Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One the best projects Walt Disney ever undertook, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an
exciting and essentially faithful adaptation of Jules Verne's most popular 'Voyage Extraordinaire'. It was received
as a breathtaking wonder upon its Christmas release in 1954, and kept its glow in many reissues thereafter - I
don't remember ever hearing a kid say anything bad about it.
Disney's vision was matched, luckily, by the solid practical help of his businessman brother. For his first
bigscreen film, he picked a property with countless unknown production hazards. It needed to have special effects the likes
of which nobody had
seen before. It would be filmed in a brand new process for which there was only one lens available. And he had to
assemble the best technical resources in Hollywood, when he was known primarily as an animation producer.
About ten years ago, Disney released an impressive Laserdisc with many extras, but this special edition DVD easily
beats it in both the transfer and goodie departments.
1870. 'Alarming rumours' of a monster have emptied the sea lanes, and the United States sends a
warship to track it down. Along for the ride are two French scientists, Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his
faithful aide Conseil (Peter Lorre). When their ship is destroyed by the monster, they and harpoonist Ned Land
(Kirk Douglas) find their way to the monster, which turns out to be a submersible water craft. It's actually the
Nautilus, the invention of mad revenger Captain Nemo (James Mason), who exercises his grudge against war-making
nations by sinking their warfleets and munitions shipments. At first charmed by Nemo's personal undersea empire,
the three captives plot escape, and a way to put an end to Nemo's engine of destruction.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea opens with a screen bathed in light from a rippling underwater
source. As the show was one of the first filmed in the new anamorphic CinemaScope process, the wide image was
originally wider, spread out to a ribbonlike 1 to 2.55 aspect ratio.
Disney shrewdly composed his titles in the center of that spread, as his previous live-action efforts had basically
been for television, and he anticipated the film's eventual arrival on the smaller format. 1
The film has some amusing scenes in San Francisco and aboard Ted De Corsia's warship, but it is not long before we're
completely immersed in Captain Nemo's fantastic underwater world, in a submarine so well designed that we accept its
reality without question. There are undersea diving suits and a round iris window to view the magic
of the deep, and its comfortable but cramped interiors are invitingly believable.
What's startling about Leagues today is its tone. There's some singing and a cute trained seal, and running
gags between Kirk Douglas' blustery seaman and Peter Lorre's dour valet, but the overall impression is
dark and deadly serious. At a time when real submarines were risky craft likely as not to kill their crews, Jules
Verne proposed this fully-realized super-sub, almost as a fanciful visitation from the future, with its propulsive
secret only superficially explained. His Captain Nemo was an escaped tribal slave - not a white man - who somehow
became a scientific genius, creating miraculous futuristic technologies solely for revenge.
Verne's unlikely hero is easily recognized as what we call a Terrorist. He's a political zealot who uses violence to
strike back at the colonial powers who have oppressed him, and tortured and murdered his family. In the original
book, he's a South-seas native put to work mining the ingredients for high explosives, and everything he does
is motivated by what he refers to as "that hated nation". If Verne had added a religious motive, Nemo would be a clear cypher
for Osama Bin Laden, packing a weapon of mass destruction in the form of his futuristic submarine.
James Mason's filmic Captain Nemo glowers and fumes with an intensity that overshadows the whole enterprise, and his
singular vendetta is echoed in the grand shots of the Nautilus prowling slowly in the blue depths, and the grim
chords of Paul Smith's musical score. He's the original unconscious
manifestation of (literal) sub-versive hatred, a pacifist who hates the hypocrites of society, and sees all politics
and nations as an Enemy to be opposed at every opportunity. For an irrationally-conceived character - it's assumed
he's a misguided madman, as the movie endorses the humanistic reason of the dull Professor Arronax - Nemo is a
magnificent antihero. Placed in a scene with the jocular Kirk Douglas, who pulls faces and acts all hale
and hearty, James Mason's gloom wins every time. Just about the only actor who could pull off the same role would be
Vincent Price ... but in our hearts we know Price is really a rather jolly fellow: Mason is obsession
The pace of the action is deliberate and linear, perhaps too slow for modern audiences, but the adventures of the
Nautilus are magnificently realized. It cruises beneath the waves and navigates submerged tunnels
like a beautiful but dangerous sea creature. When attacking, it churns a terrifying wake, with its glowing eyes
screaming across the water's surface. It has no modern weapons, but uses its knifelike keel to rip through the
hulls of its victims. We don't see it take on any iron warships, but we believe the Nautilus would have no trouble
sinking anything afloat. 2
The comedy relief now seems a necessary diversion from the film's dark themes. When the movie was newer, we kids
dedicated villains for granted, as if they needed no motivation but to provide us with exciting and violent thrills.
