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A major childhood favorite, Journey to the Center of the Earth is an engaging and amusing foray into big-time adventure. It's also one of those happy accidents in which a major studio created great entertainment from a story that begged to be cheapened or ruined. For that we can thank Walt Disney's uncompromised adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which set the standard for high-budget Jules Verne fantasies. Producer Charles Brackett signed up Disney's Captain Nemo, James Mason and surrounded him with a capable cast that included teen crooner Pat Boone, who is not at all bad. Best of all, the script's adroit sense of humor lets the journey be reasonably serious while maintaining a borderline tongue-in-cheek tone. The result is fantastic escapism with something for everyone.
Verne's story proposes the existence of a vast prehistoric world existing beneath our feet. A mysterious volcanic rock leads freshly knighted professor Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) to Iceland to seek Arne Saknussem's secret trail to the center of the Earth. Braving a rival who tries to steal his expedition and a haughty, duplicitous Saknussem heir (Thayer David), Lindenbrook goes bravely forward into the unknown, accompanied by his protégée Alec McEwen (Pat Boone), guide Hans Belker (Peter Ronson) and the widow of his rival, the redheaded, single-minded Mrs. Carla Goeteborg (Arlene Dahl).
When searching Verne properties to exploit, Journey to the Center of the Earth must have seemed a risky proposition. Nobody had touched the tale since a long-lost silent Spanish version, and previous spelunking adventures hadn't really caught on as movie subject matter. Except for Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher's spooky cave experience in the 1938 Tom Sawyer, stories set inside the Earth were of the forgettable kind: Superman and the Mole Men, The Night the World Exploded. The show that came closest to borrowing the Verne concept was 1951's Unknown World, a serious but forgotten adventure about a vehicle called a Cyclotram. It drills its way into the Earth's mantle and finds ... essentially nothing. 1
Jules Verne's fanciful prehistoric world still thriving at the core of our planet is a concept that doesn't mesh well with 20th-Century technology. The best decision by producer Charles Brackett (Billy Wilder's ex-partner) was to retain the original's 19th-Century period trappings. George Pal had updated H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds to great acclaim, but Verne's antique tales are rooted in 19th century whimsy -- Nemo's Nautilus would pale next to the real, atomic version already in service in 1959. With the story firmly rooted in the fantastic, the biggest problems are neatly sidestepped with enthusiastic silly-science. Verne's inner Earth isn't a furnace of molten rock. Our explorers encounter fresh air, surface gravity and pressure all the way to the center. Best of all is the convenient discovery of luminous crystals that allow both unassisted sight and Color by DeLuxe to function, long after the hikers' lamps have rusted out.
What Journey to the Center of the Earth offers instead of scientific accuracy is adventure with a capital A, the kind that finds brave souls stepping off into the unknown with no reasonable expectation of coming back alive. It's the good-natured spirit that the great explorers and even Conquistadores must have shared: life is short and cities are dirty and dull, so why not go for broke and risk all on a mad quest? The Scots and Icelandic explorers may argue over provisions and double-dealing, but all respond to the challenge of adventure, even the dastardly villain.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is unique in that it takes itself seriously enough to tell its story straight. A big chunk of its running time involves talky preparation and competitive skullduggery on the surface. By the time they descend into the crater below Scartarus, our characters are firmly established. Pat Boone is an uncomplicated fellow with a girl left behind in Edinburgh (the underused, terrific Diane Baker of Strait-Jacket and Silence of the Lambs). Peter Ronson is the climbing expert (in real life as well, a nice touch) and non-macho strongman. He's given a pet duck named Gertrud as a fob to the Disney audience. Ronson provides needed balance against Boone's persistent singing and rosy-cheeked optimism ("Hi Hi! Professor!").
James Mason's respected professor Lindenbrook sputters and throws the occasional tantrum. But he also beams like a 5 year-old at new discoveries and dances a jig upon hearing good news. Mason holds the picture together with his commanding voice, which smoothes over the roughest episodes. When the center of the globe turns out to be a wholly illogical whirlpool in a wholly illogical ocean (which direction is UP?), a few crackling lines of expertly delivered dialogue, and a distracting cutaway to Diane Baker back up top, get us through. Mason treats his line, "This is it! The magnetic center of the Earth!" as beautifully as his, "Matters of this sort are best settled from a great height" from North By Northwest.
Ex-MGM beauty Arlene Dahl was best known for some spectacular redheaded close-ups in other people's musicals. The writers make an excellent case for bringing the requisite 'woman' along for what was originally an all-male safari into a hole in the ground. The Dahl character has a sense of dignity and helps place the story in a convincing period setting, while providing a woman to scream at dinosaurs for the trailer. The engaging line of banter between the widow and her dead husband's rival is given its due instead of being used as filler. A real romance builds, along with our affection for all the adventurers, something rare in movies of this kind.
There's a sense of class and balance to the light mood of Journey to the Center of the Earth that compares well with the later Spielberg Indiana Jones movies, one of which borrows Earth's giant rock gag. But most new action adventures tend to run fast and stupid, impatient for anything but a shorthand beeline to 'the good stuff.' When a Spielberg-era thrill ride movie is over, we indeed feel as if we're being hustled out of the carnival tent to make way for the next batch of suckers. This old Fox film is slower but its characters are more satisfying. It has a feeling of substance, even with an ending that wraps things up with the convenience of a ride on an express elevator out of Alice's rabbit-hole -- itself swiped for yet another Indiana Jones movie.
The final clincher, and a main reason why Journey keeps its sparkle, is the thunderous score by Bernard Herrmann. Away from the picture it's a tad repetitive, but it brings to life every facet of the journey even when the scenery edges toward the phony side. Journey, like Brackett & Herrmann's earlier Garden of Evil, is a 'music & landscape' picture -- the staccato rhythms gave the western the flavor of a fantasy film. Here the music is a dynamic dirge, sinking ever deeper, lower. In the original 4- track stereo release, and here on this lossless HD track, the opening chords dip lower and heavier, and still lower -- making one's stomach rumble like SenSurround!
The Twilight Time DVD Blu-ray of Journey to the Center of the Earth corrects most of the problems with the earlier Fox DVD of this title -- itself a favorite disc. The newer HD transfer isn't as severely plagued with grain problems, although optical and special effects naturally become a little coarser. The newest scanning and colorizing tools can do wonders but they still can't completely replace lost density without darkening the entire frame. Journey looks very much the way I remember it in original color by DeLuxe.
Even more impressive is the 4.0 DTS-HD MA audio track, which will indeed rattle loose objects lying around the room. Herrmann's descending chords in the title sequence will certainly get the attention of viewers with powerful home theater equipment. I remember seeing Journey to the Center of the Earth in the theater at age seven -- it was my 'special birthday treat' -- and being aware that the audio was overpowering. I certainly didn't know what stereophonic sound was.
In HD we also become aware of how cleverly cameraman Leo Tover matched location shots of Edinburgh with shots of James Mason taken on the Fox back lot back in Century City. Only a couple of flat rear projection setups are used; the rest are accomplished with doubles. That guy doubling for James Mason is only a fair match...
Twilight Time's prime extra is their Isolated Score Track, which in this case will draw in a sizeable secondary audience, the Bernard Herrmann faithful. The cues I heard were from file tracks, complete with vocal IDs. Twilight Time soundtrack expert Nick Redman has cleverly reproduced an extra not seen since the Fox laser disc, now twenty years old -- the English version's "Gaudeamus Igitur" has been slugged in, in two scenes as a replacement for, "Here's to the prof of Gee-ol-o-gee" ditty.
Twilight Time also includes Julie Kirgo's dependably informative essay on an insert pamphlet, and two trailers. The terrific English language original narrated in style by James Mason (with preferred billing for Gertrud the duck!) is present, along with a Spanish original with terrific text cards, like "ABAJO -- ABAJO -- ABAJO!" and one I had to look up, "Inverosímil!" It's clearly meant as a substitute for the English, "Unbelievable!", even though the dictionaries translate the word as "farfetched, implausible, improbable and unlikely". I guess we've tweaked "unbelievable" in the context of movie hype to mean, "unbelievable except you will see it for your own eyes and will be persuaded to believe it!" But that's too long for an ad marquee.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Journey to the Center of the Earth Blu-ray rates:
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