Tuesday, March 29, 2016

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, 1954) One of those movies so popular and so much of "the culture" when I was growing up, that I'm surprised I've never watched it before except in clips and bits and pieces through the years.

This steam-punk version of the classic Jules Verne novel was a "big" film for Walt Disney Studios, its most expensive live action film to date, boasting "A"-list stars and wide screen(Techniscope, borrowed from 20th Century Fox) Technicolor. It had to be spectacular; Disney was moving into television, and if Uncle Walt was going to compete with himself for an audience's attention, he had to put into theaters something bigger and grander than what could glow in grays on convenient living room sets. It was also the first Disney film not to be released by RKO, but by Disney's own distribution arm, Buena Vista.

And Jules Verne's fantastical stories were just the fodder for Disney's live-action fare—at least until he could figure out how to let P.L.Travers let him make "Mary Poppins" (Verne's work, being in the public domain, allowed Disney to do what he wanted with the property).

It is 1868 and the world is in fear of rumors of a sea monster sinking trading ships in the Pacific. In San Francisco, the U.S. government entreats a recently stranded Professor Louis Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) to join an expedition to track down the monster. Along with them, is harpoonist Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), who's more interested in stopping the beast than studying it, but after months of fruitless search, even Ned is starting to tire of the hunt.
He needn't have worried; he's in a movie, after all. The point being made that the monster is elusive and challenging, the scientists find the monster and an attempt is made to kill it, but before firing the killing shot, the monster turns tail and rams the ship, scuttling it, and sending Arronax, Land and Conseil into a lifeboat to drift in a mysterious fog. In that fog, they see a strange vessel and, boarding it, they find it's a submersible craft, and through a window, they notice a strange ritual—an undersea funeral.
That is never good, and rather than being the next ones so honored, they try to make their escape, but are apprehended by the crew and their strange captain, Nemo (James Mason), who would just as soon drown them, except for his interest in Arronax, whose scientific research he respects. For the sake of Arronax, the three cast-offs are allowed to stay.
Mason is such a good actor that he can provide the inevitable
"You just don't get it, do you?" with just a look.
But Nemo doesn't make it easy. He uses the opportunity of his colleagues presence to explain: a tour of the ship shows off the Nautillus' unique propulsion system, which from its glow must be nuclear—no coal-fueled furnace ever glowed so hot; dinner is a culinary sampling of the sea, even the after-dinner cigars are stuffed with dried seaweed; a visit to the Rura Penthe penal colony explains Nemo's history and his hatred for the British trading ships he regularly attacks. Of most interest to Ned is the huge treasure of recovered riches from the oceans' floors, obtained from explorations of sunken vessels throughout time; Nemo he doesn't trust, perhaps in sympathy with the dead sailors that Nemo has left in his wake, maybe due to his antipathy to Nemo's crusade for vengeance. The two are mutually distrustful. And Ned is looking for any opportunity to leave Nemo's gilded prison.
But life on a submarine is life under pressure. For all the wonders the windows of the Nautilus offers, there are also dangers that Nemo is determined to power through unafraid. But, the addition of the men of science (and Ned) creates a dynamic of tension; his authoritarian genius was good enough for his crew of fellow prisoners, but Arronax is a man of pure science, who may admire Nemo's achievements, but not the manner with which he uses them. Between the military hunting him, his passengers questioning him, and his conflicts with his own demons, Nemo begins to become erratic.
One of matte artist Peter Ellenshaw's amazing blends of live action and artwork.

Nemo's goals are undefined; he has all this amazing technology and the power it can yield, and he has already suffered mightily with the death of his family and his imprisonment to keep it out of the hands of world governments. His solution is to isolate himself from the world's powers, taking his revenge where he can, and living below the waves, out of their clutches. Ned's goals are more myopic—his freedom at all costs, despite the plans and schemes of more far-thinking men. They're id and ego and they're warring in the Nautillus-brain. And as we all know, there are never enough couches on submarines.
Something's got to give. Maybe, deep in our sub-consciousness, that's why the most memorable sequence in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the primeval battle with the giant squid in the midst of a storm-tossed nighttime sea. Nemo's electrified craft can't kill it (and electricity has fried all sorts of movie monsters). So Nemo (being Nemo) decides to be the point-man and take on the thing with his crew. The battle does not go well,* and it is only the intervention of the least likely person who saves the day and the good/bad ship Neurotic...er.. Nautillus.
We'll leave Freud behind for awhile (or this will get really creepy...besides, sometimes a squid is just a squid), but the conflict between Ned and Nemo creates real disquiet in a viewer. Nemo may be murderous; but Ned is a man-child with impulse issues, greedy, a quisling—it's his actions that ultimately cause an organized attack that leads to the destruction of Nemo's island, Volcanis, and his life's work—and a streak of undependability. He is Peck's Bad Boy, Huckleberry Finn without the charm, a dimpled exemplar of America's rebellious streak...at its worst. It's hard to peg Disney on how they feel about the military, too. Are they the Cavalry come to the rescue or the bushwhackers setting a trap. One is given the impression that their invasion lays waste to a dream, the result of the actions of the one character kids might relate to in a film filled with "old guys." Old guys who do a lot of talking. At least, Ned gets to play with a seal.
So, 20,000 Leagues ends on a decidedly melancholy note, an interesting end to what most folks consider the usual Disney happy ending (Mary Poppins ends in much the same way, actually). What is the film actually saying: "Dreams die and we should mourn the loss of vision?" "Beware of those with short-term selfish goals?" Given the photo-evidence of natural splendor over riches, 20,000 Leagues might, in some way, be a poetic environmental film disguised as a "Boys' Own" adventure story. Maybe that's what Uncle Walt envisioned all along.
Visionary, maybe. Poetic and entertaining, absolutely. Cautionary in the way the best science-fiction films can be, certainly. But, political? I would hazard a guess "yes." In which case, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may be the most complex and greatest film the studio has ever produced.
* It didn't go well on-set, either. The film version is the second version of the squid attack. The first one, filmed simulating daylight, looked bad, the squid "fake" and just was deemed an unconvincing sequence. Director Fleischer and Disney screened the sequence that they'd put so much time and money in, and Fleischer said "I hate to say it, Walt, but it doesn't work." "You're right," agreed Disney and ordered re-shoots for a stormy night-time sequence that drove the film wildly over-budget, but made a scene that everyone remembers the movie for.

No comments:

Post a Comment