Nemo's vows of vengeance & delirious musings now seem all too relevant, as is his suicide pact with his dedicated
crew. The only
crewman with a speaking part is played by Western villain Robert J. Wilke, and it is subtly disturbing to see an
actor associated only with degenerate outlaws, playing Nemo's loyal right hand man. No doubt Disney was simply
trying to be faithful to the book that had no played upon his imagination as a kid back in Kansas, but
because of this unchanged use of Verne's specific motivation for Nemo, 20,000 Leagues has an amazingly dark
streak at its center. 3
The end of the Nautilus, in Disney's version, is a bleak gottedammerung. (spoiler) The book had the damaged sub going
down in a Norwegian maelstrom, if I recall correctly, but here writer Earl Fenton pulls in ideas from Mysterious
Island and other Verne stories, to briefly show Nemo returning to his secret island base, only to discover it overrun
by colonial troops. We get a quick impression of his super lab (complete with radar dish - ??) before he pulls a
patented Bride of Frankenstein lever to blow it all to kingdom come. Not only does Nemo keep 'that hated nation'
from stealing his scientific secrets, but he gets a revenge of sorts by nuking a small army and navy of assorted
national interests. Nobody ever seems to point out that this mainstream fantasy film ends with the murder of
hundreds, perhaps thousands of First World colonials. There isn't a similar scene in films until the overtly radical
Giù la testa, in which James Coburn gleefully dynamites an entire armed division, happy to 'rid the
world of a few uniforms.' We're given Professor Arronax's verbal judgment on Nemo as a warped madman, but
everyone I ever saw the picture with, wanted Nemo to win and sink every warship afloat.
Disney's DVD of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 5
looks fine in enhanced widescreen, with a lot of delineation in
the various blues and greens of the ocean depths. There is some grain ... this is a 50 year old picture shot on
some of the earliest Eastman stock. The box lists the aspect ratio as 2:55 to one, but it doesn't look
any more wide than the usual 2:35 transfer. In compositions where characters fill the frame, those at the extremes
tend to be a bit crowded. Chances are the marketing writer read the ratio off an old stat sheet. At least the image
is centered on the screen - a 35mm showing I saw at the El Capitan in Hollywood in the early 90s, used a lopsided
print that favored the right exteme of the 2:55 frame.
The second disc has a nicely balanced set of extras. The new docu is marvelous, a
much better piece than the laserdisc's 1954 television show that served as a primetime ad for the
movie (nice trick, Walt - get paid big $$ by the networks to advertise your own product!). Along with director
Richard Fleischer, critic Rudy Behlmer (was Richard Maltin sick that day?), and an enthusiastic Kirk Douglas,
are several reels' worth of fascinating
behind-the-scenes footage, in 16mm color. Everything of interest is covered - we get to see stage waits when
the actors break character, and the technical apparatus behind many setups. Fleischer is seen a lot as well. The
footage illustrates the docu narrative perfectly: Douglas accidentally whacks Lukas with an oar in one shot, and
so much water flows out of Disney's sound stage during the Squid scene, casual visitors need to wear galoshes.
It's an absorbing show.
For the less keen, there's an okay doc on the combined genius of Verne and Disney, that focuses mostly on Disney. A
'Disney Studio Album' for 1954 is a montage of the studio's insane number of risky activities in that pivotal year.
Another short subject on The Humboldt Squid raises our awareness of the power and danger of real squids, who actually
do swim both ways, forwards and backwards, as pictured in the film.
From the ample evidence of the extras, the most important man in the show appears to be a homely design genius by
the name of Harper Goff. His submarine has never been beaten for design. He obviously was Fleisher's #1 man, for he
not only engineered the long ships for
The Vikings, but designed a cool intervascular cruiser
for Fleisher's later Fantastic Voyage. 6
A special piece of rediscovered' film is a set of takes of the first abortive attempt at the Squid scene, where the rubber
monster is seen in flat lighting before a sunset backdrop. This is a cut version of unedited 16mm behind the scenes
shots, not dailies, which accounts for the less-than optimal angles. The filming probably reached a stage where all
realized nothing was working, and this flat footage was helpful to analyze the problem. The greatest testament to
Disney was his
ability to Bet the Farm on his instincts, and when Squid One turned out to be an expensive fake flop (like
something from Hammer's The Lost Continent), he had no problem going back to the drawing boards. The final
scene is a remarkable improvement; interesting that it took 50 years for this footage to come to light.
The rest of the extras are listed below. I've been through enough Disney discs now, that accessing their gauntlet
of animated menus to get to the goodies isn't as annoying as it used to be.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary with director Richard Fleischer & film historian Rudy Behlmer,
Animated short Grand Canyonscope, docu The Making Of '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea',
featurettes: Jules Verne & Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination, The Humboldt Squid: A Real
Sea Monster, Lost Treasures: The Sunset Squid Sequence, 1954 Disney Studio Album, Production Gallery,
The Musical Legacy of Paul Smith, Touring The Nautilus, Storyboard-to-Scene Comparison, Monsters Of The Deep,
Unused Animation, Bios, Lobby Cards, Posters and Merchandise, Production Documents & Harper Goff Letter,
Screenplay Excerpt, Movie Merchandise, Trims, Trailer, Production Gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2003
1. The only other time I can remember that
particular trick was for Roman Polanski's Chinatown, which begins by composing its main titles as if they were
from a 1940s Academy-ratio film noir.
Early CinemaScope's crude optics (straight from French inventor Chretien)
frustrated cinematographers. It had a warped field of vision and many shots in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea suffer
from the 'CinemaScope Mumps' - actors heads seem to squash out horizontally at times. Franz Planer avoids unnecessary
horizontal pans - that would reveal all kinds of distortion in the lenses. They had only one lens for the whole
film (!), which inspired Harper Goff to have 'squeezed' Nautilus models made, so that the sub could be shot flat
underwater, and when spread out, look correct! If you look closely, there are a number of underwater shots that are
done this way.
2. I remember cheering like mad with a theater full of other ten-year olds, as the
trailer for the nautilus opened up with just the high-pitched Tasmanian Devil whine of the Nautilus zooming toward us,
it's wake splashing over its yellow viewport eyes. Movies in the big theaters were magic then, and the sight of the
sub's screaming attack projected on the theater's shimmering curtains as they opened was a wonderment.
3. The Disney I love is the one before Disneyland, before he became the beacon of
sweetness and light and the status quo. Not only was he creatively daring, but he had no problem expressing all of
his personal fears and bugaboos in films - there are scenes in Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio
that are terrifying to little kids. Fantasia and Dumbo had sections that seemed like the experience of
a drug addict or an alcoholic. If Dumbo has a message beyond mother love, it's that You Have to Get Drunk if
You Want to Fly, Kid. Even smaller projects like Mister Toad's Wild Ride show an absolute delight in the
joys of total irresponsibility. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea seems to recognize Verne's terrorist hero as
yet another of the author's 'futuristic visions'. Along with the atomic submarine, he foretold the day when
colonialism would give birth to implacable Terrorist revengers.
4. (Side Note) In the 1970s,
Tom Scherman, a propmaker and designer in the
'cascade' generation of special effects men, built many
beautiful replicas of Goff's Nautilus, some so elaborate that they were bought by Disney to display purposes. He
was even selling them for hundreds of dollars, I believe. Scherman was known to me as a 12 year-old, when we read
in Famous Monsters that 'little Tommy Scherman' had seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in theaters 40
times. I met him several times through the miniature crews I worked for, and he was a charming fellow.
5. The on-screen title has no comma in the numeral, but the '20' is in a larger font,
perhaps making one unnecessary. When '20000' looks so wrong in print, you can't go by the actual title card all
the time. The movie was such a success, that besides the many other Verne visualizations that followed in its wake,
other pictures mimicked its title to perhaps catch some of its magic: The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues,
20 Million Miles to Earth, Around the World Under the Sea. By the way, a 'League', according to the
dictionary, is 4.8 kilometers, or about 3 miles.
6. Goff's work becomes especially noteworthy when one notes the patchy work on submarine
designs seen elsewhere. The super-sub Seaview of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which 'borrowed' Peter Lorre for
a similar role), looks rather cool, like a finned Cadillac ready to tour the ocean bottom, but the Fox effects people
could do little more than just shove it through the water and hope it would go straight. In many takes it leans to one
side, and the poorly-animated diving planes move like a bad toy. Going even further down, the vessels of The Atomic
Submarine look as if they came out of a cereal box. Only Toho's Atragon has some measure of majesty to match
Harper Goff's work, and it is more of a 'transformer' toy, flying through the air and drilling through the Earth. I like
those wooden decks though, they're a nice touch.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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