A fine live-action adventure that brings Jules Verne's classic sci-fi tale to vivid life
Director: Richard Fleischer
Producer: Walt Disney
Screenplay: Earl Felton
Story: Based on Jules Verne’s novel
Music: Paul Smith
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Editing: Elmo Williams
Studio: Walt Disney Productions
Distributor: Buena Vista Distribution
Running time 127 minutes
Box office: $28,200,000
Kirk Douglas: Ned Land
James Mason: Captain Nemo
Paul Lukas: Professor Pierre Aronnax
Peter Lorre: Conseil \
Robert J. Wilke: Nautilus's First Mate
Ted de Corsia: Captain Farragut
Carleton Young: John Howard
J. M. Kerrigan: Billy
Percy Helton: Coach driver
Ted Cooper: Abraham Lincoln's First Mate
Fred Graham: Casey
(Warning! This post contains spoilers.)
How often are we confronted by images and reports of death and destruction around the world due largely to the activities of political, tribal or sectarian groups and organisations, as well as countries and individuals motivated by personal greed, ideology. fanaticism and the need to gain and wield power and control over others? More often than not we see the results of such base and criminal human instincts and desires in the form of millions of our fellow human beings lying dead or dying from the ravages of war and disease; being uprooted from their homes and forced to seek refuge in other lands; having to wonder where their next meal is coming from and futilely seeking work in order to sustain themselves and scratch out some kind of basic human dignity. And so the world sits idly by and allows this to happen, deaf to the pleas of the many who cannot make themselves heard above the din of the gunshots and explosions of militaristic savages; the blustering, cacophonous arguments and counter-arguments of posturing, face-saving political leaders; and the mentally unstable ranting of dogmatic religious and political ideologues.
As onlookers to this human travesty, it is no wonder that we can feel so utterly helpless in the face of forces that seem to be way beyond our control. If only we as individuals had the power to right the wrongs, to redress the inequalities, to strike a blow once and for all for human freedom and liberty, to wipe from the face of the earth those who would cause millions upon millions of people to live in fear for their lives………..
In the film we are about to consider, 20.000 Leagues Under The Sea, one man did indeed move beyond the realm of “If only…” to actually realizing that understandable but seemingly fanciful wish to exercise the kind of power that would bring the world to its senses. But by being able to bring the world to its knees in the face of such unimaginable power, what would be the cost to the one exercising that kind of power and ultimately to the rest of the world?
We then move to a shot of a ship powered by both sail and steam; an example of a fusion of “old” and “new” technologies in an era that was moving from wind / sail power to steam power, the engine of the industrial revolution. Suddenly, like a shark moving in for the kill, a mysterious sea vessel heads toward the ship. This vessel is almost other-worldly with its luminescent green light and incredible swiftness as it stealthily slices its way towards its sitting duck prey. The technology exemplified by the 19th century vessel is in an instant rendered into a debris field of floating bits of flotsam and jetsam.
It is 1868, and rumours abound of a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean causing apprehension and fear among sea-farers, as well as wreaking havoc upon vital shipping lanes.
The United States government calls upon Professor Pierre M. Aronnax and his assistant, Conseil to join an expedition in order to “confirm or deny certain rumours.” Initially, Aronnax was to embark on an expedition to the orient but this plan fell through.
Months pass when finally, what appears to be the "monster" is spotted. The ship opens fire with its cannons, but to no avail as the “monster” rams the ship. Ned, a brash and cocky harpooner, and Aronnax are thrown overboard, while the loyal and trusty Conseil jumps in after Aronnax.
The three men drift in the ocean away from the stricken, burning and helpless warship. They eventually stumble upon a deserted, strange-looking metal vessel, which they conclude is a man-made submerged boat and is in fact the dreaded "monster" that they have been pursuing.
Later at the penal colony island of Rura Penthe, where Nemo and many of his crew were once prisoners, they observe current prisoners loading a munitions ship with a “cargo of death.” Nitrates and phosphates are taken from the island to be used for munitions. Nemo uses the Nautilus to ram the ship, destroying its cargo and killing the crew.
Nemo, although in a state of anguish over his actions, rationalizes his decision as having been taken in order to save thousands of people from death in war. Personal vengeance has also played a part as this "hated nation" had tortured his wife and son to death in an attempt to force him to reveal the secrets of his work.
Meanwhile, Ned has uncovered the coordinates of Nemo's secret island base, Vulcania, and comes up with the idea of placing messages in sealed bottles, which he will cast into the ocean in the hope that somebody will find them and free him from his predicament.
A while later, just off the coast of New Guinea, the Nautilus becomes stranded on a reef. Ned is allowed to go ashore with Conseil to collect specimens, but he is more intent on locating ways and means of escaping. While on a path to possible freedom, Ned finds himself confronted with a number of human skulls on stakes. This is an island of cannibals! Ned hurriedly rushes back to re-join Conseil and both men are pursued back to the Nautilus by the cannibals. The cannibals board the Nautilus but are repelled from the ship by electrical discharges on its hull. For his disobedience, Ned is confined to the submarine's brig by a furious Nemo.
As the Nautilus evades a hostile approaching warship, it falls into the clutches of a giant squid. An electric discharge fails to repel the monster, so Nemo orders the submarine to surface so that he and his men can try to dislodge the squid. While doing battle with the giant marine creature, Nemo is caught in one of its tentacles, but Ned jumps to Nemo's rescue and saves his life. This experience seems to have produced a change of heart in Nemo who now declares that he wants to make peace with the surface world.
Nearing Vulcania, the Nautilus finds itself surrounded by warships while marines are converging on his hideout. After going ashore, Nemo plants a bomb in his hideout, but receives a mortal gunshot wound to the back as he was returning to the Nautilus.
