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Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea: The Original Magical Mystery Tour

Michael Orr

Jules Verne wrote almost ninety books before his death in 1905, age 77—and the never-to-be-forgotten Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is still fantasy at its best.  In 1954, Disney Studios released a rattling good version of the tale of Captain Nemo and his atomic powered submarine, the Nautilus

For a generation sharing in the smug conceit that really great special effects only arrived with the digital dazzle of the 1990s, this early Cinema-Scope picture is a much needed eye-opener.  There’s not a single “cheesy” or laughable frame in the entire 127 minutes.  Neither is there a dull one.  The notoriously cheap Walt (a devoted fan of Verne) threw open the vault doors for this, his first live action feature, spending five million dollars—an enormous sum for the time.

Here’s a quick peek at the fun you are in for:   It is 1868.  There are strange and terrible happenings at sea.  Vessels of many nations are being attacked and sunk for no apparent reason.  The few survivors tell terrifying tales of myth-like monsters.  Rumors abound.  Do mammoth sea serpents actually exist?  Was Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick based in fact?  The ancient Greeks spoke of a huge and hideous aquatic creature called a kraken.  Perhaps this brutal horror wasn’t legend after all.  Early twentieth century press baron William Randolph Hearst—the man they call the “father of yellow journalism”—would have been in his glory! 

Panic is setting in; fortunes are being lost.  The future of the steamship industry is at risk.  Something must be done.  The United States government outfits the man-of-war Abraham Lincoln to hunt for answers and invites three special people to join in the expedition:  Professor Aronnax, a foremost French authority on undersea life (played by the scholarly and stately Paul Lukas); his associate, Conseil (Peter Lorre, no longer the slim aesthete, Joel Cairo, from John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, but now sadly bloated from morphine addiction); and renowned Canadian harpooner, Ned Land (a lusty, roguish and young Kirk Douglas, making no secret of hugely enjoying himself in this role).   

Our first glimpse of the “monster” is still thrilling.  As it rushes toward their frigate, green phosphorescence sweeps around it like a living cape; huge yellow eyes burn with malignant ferocity; and we can see a giant hump on its back.  Upon collision our heroes are thrown overboard and their perilous adventure begins.  Nemo saves their lives but will not release them on land, refusing to risk having his fantastic secrets revealed in so-called civilized society.   

James Mason “owns” the role of Captain Nemo.  Jules Verne describes his hero thus:  “Who is this man?  Outwardly, he is tall, dark-haired, with piercing black eyes and has a melancholy look about him.”   

There is no one else any sensible producer could have cast.  Throughout his lengthy and distinguished career, what Mason could do with his formidable demeanor and magnificent eyes would have writers tossing away entire paragraphs of unnecessary dialogue.   

Disney archives reveal the interior sets were built as closely as possible to Verne's own words which tell us the Nautilus is “150 feet in length, with all other dimensions in direct proportion.”  (Keep in mind they had to be somewhat larger to accommodate the practical considerations of shooting.) 

After other practical on-board considerations are satisfied, what remains for the “drawing room/dining quarters” would be the size of a small condominium, about 450 square feet.  And when you see what he has done with it, well, “Salute, Captain Nemo!”  It bespeaks the ultimate in 19th century European grandeur.  These could be in the private chambers of a King, or an emperor.  Every square inch is perfection of design serving only one purpose:  to provide the ultimate sanctuary beneath the waves.   

There are finely detailed tapestries, priceless paintings, velvet covered settees, countless brass fittings, plenty of rich dark wood, extraordinary maps, and wall panels that slide open to reveal his private aquarium:  the ocean depths.  In surroundings without a lot of social energy, this Master of the Seven Seas chooses to prowl the deep with a spectacular pipe organ and an immense library.   

The dining area is equally opulent and tasteful; there’s even a fountain.  The table is set with flatware and goblets taken from treasure-laden sunken galleons, and everywhere there is plenty of silver to be seen, even as cigar holders.  The Nautilus is also a repository for a fortune in recovered Spanish gold.  All of this is faithful to the book. (There’s even a fabulous website where you can download blueprints, pictures and lots of other great information about this film. The opening page has an extraordinary close-up of the Nautilus—on the water at the start of filming—and looking as futuristic as anything else you’re likely to see!)

On a journey of ten months and some sixty thousand miles there are many dramas.  The action is magnificently filmed—not surprisingly the film won an Oscar for its special effects—and the acting throughout is faultless.

