Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Almost any feature in Irwin Allen's output has been described as a low point, but Savant's vote goes to this mediocre, pinch-penny production from 1962, when 20th Fox was on the brink of receivership over the Cleopatra debacle. After doing quite well with his all-lizard The Lost World and the bubbly Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, producer-director Allen made a bald attempt to ape the film that probably got him started on juvenile adventures in the first place, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Producers looking for more Jules Verne gold to mine must have been saddened to find that only a few of his stories had science fiction adaptation potential. A great many are sea-faring tales of long voyages and piratical acts, as seen in the later adaptation Light At the Edge of the World. Five Weeks in a Balloon turns out to be a simple lighter-than-air voyage across Africa, which could be a delight if handled in an interesting fashion. If only.
Professor Fergusson (Cedric Hardwicke) wants to test his new balloon with a voyage across Africa, and picks up two major sponsors. An American publisher sends his clumsy nephew Donald O'Shay (Red Buttons) as a reporter and the British government send stuffy Sir Henry Vining (Richard Haydn) to plant the flag in a remote area of the continent before slave traders get there. Fergusson's assistant Jacques (Fabian) mans the balloon. On their way from East Africa, the merry crew rescues two women -- Makia (Barbara Luna), a slave girl liberated by O'Shay, and Susan Gale (Barbara Eden) an American missionary passionately opposed to the slave trade. They also pick up Ahmed, a comical slave trader (Peter Lorre) who proves an asset to the expedition. As for the foolish O'Shay, he almost lets the balloon drift away with nobody in it!
Perhaps 'inspired' by Schneer and Harryhausen's airborne Mysterious Island of the year before, Five Weeks in a Balloon thinks that it can mount a convincing fantasy-adventure movie with a few toy balloons and a full-sized prop hanging from a crane. Good blue-screen work creates some passable flying illusions but almost all of the movie was filmed on the Fox Malibu Ranch, with all of Africa represented by the same Southern Californian dry scrub acreage. Stock shots from previous Fox African productions get a good workout as well -- do I perceive second-unit work from The Roots of Heaven? What we most remember from the film are the same hills seen in the M*A*S*H Television show and a bunch of cramped-looking standing sets on Hollywood back lots to represent African towns.
Even with Charles Bennett helping, Allen's script is just awful. Jules Verne's novel (said to be his first) is about a daring rescue mission. This trip starts as a promotional gambit and turns into a humanitarian race to plant the Union Jack in a part of Africa before "Evil Slavers" claim it first. It's assumed that the slave trade is an African aberration, as all of the local despots encountered by our Anglo-Americans are also Evil Slavers; telling us that planting a symbolic flag would make a difference in the lawless local politics is insultingly stupid.
Human slavery is just too serious of an issue to be the subject of a light-hearted adventure for small children. The best and scariest wild tale about African slavery Savant has seen is Herzog's Cobra Verde, and that's probably too raw for many adults. Five Weeks in a Balloon is a grotesque distortion that trivializes historical slavery. A bouncy-cute harem girl (BarBara Luna) makes coy remarks to her White rescuer comparing the cost of a marriage license to her purchase price as a slave. Plenty of black Africans and Arabs are killed as the wily heroes bluff their way through various heathen traps in episodes that never get more exciting than a picnic in the park. The worst aspect of the show is that the White culture is completely absolved of any involvement in the slave business. Every Anglo in the film, even Barbara Eden's missionary, condescends to the Africans, if they have any contact with them at all. This movie isn't recommended for children.
Five Weeks in a Balloon plays like a lame attempt to combine Around the World in 80 Days with Hatari!. A weak animated title sequence is backed up by a ditty sung by The Brothers Four. The balloon is an unlikely-looking craft with a non-utilitarian carved unicorn at the bow. It's seen as a miniature in wide shots and then as a full-sized construction slung under a large crane. It never for a moment looks as if it's drifting on the breeze and it's doubtful that any of the cast felt secure riding in it. Jules Verne chose to downplay the basic fact that a balloon goes where the wind takes it, not where it is pointed. Fabian operates a controlled ascent and descent mechanism but his explanation for how he navigates is pretty lame: "There are lots of breezes and wind currents. We simply go up and down until we find the one going in the direction we want to go!" Perhaps the difficulty with this problem is what inspired Verne to 'invent' the rigid, electric-powered airships in Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World.
