Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
After grousing about Columbia's no-show with Ray Harryhausen movies last Christmas, Savant
has to admit that this year they've made up for it and more.
First Men IN the Moon,
The 3 Worlds of Gulliver,
Twenty Million Miles to Earth,
Earth vs the Flying Saucers,
and now this favorite from 1961 have all rolled out in mostly fine fashion. Mysterious Island
continued Hollywood's successful run of Jules Verne adaptations by tackling the sequel to the
author's most successful story, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Injecting Verne's fairly
awkward story with a succession of showstopping stop-motion monsters, Harryhausen and producer
Charles Schneer had one of their biggest hits.
Union Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) leads a small band of
fellow prisoners, including war correspondent Gideon Spillett (Gary Merrill) in an escape from a
Confederate prison, using a rebel spotting balloon. An unprecedented storm takes them across the continent
and most of the Pacific Ocean before depositing them on an uncharted island. There they struggle
to survive against bizarre gigantic wildlife, and marauding pirates, joining up with a pair of
English shipwreck survivors (Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan) along the way. What they don't know is
that they are being watched over by the island's secret inhabitant, the notorious Captain Nemo,
who was presumed to have gone down with his terror-submarine Nautilus a few years before.
Mysterious Island remains a favorite of many Harryhausen fans; they respond to its adventure
and veritable smorgasbord of unique monsters. Either ace director Cy Endfield was better with actors,
or the production allowed more time for them, but the live-action scenes are smooth enough not to
seem like filler in between the effects scenes.
Not to take away from the capable Kerwin Mathews, but having the likes of Herbert Lom, Joan Greenwood
and Percy Herbert doesn't hurt either - even when the script sags, the characters hold together. The
are classy and credible, even if Herbert's Southern accent slides into Cockney half the time. The
level-headed Michael Craig is very convincing as an American, while Michael Callan and newcomer
Beth Rogan make an okay ingenue couple. Dan Jackson is a robust Neb Nugent, who is given equal
character time until the full cast assembles, when his lines drop almost to nothing.
In a standout performance, Herbert Lom is formidable as Captain Nemo, dishing out iffy
expository lines about his survival and unlikely experiments
in a way that makes them sound like great writing. And there's no replacing the deep voice of Joan
Greenwood, who enlivens her stock role with her own veddy proper elitist charm. It's kind of fun
having drawing-room actors like Greenwood
(The Importance of Being Earnest)
and Gary Merrill fighting a giant prehistoric bird - they seem to be enjoying themselves mightily.
Mysterious Island's menagerie of threatening monsters was simply delightful on a first viewing,
but, as much as the film is a pleasant diversion, it's also one of his least interesting pictures to
Savant. As this is a statement begging for defense, I'll get right to it.
Both the script and Harryhausen's scenes are episodic to a fault, and too many of the thrills
are overly familiar. After a tense opening, with some very convincing effects, the show plays out at
Schneer's overused Spanish beach setting. The pace is slow, not helped by frequent torpid 'exploration'
scenes, covered by Michael Craig's narration, where little happens. There's no forward motion and
no real character conflict: when the castaways meet Nemo near the conclusion, they're the exact
same people who landed on the island months before. If anything, they're less interesting, having
accepted the wonders before their eyes in such a complacent manner.
When Nemo-ex-machina does show up, his connection to his newfound friends isn't very
convincing, and after some very static reels, his decision to sit in his submarine and accept a morbid
fate is a real downer. Even to 9 year-olds, introducing the sub, which then never sets sail, is another
big let-down. Our heroes escape with a last-minute engineering miracle, but the reformed
Terrorist doesn't make it.
Admittedly, the Verne source novel is the culprit for all the eye-rolling unliklihoods and coincidences,
but Mysterious Island doesn't exploit the interesting situations that the dodgy plotting
creates. The theme of War runs through the whole show without once finding expression; even the
tin-pot A.I.P. Master of the World consistently handles Robur's pacifist
fanaticism. Yellow journalist Gideon Spillet (I guess that's what he does with the news) and Nemo
exchange a few remarks, and that's it. Disney's superlative show succeeded because he unapologetically
presented Verne's aquatic Terrorist as Verne described him - a genius-maniac righteously opposing
red-coated colonial oppression. This sequel's Nemo is a reborn environmentalist nice-guy, a smudge on
Nemo's unrepentant honor, no matter how well he's played by Herbert Lom.
Harryhausen's animation effect scenes are terrific, but none of them advance the story. The monsters
appear, our heroes stick poles at them (and get to eat a couple, as well) and
they exit. The most entertaining critter is the red-crested antidiluvian bird, which delights
kids. We didn't care back in '61, but my kids rather resented Harryhausen/Schneer's tendency to
kill off so many of their monsters. My daughter loved the puppy-like reptile of The Beast from
20,000 Fathoms but didn't want to see it again because of the death scene. Likewise for the
defenseless newly-hatched Roc chicks in
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. The kids
quickly figured out the poke-sticks & die episodic nature of the movies, and cheered when they saw
the One Million Years, B.C. turtle Archelon escape unharmed.
