Posted by gregferrara on March 16, 2014
This year marks the 60th anniversary of a host of great movies, from On the Waterfront and Rear Window to The Caine Mutiny and A Star is Born, all released in 1954. But my favorite of the year is none of those, although I like or love them all. No, my favorite movie of 1954 is an adventure movie, a live-action movie made by Walt Disney studios that was the second biggest money maker of the year (after White Christmas). It starred some of my favorite actors and was adapted from the work of a favorite childhood author, Jules Verne, whose books I read in abridged form via a Jules Verne reader for kids I had. The movie is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I still love it.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first “old” movie that didn’t feel old to me when I was a kid. The technicolor looked restrained, not heightened, the lighting seemed natural, not studio lit and the cast, especially James Mason, felt like they were acting in a modern day movie. I loved “old” movies already as a kid, growing up on Our Gang and Three Stooges shorts and late night showings of classics from the thirties and forties, but when I first saw 20,000 Leagues, it felt like a modern movie, not one made a couple of decades earlier. It also felt like an adventure story given the A-Class treatment instead of being hustled off to a bunch of B-movie actors with a B-movie budget. I probably would have loved that, too, quite honestly, but Disney went to the trouble to get James Mason, Paul Lukas, Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre and that made quite a difference. To this day, it’s one of the best casts of any adventure movie I’ve ever seen.
The story takes some liberties with the source, as all adaptations seem to do, but none very important. In reality, it sticks very close to the story, leaving out individual excursions, like one in the book that visits Atlantis, but retaining the structure of the plot. (It should be quickly noted that in another of my all-time favorite movies, Mysterious Island, the great Herbert Lom plays my second favorite Nemo and does indeed walk the characters past the ruins of Atlantis) And so, if you’re familiar with either, you should know roughly the same story. A mysterious monster is roaming the seas, attacking ships, and a ship is set out to find her. On board are three characters we will follow for the duration, Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas), his servant Conseil (Peter Lorre) and harpoonist Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). The monster attacks the ship and our three heroes find themselves in the water and approaching the beast, which turns out to be a metal submarine, named the Nautilus, built by the enigmatic Captain Nemo (James Mason). Nemo treats them as guests, even though they have invaded the privacy of his ship, but warns them they will never be allowed to leave for no one must know of the existence of the Nautilus. For the professor, this is only a mildly objectionable situation, for Land and Conseil, it’s unacceptable and Land begins to look for ways to escape.
Nemo, it seems, hates what humanity has become and after having his wife and child taken from him, plans on giving back all the hatred he can to humanity any chance he gets. This would be as awful as it’s possible to be except that Nemo directs his hatred towards slave-traders and war-profiteers, the ones ruining civilization and it’s not a point anyone in the movie really disagrees with, it’s just the method by which Nemo means to change it that leaves the characters unsettled.
This basic story was given the full big-budget treatment by Disney in 1954 and it’s evident up there on the screen. The look of the film is gorgeous, the epic story told in an intimate setting with real character development and interaction, as with the best the adventure genre has to offer (Gunga Din, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood), and the special effects, especially the model design and execution of the Nautilus, are some of the best of the era. And speaking of special effects, the scene that everyone remembers the most also goes to show how seriously Disney took the whole enterprise.
The attack of the giant squid was filmed at enormous cost, twice. The first time, it was shot against a setting sun (dubbed “the sunset squid,” it can be seen in the great collector’s edition DVD released on the 50th anniversary, which runs the silent footage shot for the seen), with the mechanical squid arm in full view. This didn’t work out too well and Disney and director Richard Fleischer made a decision to redo the whole thing. The decision was an important one because a cheesy squid scene might have brought the whole movie down and looking at the sunset squid footage is to behold a rather cheesy squid scene. The arm moves about slowly, mechanically, and lazily. The whole thing feels like actors versus rubber arms. What Fleischer decided would work better was to make the scene happen at night, instead, and in a raging storm. That way, the squid is scene in fits and starts, always darkly lit, and the wind and waves and chaos going on around it make the scene jump rather than drag. But if this movie was a low-budget affair, the sunset squid would have had to do and the rest would be history, a history I wouldn’t want to know.
Fortunately, they treated the movie with class and gave it the budget it deserved. Of course, not everything was perfect. In the making of documentary on the DVD, Douglas remarks that Lukas didn’t get along with everyone too well because he forgot his lines a lot as his memory was going and felt like he was being a problem. It made him irritable and grouchy but Douglas, ever the gentleman, said everyone understood and treated him like royalty. Douglas also talked about the great friendship he formed with Peter Lorre and the great fun they had together on the set. It remains, Douglas said, one of his favorite shoots ever. He even got to sing a song that landed on Disney albums for decades and got replayed on Disney’s television show for years, A Whale of a Tale. It’s a silly song but Douglas gives it everything he has and makes it enjoyable enough that you don’t mind sitting through such a trifle. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea turns 60 this year and, even now, it feels fresh and new. Other adventure movies should be so lucky!
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