Monday 12 February 2007

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Richard Fleischer

Back in the days when Disney knew how to make seriously good family entertainment, instead of politically correct garbage, they put out this version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the greatest of many versions of the classic Jules Verne novel. Verne has been filmed often, because his stories of scientific romance and adventure combined accurate extrapolations with plenty of action and suspense. They, together with certain novels by H G Wells, provide the foundation of modern science fiction, and they can't be ignored. They're also damn fine reads. This is certainly one of the best adaptations of his work, and it's hard to think of another this good. The Adventures of Michael Strogoff maybe.

The story has the world of 1868 fired up by stories of a great sea monster that has been sinking ships in the Pacific shipping lanes. The trade routes from the west coast of the States to the far east are in dire peril so the US government sends out a warship to investigate. Naturally it gets sunk too, leaving only three survivors. There's Ned Land, a lively grinning master harpoonist played by Kirk Douglas, who had enough clout in 1954 to claim the lead; and there's Professor Arronax, a respectable yet open minded French scientist, played by Paul Lukas, and his apprentice, Conseil, played by the wonderful Peter Lorre who for some reason sleepwalks through a good deal of this. Then again he claimed that the giant squid got the part usually reserved for him. The last of the four stars credited on the title card is the man behind the monster, which as we all know is the submarine known as the Nautilus. He is Captain Nemo, 'nobody' in Latin, and he's ably played by James Mason, full of disdain and barely restrained madness. All four of them are obviously enjoying themselves and their enthusiasm is infectious.

The last real star, for there is another (and more yet if you count Esmeralda the seal and the giant squid), is the Nautilus itself. I look at this, a Disney concoction from the fifties, and can't help but compare it to the huge and unwieldy version seen in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film that was magic for half an hour, due mostly to the imagination of writer Alan Moore, and dire for the rest, courtesy of Sean Connery and the rest of the people behind the film who didn't get what any of it was really about, and decided to turn it into nothing more than yet another blockbuster with big budget CGI. All the powerful computer graphics provided was a means to ignore the meaning of the word 'restraint'. This is an ornate Nautilus but one that looks exactly as it should, both as far as functionality and ostentatiousness.

There's a lot of depth in the source novel that unfortunately doesn't get far beyond Nemo here. He's an outcast from society, imprisoned and enslaved by a country questing after his scientific secrets who went on to torture and kill his wife and child and send him a little over the edge. Now he lives almost entirely off the sea, harvesting food from the ocean floor and turning it into gourmet delicacies. Nemo doesn't just eat sea snake and sea cucumber, he makes cigars out of seaweed. Yet he does what he can to limit the warfaring capability of the nations by sinking ships leaving islands laden with the raw materials from which to make munitions. It's a thin line at the best of times, killing x number of men to save ten times x, and one that Nemo crosses willingly. One can only admire his conviction while decrying his lack of appreciation of the sanctity of human life. Nowadays he'd be called a terrorist, but that's a fine line in itself. Anyway, the moral ambiguity is bungled more than a little here, but the adventure is still there.

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