A Whale of a Tale

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!

14 Responses A Whale of a Tale
Posted By Swany : March 16, 2014 3:01 pm

I saw this movie with my mother when I was 6 years old. When Captain Nemo died while playing the organ, without any apparent injuries, I asked my mother why. She said, “Everyone has to die.” First I knew.

Posted By Wayne Keyser : March 16, 2014 6:53 pm

20,000 LEAGUES is my first movie memory, the one I’ve recalled all my life when I think about the dreams movies can ignite.

I saw it first-run in a gigantic movie palace in Washington DC when I was 5 years old as much as I recall watching it, I picture the 5-year-old me hanging onto the brass balcony rail in front of my seat, mouth agape … I must have been a sight!

Posted By tdraicer : March 17, 2014 12:05 am

The entire cast is excellent, but it is the depth and complexity of Mason’s Nemo that keeps bringing me back to this film, even more than the great night fight with the squid. He is both admirable and chilling, humanist and angry fanatic, brilliantly rational and more than a little mad. It is a wonderful performance from one of my favorite actors.

Posted By Richard Brandt : March 17, 2014 7:05 am

What a cast: Two actors who won Oscars and two who should have! Lukas still turns in a top-notch performance; you can see his struggle with his conscience playing out on his face. Got to see this in the theater on a re-release when I was a kid; good times.

Posted By Andrew : March 17, 2014 1:00 pm

Showed it to my a son a couple of years ago. He was ten or eleven and fully steeped in CGI: Star Wars et al. He was completely enthralled and started reading the book the next day.

I first saw it as kid in the 70′s, probably as part of The Wonderful World of Disney. To this day when ever I see Kurt Douglas in anything, I always think of Ned. (I don’t mean that to besmirch him as an actor, it just made that much of an impression on me.)

Posted By Jenni : March 17, 2014 2:07 pm

I love this movie,and as a kid, saw it on tv in the 70s when it aired on Wonderful World of Disney. My 11 year old and I are studying in Science creatures of the seas, and I had to show him the squid attack which is on Youtube-the sunset squid attack is there. I wrote a recent review on His Kind of Woman on Friday and Richard Fleischer was called in to reshoot alot of that film by Howard Hughes;he wasn’t happy with some of John Farrow’s initial work as director on this film. Glad to see that Fleisher moved up from re-shooting another director’s work to helming a great Disney Actioner.

Posted By gregferrara : March 17, 2014 4:05 pm

Glad to see it’s still a popular and well-beloved movie.

Richard, actually James Mason, Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre never won competitive Oscars though, I agree, all three should have. Only Paul Lukas, for The Watch on the Rhine took home a Best Actor.

Andrew, that’s great that he loved it so much. And I’m just like you, I always think of Ned with Kirk Douglas. He really does create the character completely for his own persona.

Posted By heidi : March 17, 2014 4:21 pm

Loved this movie…well still do. It was the first time I saw a movie that was underwater, and it thrilled me to no end. I think it started me out on my love of diving and such. I will have to look for the anniversary set as I have not seen the movie in years. My parents took me all the way to Disney World one year (before Epcot!) and the only thing I wanted to do was ride on the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride. As a kid it was fantastic. I got to go on it one time as an adult after I moved to Florida, and boy it was cheesy, but that was ok. I still mourn the loss of it. I think it was replaced with the Little Mermaid or some such thing.

Posted By Jane H. : March 18, 2014 3:54 am

Wow, what a great experience for Wayne to have. The Nautilus is like a movie palace itself. I adored the ship. After I saw it in the sixth grade or so, I would etch the silhouette of the Nautilus into my binder and book covers.

For me, too, this is the Mason performance that anchors my admiration. So haunted and hot. I also get a charge out of his other Verne hero, the obsessed professor in “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The two characters are enjoyably intertwined in my imagination…or maybe the intertwining involves…never mind…

Kirk is an irresistible delight in the scene where he’s drunk on specimen alcohol, singing and getting kisses from Esmeralda the seal. I wonder if he was a fun guy when tipsy? I recall him in “The Big Sky”, his comrades likkering him up so they could cut off his thumb(?), and it was also a funny scene.

In the years before e-Bay, before VCRs even, I went to some effort to get the lyrics to “Whale of a Tale” with each verse’s vixen of Mermaid Minnie, Harpoon Hannah, and Typhoon Tessie. Like many trifles, it’s fun to sing. But I just can’t sing it with Kirk’s exuberance.

Posted By Richard Brandt : March 18, 2014 6:56 am

Greg: Yeah, I was kinda reaching with Kirk’s honorary Oscar, there. But yeah, all three should have had one.

Posted By gregferrara : March 19, 2014 3:14 pm

Heidi, I used to love that ride, too! All it was was sitting on a bench inside the mock-up (which only looked like the Nautilus on the outside) and going around a pool with a crappy squid arm at the end but I still loved it! Good memories.

Posted By gregferrara : March 19, 2014 3:16 pm

Jane, I hate to admit it, but whenever I see Kirk Douglas, I always start singing that song in my head. Always.

Posted By robbushblog : March 19, 2014 8:18 pm

I miss that ride as well. Doggone you, modernization!

I frickin’ love this movie! I first saw it on The Wonderful World of Disney in the early 80′s. As soon as I found out that it was on DVD I bought it. It is beautiful to behold in that Technicolor and in widescreen. Although I’m not positive that it was shot in Cinemascope or later converted to it. It looks great in widescreen and feels like it should be in widescreen. It is my second favorite movie from 1954. Rear Window is #1.

Posted By swac44 : March 21, 2014 1:24 am

I knew the Douglas song long before I ever saw the film itself, thanks to an old 45 R.P.M. single I found somewhere as a kid. I’d still love to see it on a big screen someday, though. It’s too bad home video killed off the Disney routine of reissuing classic titles every eight or so years, at least I got to see 35mm screenings Pinocchio and Fantasia long after their initial releases. I don’t think 20,000 Leagues really got the same kind of treatment.

And it was definitely shot in CinemaScope, it says so right on the poster! Read more about it here:


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