Nemo is eventually able to navigate the submarine away from Vulcania, and declares that he will be "taking the Nautilus down for the last time". His crew are also determined to accompany their captain in this last voyage of the Nautilus.
Nemo instructs The Nautilus's crew go to their cabins while Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned are confined to their cabins. Ned, however breaks free from his confinement and manages to resurface the Nautilus, causing it to strike a reef and to begin flooding. Nemo’s last image in this life is of his beloved ocean world through the Nautilus’s viewing window.
"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."
From left to right: James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, and Paul Lukas.
Points Of Interest
- Best Art Direction – Color
- Best Special Effects
- Best Film Editing
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was filmed at various locations in Bahamas and Jamaica.
The name of the submarine, "Nautilus" is taken from one of the earliest successful submarines, built in 1800 by Robert Fulton, whose submarine was named after the paper nautilus because it had a sail. Prior to writing his novel, Jules Verne studied a model of the newly developed French Navy submarine Plongeur at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, which provided him with inspiration for his own fictional version.
The name of the penal colony island Rura Penthe in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is also the name of a fictional penal colony in Siberia in the 1869 Tolstoy novel War and Peace and the Klingon penal asteroid planet in Star Trek.
The famous giant squid attack sequence was shot twice: originally filmed as taking place at dusk and in a calm sea and again, at night and during a huge gale in order to increase the drama and conceal the mechanical components of the animatronic squid.
Verne seems to have also foreseen the potential military applications of submarines. Considerer, for instance the danger which German U-boats later posed to the Royal Navy and other ships during the First and Second World Wars of the 20th Century, in the very same waters where Verne predicted it would take place.
James Mason is well cast as Captain Nemo who he convincingly portrays as a tragic hero so far ahead of his time. On the one hand, he is misunderstood by a cruel and violent world that can only see him as being a monster to be hunted down and killed with harpoons and cannons. On the other hand, the flaws in Nemo’s character, together with the overwhelming and corrupting power of the technology he has developed has contributed to his becoming a kind of vengeful, sadistic and despotic monster.
Our first impression of Nemo is that he is a man who instantly commands respect. After the capture of Ned and his companions, Nemo enters and everyone stops moving and talking. He is a man who has “done with society” and as he states, “I do not obey its laws.” Nemo has the kind of almost megalomaniac personality that allows him to rise above the moral constraints of mere mortals. This obsessed and fanatical character jealously guards the secrets (“secrets that are mine alone”) of his power in the bony embrace of his vengeful hatred toward what he sees as the evils of humanity. It is up to others (and humanity) to prove their worth to him as Professor Aronnax was to find out when Nemo tested his loyalty and “love for fellow man” when given the choice to stay on board while his two companions drowned or join them and share their fate.
Captain Nemo may seem to be, as according to Ned, “cracked” and like a “mad dog,” but he is also a complex character. On the one hand, he is a product of ill-treatment and injustice considering what happened to him and his family within an unjust surface world replete with hunger, fear, fighting and unjust laws. How often in our history have such conditions given rise to sociopathic individuals and movements who have assumed and used power under the guise of combating injustice and inequality only to perpetuate even greater suffering among those who are subject to that power. On the other hand, Nemo’s mind and soul has been corrupted by the power he wields which in turn is fed by “the power of hate (that) can fill the heart as easily as love can.”
Nemo in his delusion can declare, “I am the avenger!” but the personal price he is paying for this is illustrated while he plays the organ prior to attacking the ship and its cargo of death. The organ music seems to reflect the inner anguish of this tragic hero as it echoes throughout the Nautilus: his ship, his world, his being.
With Nemo, we have a man who ardently believes he can use the power he has “to lift mankind from the depths of hell” and raise it to the heights of heaven. However, when he was rescued from the giant squid by Ned he needs to ask him, “You saved my life? Why?” At this point Nemo could have been saved not only physically but also in a sense spiritually, but as Aronnax stated, “It would undo all his faith in Nautilus to admit to human goodness.” Still that one act did produce a change in Nemo.
And so we leave this character puzzling over someone who has the capacity to lead a civilized apparently Christian burial service to honour a dead crew member, while knowing full well that had he been in Ned’s place, he would not have tried to save him.
Ned is definitely in Nemo and Aronnax’s bourgeois eyes an uncultured slob who uses his knife as you would use a fork and talks with his mouth full of food. But, he knows enough to distinguish between “guests” and “prisoners” and it seems to be obvious which category he and his two companions fall into.
It was this simple sailor, Ned Land, who not only saved Nemo from the monster from the ocean’s depths, but who almost in a sense was poised to save Nemo from another kind of monster-himself!
The presence of the character Conseil is far more than that of providing comedy relief. He serves as a kind of brake to Aronnax’s unbounded and optimistic scientific curiosity with his combined qualities of steadfast loyalty and considered caution. Contrast, for example, Aronnax’s wonder at Nemo’s submarine with Conseil’s warning that it might prove to be an “engine of destruction.” Nor is Conseil’s role merely one of unquestioningly assisting and supporting Aronnax. When he later realises that the professor has gone too far in his determination not to antagonise Nemo, Conseil tells him point blank that he values his own life above that of scientific achievement.
The matter of personal choice is an important one and is alluded to in 20.000 Leagues Under The Sea. We are presented with the optimistic line;
"There is hope for the future, and when the world is ready for a new, better life, all this will come to pass in God’s good time.”
One has to wonder whether the world is in fact ready, even in this 21st. Century. I suppose once each of us (like Ned) are unreservedly prepared to leap into the jaws of danger to save a fellow human being (friend, relative, stranger, enemy) then we might be ready. Once we can instinctively know the answer Nemo’s question, “You saved my life. Why?” if we were ever asked, then we might be ready……
©Chris Christopoulos 2013