Based on the Jules Verne novel, the 1954 film, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea is
set in 1850 and follows the investigation of Professor Pierre Arronax (Paul
Lukas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre) who are in search of a sea
monster that has been blamed for the loss of several ships. When their own ship
is attacked by "the monster", only this pair and a harpooner, Ned Land (Kirk
Douglas) survive. They escape in a small boat and drift.
Later, while easing through fog, they encounter "the monster", which they learn
is a steel submarine called the Nautilus. The survivors are quickly captured and
imprisoned on the ship by its commander, Captain Nemo (James Mason). They learn
that Nemo is an advanced mind, hateful of all warfare which he seeks to
eliminate by destroying the implements of war. He built the Nautilus to
interdict military shipping and plans to further the cause through some other,
and Nemo are constantly at odds with each other. During this time, Nemo shows
incredible tolerance with his prisoner. His tolerance soon pays off.
During a storm, while the submarine cruises safely below the surface, a giant
squid latches onto the vessel, forcing it to surface. The crew emerge with
harpoons and do battle with the monster in what is truly one of the most
memorable scenes in all film history. Nemo is almost killed when the squid
snatches him in its tentacle and drags him under the water but is saved by Ned
who dives in and cuts the captain free.
the end, Captain Nemo is tracked to his island stronghold, a fortress of
advanced technology. British warships move to take the island but Nemo, rushing
moments before the troops seize his compound, sets the power generators to
overload. His masterpiece of technology, along with all of his scientific
advances, erupt in a huge blast. While running back to the Nautilus, Nemo is
shot. Badly wounded, he staggers onto the submarine which slips away. Much to
the horror of the survivors, Nemo has ordered the Nautilus to lock itself into a
terminal dive. As Nemo dies, the submarine dies around him. His loyal crew
intends to share is fate.
Yet, Ned isn't ready to just accept death so easily. He manages to get the
submarine back to the surface and the three of them, along with a pet seal Ned
adopted, burst onto the Nautilus' longboat and escape to the British fleet. As
they depart, the Nautilus slips under the waters behind him, lost for all time
... or so it seems.
In its 1961 sequel, "Mysterious Island", we learn that Nemo survived the wound
and is still alive. Set in 1865 just at the close of the American civil war, the
tale begins with a group of escapees from a military prison camp led by Capt.
Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig). They escape in an observation balloon only to be
blown far out to sea. As the balloon fails them, they are dropped onto an
uncharted island far out to sea inhabited by giant-sized creatures. Their
rescue soon proves to be a fight for survival.
Later, a passing ship is attacked by pirates and wrecked. Two women, Lady Mary
Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece, Elena (Beth Rogan) are washed ashore.
With the new additions, the group soon creates a home in a cave and begins to
build a new life which is briefly interrupted with the return of the pirates who
pelt the island with cannon fire until their ship suddenly jolts and then sinks.
After that, life returns to normal on the island and they build a small
community until they make two important discoveries.
First, the island is increasing in volcanic activity and might not survive.
Second, Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) and his missing submarine are hiding in a sea
cavern on the island. Nemo explains to the group that he once waged his
own private campaign against the instruments of war but realized that his real
target should have been the causes of war. To that end, he set his mind to
fixing the basic problem of starvation. He learned to breed giant-sized animals
from ordinary creatures. In this way, the food supply of the world could be
multiplied and the reasons for conflict reduced. Yet he can't take this
discovery away as the Nautilus has been damaged and can't survive a voyage far
away from the island. Nemo also confirms that the island will soon destroy
Faced with this
come up with a brave plan to escape. Using equipment from the Nautilus, they
will raise the sunken pirate ship by inflating the hot air balloon inside its
hull, forcing the ship to the surface. They race to complete the underwater
task, passing ancient ruins from some lost civilization, while above them, the
volcano starts to spew fire and ash.
plan succeeds and the ship rises to the surface. Before he can gather his
research and join them, Nemo is trapped as the sea cavern collapses, entombing
Sorrowful, the survivors sail away from the island as it becomes a mass of
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Mysterious Island are good adventure stories
that do a good job of preserving the magic of Jules Verne's writing.
James Mason is masterful as Captain Nemo and brings dignity to the role that
surpasses the book. Kirk Douglas's performance is a bit too campy and his
interactions with the pet seal are a bit too fluffy for most viewers.
Likewise, his song singing in the beginning of the film, mixed with his smiling
and energetic portrayal of Ned, differ wildly from the hardened seaman of Jules
Nautilus is superb and a great gift by art director John Meehan. Its exterior is
a steel monstrous beast, with two great eyes that shine menacingly as the
submarine lances through the water. Underwater, it glides gracefully through the
scenery like an noble fish. The interiors are well designed, providing the
perfect period feel even through the advanced technology that allows it to be
the superweapon against war. Concurrently, the brief glimpses of Nemo's island
fit perfectly, hinting at advanced knowledge based on 1800s gadgets. You feel a
real sense of loss when it is blown apart at the end of the film.
Mysterious Island continues the story in a way that is completely different than
the first tale but still seems to fit. They are very different stories with very
different styles. Ray Harryhausen's animations with the giant beasts are an
absolute joy to watch. The movie is an adventure story but these creatures are
the real stars. Captain Nemo is merely the linking pin between 20,000 Leagues
under the Sea and this tale.
Both films engage in some rather silly commentaries about the evils of war.
They are simplistic in their approach to the causes of warfare and consequently
waste the time explaining the background of Nemo's passion.
Mysterious Island is the larger violator in this arena, employing newspaper
reporter Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) to present Nemo's case and explain that
he's not a madman who sent hundreds to their deaths at sea, but a visionary
seeking peace for all mankind. You don't buy the explanation whatsoever but it
does provide the needed backdrop for Nemo's exploits on the island.
The other significant difference is the inclusion of the love story between
Elena and Herbert Brown (Michael Callan) in Mysterious Island. This is handled
well and proves critical to establish the feel of a new colony suddenly
threatened by the eruption of the volcano.
- written by the Two-Brained Cylon