More than once the captives, Captain Nemo, and his crew, don diving suits and explore undersea forests teeming with marine life.  On one outing they confront and kill an enormous shark.  They also destroy a school of gruesome devilfish that threaten their safety.  Another time the disabled Nautilus is attacked by a giant squid which they fight off armed with only harpoons and hatchets:  hand-to-tentacle so to speak.  These several minutes can still give youngsters delightful nightmares.  (Photographic proof of the existence of giant squid, approximately 25 feet long, at a depth of just under 3,000 feet, where no light penetrates even during the day, was finally captured in September 2004 off Japan's Ogasawara Islands in the North Pacific Ocean.) And when they are surfaced off the coast of New Guinea, Ned Land’s sudden escape attempt almost ends with the harpooner as pot roast for a tribe of hungry cannibals. 

In the novel, Nemo also takes them to the lost continent of Atlantis, and later becomes the first man to stand at the South Pole.  A desperate attempt to avoid being crushed by thousands of tons of ice, while the submarine tries to escape that most desolate of places, would have made for some incredible footage—but I suspect the final running time of the theatrical release worried the studio more than the extra cost.  They already knew they had a winner and so it was excluded from the script. 

I do not want to give away the reasons for the final undoing of the nearly invulnerable Nautilus.  The last scenes in the film are both poignant and poetic.  When Nemo takes the great ship down for the last time—his scientific knowledge being too dangerous let loose on a warring world—we hear Mason’s mellifluous voice intone:  “There is hope for the future.  And when the world is ready for a new and better life all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time.” 

How sad, I thought, as I watched the film again, almost half a century after it was made, that such a prophetic author proved to be so tragically wrong.         

SIDEBAR - Hollywood Popcorn:  Did You Know… ?”

Jules Verne’s engagement to Laurence Janmare came to an abrupt end at dinner one evening when Laurence commented on the tightness of her whalebone corset.  Jules immediately piped up: “Could I but fish for whales on those shores!”  Unfortunately her father overheard him, immediately grabbed his daughter and rushed her outside.  Jules learned then that wit, however innocent, must only be heard by appreciative ears.

Novelist, Alexander Dumas—pretty much at the height of his worldwide fame but soon to face bankruptcy—was the first to recognize the talent of this unknown young writer and tried to assist him. 

  1. In Latin Nemo translates as “nobody”—an irony the author uses twice:  First, for his protagonist who wishes both himself and his discoveries to remain a mystery; then in a follow-up novel, The Mysterious Island (which went to press in 1875)—in which the cast of characters finally learn the truth about who Nemo really is.  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea was published in two volumes in 1869 and 1870.  The silent screen version of the book was released in 1916 and like the Disney film is available on DVD.

  2. The earliest motion picture version of the novel is probably 20000 lieues sous les mers, a 1907 French production. It was directed by Georges Melios. Its emphasis is on showing the wonders of the ocean rather than on the story line. The next significant adaptation of the novel was the 1916 American production 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. An early feature film, it runs 105 minutes. It was made by Universal Pictures.

  3. Verne’s most successful novel was Around the World In Eighty Days.  Dailies in Europe and the United States ran regular summaries of the story as it appeared in serial form in Le Temps, a well-respected Parisian newspaper.

  4. Verne died a very rich man at Amiens, the capital of Somme, on March 24, 1905.  More than five thousand people attended his funeral.  His health had been ruined by a gunshot wound inflicted by a jealous nephew.  The world’s first nuclear submarine was christened Nautilus

The success of this film led to a series of Verne adaptations: Around the World   in 80 Days (1956) which won an Academy Award for Best Picture for that year…From the Earth to the Moon (1958)…Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) again with James Mason…Master of the World (1961)… Mysterious Island (1961)…Valley of the Dragons (1961)…In Search of the Castaways (1962)…and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) being among the best. Most are available on VHS and some on DVD. All are fun and worth watching.

Michael Orr has written numerous short subject films and documentaries, been a speechwriter and a journalist. He fell in love with movies as a youngster and continues to publish essays about American cinema. A special interest is the late 1920s when “silents, talkies, and radio all violently collide resulting in a cinematic cosmic big bang”—at the heart of his recently completed novel, Hollywood’s A Scary Place! to be released this year by a British publisher. He makes his home in Toronto. He also “doctors” other people’s work and ghostwrites on occasion when the assignment is of interest. You may contact him at Writedumas@aol.com



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