Director: Richard Fleischer
Production Company: Walt Disney
Leads: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre
Things got all Jules Verne-y a couple of weeks ago when Little Satis picked up an abridged children’s copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We started talking about it, and then I started listening to an audiobook of the original on the way to work, and it wasn’t long before we naturally just had to watch this movie. (Incidentally, I’m very glad this is a movie that hasn’t been remade.)
This was another one of those films that I recalled vividly from my childhood, the kind that thrilled me, scared me, gave me nightmares, and fueled my young imagination (I remember endlessly drawing the Nautilus battling that giant squid). Equally, therefore, it was also a film that I was apprehensive about revisiting. What would I think about its special effects? What of the fifties overacting? Essentially, would it have stood the test of time?
I was happily relieved to discover that this favorite of my childhood not only was everything I had remembered it to be, but in some ways, even more. There are things that, as a young person, you don’t particularly notice, or take into account. The movie is life-size, breathing, and real. There is no lie to the camera (there is no camera, in fact); that squid was simply real, and that’s all there was to it. And this leaves an influence; even when I read the original novel in high school, the vision in my mind of the Nautilus was Disney’s design. The film won two Academy Awards for set design and special effects, and the movie shows why: the interior of the submarine, the underwater diving scenes, even the opening drama of an unknown, luminous creature advancing upon a steam ship – all are tangible, and alive with reality.
And in revisiting it, I was struck at how strong the cast was. Kirk Douglas was the outrageous American, indignant and violent, yet ultimately with a good heart. Paul Lukas was suitably intrigued as a scientist by the wonders around him, and as a person by the unfathomed hate and pain of Captain Nemo. The inimitable Peter Lorre is simply wonderful as the under-spoken aide Conseille, keeping both Ned and the Professor in check with his quick wit.
But it is James Mason, as Captain Nemo, who completely steals the show. There could have been no one else. From the very first moment he appears on camera, he physically and emotionally embodies the very character Jules Verne created: noble, imposing, harsh, supremely confident, and utterly beyond all of mankind’s laws and morals. His impassiveness as he ambivalently sends the Professor – a person whom he professes to admire – to be cast off his ship early in the film is galling; the despair and rage in his eyes as he plays Bach’s Toccata and Fugue on his built-in organ is heart-wrenching.
All of this, combined with a lush (if occasionally twee) score, makes an unforgettable movie. It was a pleasure to watch it after so many years, and it was a pleasure to see Little Satis enjoy it as much now as I did then.