Irwin Allen uses his standard trick of hiring older name actors for subsidiary roles. Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen, and Henry Daniell make brief appearances, and Billy Gilbert plays two different Arab parts. Allen gives the main elderly role to Cedric Hardwicke, with Richard Haydn repeating his snooty sidekick act from The Lost World. The younger 'stars' are all hand-me-down names barely rating featured supporting status in other films. Red Buttons and Barbara Eden would be quite capable of playing more interesting characters if the script and direction were up to the task. He's uninteresting as a clumsy hero. Her missionary is presumably conceived along the lines of Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, but isn't written in that direction. Fabian is not bad, for Fabian. BarBara Luna's casting betrays Irwin Allen's disinterest in his own subject. "Makia" is supposed to be a slave in an East African (presumably Muslim) port town. She doesn't look or sound African, Indian or Arab and she dresses in a skimpy outfit like a generic tropical love interest in a burlesque act. Even Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie was given a veil to wear part of the time.
Nobody is directed to any great effect in Five Weeks in a Balloon, as Allen seems oblivious to any but the most basic dramatics. There is some compensation in Peter Lorre, who in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea mostly sat at the sidelines playing with a slide rule. Here he's a likeable, cute slave dealer/con man, and by sending the role up he at least gets to be intermittently amusing. He makes a lively entrance at an Emir's party, laughing and pointing off-screen as if having a fine time. His character Ahmed starts as a prisoner but is soon a full-fledged member of the expedition, eventually helping the heroes fight off the 'bad' slave trader, played by Mike Mazurki without dialogue and almost completely in long shot. There is a limp scuffle atop a minaret during a rescue scene (more dark-skinned stooges bite the dust), but in the otherwise action-challenged climax Ahmed throws a dagger and hits his target from wa-ay across a foaming river. Yes! Peter Lorre, unsung action hero!
The rest of the content of Five Weeks in a Balloon involves hi-jinks with a trained chimpanzee ("the Princess") and various Red Buttons encounters with the expected 'cute' wild animals.
Fox's DVD of Irwin Allen's Five Weeks in a Balloon looks very good in enhanced widescreen. Picture and audio are fine here, except that all those stock shots and Malibu exteriors don't offer Hoch many opportunities to create impressive visuals. A second encoding presents the film in a pan-scanned version. I almost wish I could give this a better review to encourage a DVD release of Irwin Allen's The Lost World. It can boast Claude Rains, terrific color cinematography by Winton Hoch and some of the loudest, most effective dinosaur sound effects ever heard.
A trailer and a teaser join a couple of embarrassing newsreel clips from the film's Denver premiere. Barbara Eden cooperates at a pitiful publicity appearance in a supermarket parking lot; most of the attention goes to the chimpanzee! Peter Lorre is seen in only one brief shot signing autographs and doesn't show up for the premiere at all. Perhaps he quit in disgust after seeing the threadbare preparations. (Imagine Peter Lorre imitation): "Irrr-win! Eeee-ven Roger Cor-man treeets me better than thissss!"
The Woolner Bros. cheapjack production of Flight of the Lost Balloon was released in the same year. It starred Marshall Thompson and Mala Powers, was based on the same Jules Verne story and suffered from even worse production values. I barely remember seeing it as it was so boring, but I do remember the distracting blue-screen mattes. All we really paid attention to in the balloon scenes were the terrible blue fringes around the forest of ropes holding the balloon. The blue lines were wider than the ropes themselves!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Five Weeks in a Balloon rates:
Movie: Good ---
Supplements: Trailer, Teaser, Denver premiere newsreel footage, supermarket appearance newsreel, supermarket appearance newsreel raw footage, artwork and still galleries.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 17, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson