cast: Kirk Douglas (Ned Land), James Mason (Captain Nemo), Paul Lukas (Pierre Aronnax), Peter Lorre, Robert J. Wilke, Carleton Young.
Trivia: Charles Boyer was allegedly considered for a role. Captain Nemo returned in Mysterious Island (1961). Remade as a TV movie and a miniseries in 1997.
Oscars: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Special Effects.
Quote: “Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight, tear one another to pieces. A mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here on the ocean floor is the only independence. Here I am free! Imagine what would happen if they controlled machines such as this submarine boat. Far better that they think there’s a monster and hunt me with harpoons.” (Mason)