Sunday, September 13, 2015

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

The greatest of producer Walt Disney’s adventure films won Academy Awards for its special effects and color art direction and still entertains audiences young and old decades later. Jules Verne’s 1870 novel has been adapted dozens of times in film, television, stage, and comic books, but Disney’s 1954 movie, directed by Richard Fleischer (THE BOSTON STRANGLER), is the most popular.

Filmed in Technicolor and CinemaScope on location in Jamaica, the Bahamas, and California, as well as soundstages on the Disney, Universal, and 20th Century Fox lots, 20000 (sic) LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA was one of Disney’s most expensive productions. The film’s most celebrated sequence, a battle with a giant squid during a pounding thunderstorm, was reshot at considerable expense, but is a testament to Disney’s determination to get it right, costs be damned.

James Mason (THE DESERT FOX) is perfectly cast as the villainous Captain Nemo, commander of a futuristic submarine called the Nautilus that is terrorizing Pacific Ocean shipping lanes in 1868. The rest of the world hears accounts and rumors of a sea monster that’s responsible for destroying warships, so the United States government recruits French oceanographer Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his manservant Conseil (Peter Lorre) to investigate.

Months later, just after Captain Farragut (Ted de Corsia) has announced he’s calling off the snipe hunt, leaving Aronnax disappointed, their ship is attacked by the “monster.” Only Aronnax, Conseil, and cocky harpoonist Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) survive. They discover the monster is no flesh-and-blood creature, and a large mechanical device the likes of which no man has ever seen. Of course, it’s the Nautilus, and the three men are taken aboard.

Mason’s great performance as Nemo is as brooding, as complex, and as serious as Douglas’ is jocular and hammy. If 20000 has a central flaw, it would be Douglas, though it’s certain kids of the 1950s idolized the impulsive, treasure-happy womanizer. Aronnax falls for Nemo’s self-sufficiency and disdain for warring nations, especially after he learns how the captain and his crew escaped from a penal colony. But after witnessing Nemo’s utter destruction of an ammunition ship and mass murder of its crew, Land and Conseil begin making escape plans.

Technically, 20000 is virtually flawless (though Fleischer couldn’t solve the problem of convincingly faking underwater actors on dry soundstages). The Nautilus is a remarkable design, inside and out, and Disney’s money was well spent creating the sumptuous sets and miniatures. While Fleischer delivers a steady supply of thrilling action in the forms of cannibals, explosions, and, yes, the vaunted giant squid, the dramatic meat of the film is the sparring between the misanthropic Nemo and the humanistic Aronnax, who doesn’t waver in his determination to break down the captain’s defenses.

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