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Reeling BackwardRating: 4 of 5 yaps

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)


Keeping with the nautical theme for this week’s classic film columns, today I’ll be taking a look at Disney’s 1954 version of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Not long ago in this space I commented that I didn’t think Golden Age Hollywood divided movies up so neatly into kids’ movies and adult ones as they are today, and I think this adaptation of the famed 19th century science fiction novel helps prove my point.

“Leagues” is from Walt Disney, one of the first live-action films he produced himself, and there certainly are light-hearted moments meant to appeal to children. Most of these are centered around the character of Ned Land, a happy-go-lucky mariner played by Kirk Douglas. He sings, he carouses with women, he gets into fistfights ever 20 minutes or so, and befriends Captain Nemo’s pet seal — even singing a duet with it.

But watch James Mason’s portrayal of Nemo, the mad submariner who’s taken to the sea as his refuge from the evils of mankind. It’s a hard-edged, dramatic performance, with no winking nods or cartoonish layers. You could transport Mason whole into a much darker movie with R-rated violence, and he would fit like a glove.

The other two main characters Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre (grown old and thick) as his servile assistant, Conseil. I’m sure most people are familiar with the basic gist of the story: Arronax and his two companions are captured by Nemo, who makes them guests/prisoners aboard the Nautilus, his amazing submarine.

I just love the stupendous arrogance of Mason’s Nemo, as seen in this exchange with the professor:

Arronax: “I’m afraid that I don’t understand.”
Nemo: “At the moment, I don’t intend that you should.”

Verne’s novels were notable for their (often amazingly accurate) portrayal of the technology of the future, as seen from the mid-1800s. So it’s interesting when filmmakers with another century of scientific advancement under their belts try to portray a futuristic past. All of the amazing stuff aboard the Nautilus — diving suits, electrified hulls, periscopes — were old hat by 1954.

Although Nemo’s invention is not terribly advanced in weaponry: He doesn’t have any torpedoes or guns — he takes out offending ships trolling his seas by simply ramming them.

The production values of the film, directed by Richard Fleischer, hold up pretty well more than a half-century on. The art direction aboard the Nautilus has a splendid brass-and-iron look to it. Of course, the ship itself is a wonder of imagination, with its two large viewing windows resembling eyes, and overlapping hull plates that give it a crustacean look.

Like a lot of people my age, I first encountered the story of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” by visiting the ride at Disney World. I was heartbroken, even well into adulthood, when they shut it down in 1994.

The film deviates quite a bit from the book, which featured a rash of other adventures never portrayed, including visits to the South Pole and the lost city of Atlantis.

The big battle with the kraken is the centerpiece of the movie, and it’s still an energetic and swashbuckling scene. Reportedly it was originally supposed to take place in daylight on a calm day, but the technicians were worried the cables used to control the massive squid would be visible. So they changed it to a stormy scene at night — adding hundreds of thousands of dollars (a fortune then) and six extra weeks of shooting to the production.

It’s grown a little hokey with years, and there’s now denying the film is pitched more to audience members who measure their age in single digits. But “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is a rousing adventure story with dark undertones that all ages can savor.

Notably, although there were several film versions prior to this one, it’s stood for more than a half-century as the quintessential adaptation of Verne’s book. (A few TV versions have come and gone.) Now Hollywood has two remakes in the works, racing to get into theaters first in 2012 or 2013. I enjoyed the Disney version, but I’d love to see a grittier take.

Too bad James Mason isn’t around to star.

4 Yaps

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One Response to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)”

  1. kat says:

    Having recently rewatched this movie, I was surprised how well it held up compared to other movies I watched as a kid that I misguidedly thought were terrific. A big part of why it works is James Mason’s performance for all the reasons you give – he creates a real, complex character – unlike Kirk Douglas whom I found unwatchable. Also the set design is pretty amazing – it has a depth that today’s movies lack with all the computer generation.