Part of the delight of the giant bird is Bernard Herrman's wonderful scoring, which manages to be
whimsical and heavy at the same time, sort of a Wagnerian Turkey in the Straw. Herrmann's
thunderous music is the glue that holds the film together and lends it the grandeur it needs.
It also might be unpopular to say outright, but the special effects in Mysterious Island, outside of
his marvellous animation, aren't Harryhausen's best. Many of the matte paintings are unlikely vistas
not very well realized, with perspective problems to boot. And many complicated scenes calling out
for large set construction are solved through mattes and composites that even in original
prints looked dupe-y and circumspect. In 7th Voyage, Harryhausen designed a beautiful
tunnel entrance for his Cyclops; a fairly undetectable meld of miniature set (the carved arch)
and live-action footage. Here, there's a fortress in a cliffside cave overlooking the beach, made of
five or six cleverly arranged but very artificial-looking optical elements. It's a key location,
and it's never very convincing. Many scenes, such as the grotto lagoon where the Nautilus has
come to rest, are large, static miniatures with little people matted into them. Couple that with
endless slowmotion underwater scenes, and a stock genre volcanic eruption that also has no
real character involvement, and the back end of Mysterious Island is slow going, best
relieved by listening to Bernard Herrmann's warbling bassoons and mighty crescendoes.
Columbia filmed Mysterious Island as a serial ten years previous, somehow adding a female alien
from Mercury to the mix. The part-talkie 1928 MGM pastiche remains one of the weirdest and most costly
Hollywood fantasy films, and there was a Soviet effort (made during WW2) that's well-remembered. Reviewers
of this Harryhausen version often commented on the no-show of familiar actor Nigel Green (Hercules in
Jason & the Argonauts), whose name appeared in all the official cast lists. His scenes were cut - he appears to be the skeleton
the castaways find in their cave fortress. Perhaps there was a diary-inspired flashback pirate story
that got dropped, similar to the lighthouse-wrecker saga of
The Light at the Edge of the World - ?
Columbia/Tristar's DVD of Mysterious Island, unfortunately, isn't the beauty we were hoping for.
No fault of today's restorers, but there's apparently little left to work with in the surviving
elements. These pictures were so popular Columbia printed them to death (that's our
Torch Lady) without ever making good separations or otherwise guaranteeing their survival. Mysterious Island
looks as though it was stored in the sunny, wet end of the vault. It's obvious that a lot of
telecine effort has been expended to make it look as good as possible, and perhaps others won't be
as disheartened by the transfer as Savant was. Overall the picture is thin and the grain high. The
actual animation sequences don't fare too badly, but the other effects look as bad as I've
seen them, even in those mis-timed 16mm prints that circulated on television non-stop for 30 years.
Particularly hard-hit are Harryhausen's matte effects. A fat negative, with its full blue
register, has a density that is
critical for being able to print good copies of effects scenes. When the blue goes away entirely, as
with a print I once screened of Journey to the Center of the Earth, every flaw and blemish
comes out - in that show, the black corners of the screen, when lightened
by the fading, revealed plumbing and 2 X 4's nailed into the pathways leading to the Earth's core!
Here, the beach fortress is painful stack of mattes and blue-screen elements that
no longer fit together at all. 2
These comments are for the Harryhausen freaks who worry about such split hairs. The movie doesn't
stop and die for these flaws, and will likely play just fine for many, especially on screens smaller
than 30", which will lessen the grain.
The other probable source of fan complaint is the framing, an issue which I must admit confuses me. All
flat Harryhausens look a bit tight on my 16:9 television, and it may be the television's fault,
after reports I've read that our rear-projection monitors grossly overscan. Yet I play the disc on my
small tube monitor, and the crab scene stil looks tight, with the legs going offscreen on the bottom and
the crab slightly cropped on the left. That's the only scene that stood out to me as being too
tight, but I'm expecting to see the same web controversy on this title as with the other Harryhausens, and
the new Hammer discs. But I honestly think Columbia's restorers and home video producers put out the best
product they can, and I have too many doubts to point fingers on this one.
Ray Harryhausen hosts his own little featurette on the movie, telling the familiar stories, obviously
proud of one of his personal favorites. Trailers are included, along with a few sketches and a photo
gallery. Also on board are the This is Dynamation featurette and the Harryhausen Chronicles
Richard Shickel docu, which by now must be the most re-issued added features in the short history of
the DVD format.
Unless there's a title I'm forgetting, when It Came from Beneath the Sea appears, all of the
Columbia Harryhausen films will be on DVD.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Mysterious Island rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: see above
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 12, 2002
1. Let me stress that the recent flat-only transfers are a
marketing experiment. Of the Harryhausens, only The 3 Worlds of Gulliver was affected by
2. The fading negative makes painfully obvious a detail Savant had
never before noticed. During the bird attack, Gideon Spillett whacks the monster in its chicken legs
several times with a stout stick. In this new transfer, when the bird hops, it reveals a matted-out
pole or something for Gary Merrill to strike in reality. I'm sure someone like Ernie Farino could
have pointed it out to me before, but on this transfer, it looks as if a big vertical stripe pops
in and out of the background.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson