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Movie kids in the early 1960s kept their radar tuned for anything with Jules Verne attached, and producers knew it. We loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth; the less discriminating (or younger) among us also loved A.I.P.'s cut-rate Master of the World. Long before we had a clue that anybody in Czechoslovakia made movies, many of us ran to a Warner Bros. matinee picture called The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. I remember begging an aunt to take me to it while visiting in Las Vegas. The dear lady must have loved me, for I found myself dropped off at the age of nine at a double bill of Fabulous World and Billy Rose's Jumbo. The Doris Day movie was a bore but the strange Fabulous World put my head in a spin. I'd read Classics Illustrated comics of several Verne stories and often wondered why they weren't exactly like the movies.
My immediate impression of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was disappointment, as I expected a live-action extravaganza and the film was more like an animated movie. I felt cheated when some of the scenery appeared to be made of cardboard, as did others in the audience. This effect lasted only the few minutes it took for the film's magic spell to settle in. Too many outright charming things were happening not to be entertained. The movie wasn't live action but it also wasn't wholly animated. With little dialogue, the story played like a silent movie. I'm sure some kids thought it was slow but every single shot was a new discovery, a "hey, look at that" moment.
It wasn't until 1970 that I learned more about the movie in John Baxter's book Science Fiction Film. As with several other Soviet Bloc pictures we'd seen in edited form (like 1963's Ikarie XB 1), this picture makes quite a different impression in its original version. It is really Vynález Zkázy from 1958. The title translates as A Deadly Invention. Karel Zeman died in 1989. He's considered something of a national treasure in Czechoslovakia, and is best known here for a color version of Baron Munchausen filmed with similar techniques, that at one time showed frequently on American television.
Zeman made a number of films with roughly the same method, a combination of theatrical and film techniques stylized to resemble vintage illustrations, the pre-20th century kind that used parallel line patterns to suggest shading and texture in a printing technology capable of reproducing only a limited range of contrast. Zeman uses flat scenery, special three-dimensional props (some of them mechanical), miniature mattes, texture superimpositions and stop motion animation to achieve his effects. The images are so sharp and consistent that we suspect little if any optical work was done. Many scenes look patently artificial, reproducing old-fashioned ideas of altered perspective. Others look so good that we can't tell whether most of what we're looking at is a live set, an animated drawing, or a miniature stop-motion set. Some of the flat cel animation (birds, etc.) betrays its origin but the stop-motion model work is often extremely smooth. Everything is textured with parallel lines, from costumes to the paneling of walls; it's as if we were in a steel-engraved world suspended somewhere between 2D and 3D.
The story combines a specific Verne tale with ideas from 20,00 Leagues and Mysterious Island. After a brief overview of the marvelous world of new inventions (including Robur's flying helicopter boat, the Albatross) we settle into a charming, fantastic adventure. Pirates kidnap Professor Roch (Arnošt Navrátil), and also his new assistant, Simon Hart (Lubor Tokoš). They're transferred to the amazing submarine of the nefarious Count Artigas (Miroslav Holub), which then sinks a ship by ramming it. We watch the ship settle to the bottom through the submarine's quaint picture windows. Beautiful Jana (Jana Zatloukalová), frees some birds as her ship goes down, a gesture that links Vynález Zkázy with the "End of an Age" nostalgia of Georges Franju's Judex. Characters act in a subdued and civilized manner no matter how dire the circumstances, establishing a charmingly ironic distance from the material -- women in sedate old engravings never scream or grin, you know. With Zeman's deliberate pacing inviting us to savor every picture-book image, the movie takes on a wonderfully droll quality.
Later on, the love-struck Hart climbs a castle wall to talk to Jana. She asks him to wait until she makes herself decent, which requires that the fellow cling precariously to the outside of her window for a few extra moments. The comment on proper decorum elicited applause from an adult audience keen to savor the film's finer subtleties.
The rest of the plot is designed to showcase Artigas' amazing Nemo-like world. Jana is rescued and kept from the other prisoners. The submarine reaches the Count's secret island base through an underwater tunnel, as in the Disney version. Artigas tricks Professor Roch into perfecting his new atomic energy source into a new kind of explosive. While Roch works on heavy water issues and a giant reactor, Artigas builds a giant cannon. Hart succeeds in sending out a distress message but is prevented from contacting Roch or the mystery girl he sees in the castle. He tries to escape while helping Artigas's divers repair a telegraph cable, just as an outside submarine arrives to investigate. Left unconscious at the bottom of the underwater tunnel, Hart is picked up by the bulbous mini-sub that paddles through the water like a turtle (more guaranteed applause from kids and adults alike). But it is sunk by Artigas's larger submarine. Presumed dead, Hart makes it back to the secret lab and escapes with Jana in an observation balloon. Artigas is preparing to sink the enemy fleet with cannon shells loaded with Roch's new super-explosive. That's when Professor Roch realizes that he must take direct responsibility for his deadly invention.
Vynález Zkázy will be an unending delight for anybody with a visual imagination. Young Simon Hart provides a skeleton narration that eliminates the need for most dialogue. The set pieces are utterly charming. The submarines cruise past stylized fish. Undersea divers ride little mechanical submarine bicycles. Pirates sharpen their swords in uniform motions, as if they were playing in a string section. Upon finding a chest full of treasure, two pirates begin a duel, at the bottom of the sea. Roch's lab is a forest of crazy steam-pistons in motion, all of which appear to be optical-illusion flat animated stage props. News from the outside world comes via a fanciful pre-cinema "movie" projector that uses giant picture wheels similar to a View-Master setup.
Left at the bottom of the underwater tunnel with his air running low, Hart hallucinates fish that fold into each other like a kaleidoscope, turning into butterflies. A giant squid blackens the screen with its ink, as Hart and the pirates defend themselves with axes. Funny one-off jokes proliferate, as when Artigas attempts to shoot down Hart's balloon with a repeating pistol with a spring-loaded wind-up key. The explosive finale has an anti-nuke tone, but one contained by the context. There's not a hint of a propagandistic message.
Vynález Zkázy is highly cinematic -- it succeeds in creating a whimsical "world" of Jules Verne that couldn't be accomplished as either an old illustration or a live-action movie. The charm comes directly from Zeman's ingenious filming methods. We get the idea that if an 1865 daydreamer could imagine a magic-lantern movie of Verne's marvels, it might look a little like this. The imagination and visual magic here dwarf most modern fantasies, where photo-real images are a routine, and the magic is frequently lost in creativity-by-committee.
Warners' long ago lost the rights to distribute its re-edited version The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, which is reportedly a couple of minutes shorter, even with an introduction by Hugh Downs (then an announcer for Jack Paar). Zeman's processes were given the name "Mystimation", clearly inspired by Ray Harryhausen's Dynamation moniker. Variety caught the original film at the 1958 Brussels film festival and gave it a lukewarm review, as it often did with foreign productions regardless of their quality. By contrast, when reviewed three years later as a Warners release, the coverage is twice as long and more optimistic about the film's commercial possibilities. 1
I won an editing job in the early 1980s by showing a client a "music video" that I created by editing scenes from a rare TV broadcast of Fabulous World to a rock song that I won't mention here. The visuals fit the music cue like a glove. I didn't see the Czech original until a wonderful screening at the American Cinematheque in 2003 or 2004. The audience loved the movie. I've since been able to see Karel Zeman's follow-ups The Stolen Airship (Ukradená vzducholod;1967) and On the Comet (Na komete;1971) which have special qualities of their own but are not as exciting. I understand that these films are available in other countries; Vynález Zkázy would make a marvelous, classy addition to the Criterion Collection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Vynález Zkázy rates:
1. I've read over Variety's reviews from the period and I'm convinced that they sometimes discriminated against foreign product, playing a game of show biz protectionism. I've often used the example of the American-made exploitation cheapie The Brain from Planet Arous and the superior English Quatermass II. The reviewers practically raved over the trivial, silly Arous while Quatermass, a thrilling classic, was dismissed as "murky". When Soviet-bloc films were reviewed at European film festivals, they were more often than not slighted as unlikely to attract Western audiences.
(Note: I don't want to promote the existing R1 DVDs that are "out there" at this time, as I haven't seen them.)
I agree with you that Criterion should investigate this title.I was just happy to see it again after so many years. Local New York station WOR Channel 9 showed it constantly up 'til around 1980. And I recently showed the DVD to a friend who'd never heard of it, and he was just as charmed by it as we were back in the '60s. Happy New Year, and thanks for your entertaining and insightful reviews. -- Bill Huelbig
Glenn, thanks for the piece on the Karel Zeman film. I remember seeing it in a double feature with a color German film about the circus called something like Bimbo the Great when I was probably about seven. Obviously the Zeman film stuck in my memory much more. It did turn up on local tv stations for a time in the sixties but more or less vanished. Pauline Kael did a small piece about it in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In the early days of home video, long before I could afford a VCR, an animator friend managed to get hold of the film on betamax. There really is nothing else like it. About 15 years ago the AFI in DC had a Zeman festival and I got to see a great, apparently newly struck print in its original language. I own a sort of gray market version on DVD that looks like it was sourced from a 16mm print. Anyway... yeah.... someone like Criterion really needs to get this and other Zeman films in quality transfers on DVD or Blu-ray. Let's hope they read your column... they should anyway!!! Take care out there -- Jim Cobb
THANK YOU so much for your review of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. I remember so well as kid a local station in here town would show it at least once or twice a year and I would make it point to see it every time. The film just captivated me. I had an idea back then that it was a foreign film but didn't know much about it until I read your review today. I hope one day that it's available here in the U.S. -- Sergio Mims
Hi Savant! The Zeman films are all available from Sony-CD Japan in stunning transfers -- I've had the Jules Verne, Munchhausen, Stolen Airship & Sinbad films for years. Stolen Airship also includes Inspirace (Inspiration). Utilizing glass figurines, it's one of the great stop-motion masterpieces of all time. The DVDs are frightfully expensive, of course, but probably no more than you'd pay for Criterion. Thanks for the review! Best regards -- Gene Schiller
Hi! Glenn, I haver been looking for those Czech Jules Vernes you mentioned this week and finding some good information on some subjects from there includng some Radio Praha (Prague) MP3 interviews and pages but nothing on these DVDs there or import USA shops that they they have Czech language DVDs. Any link you can provide? One Czech film I would like in DVD is a black & white title from 1967 called Pet holek na directed by Evalds Schrom or something similar. This was on 16mm in Australia in the 70s as Saddled With Five Girls and known in the UK as Five Girls Around My Neck. It was in Cannes in 1969. I enjoyed the film I got on free loan when I delivered films to railheads for the Australian Film Institute (AFI) for free. They got films from the Embassies on 6-month loan to send to schools & other authorised groups for cost of rail or could collect. Saw lots of foreign films that way that otherwise I would not have seen, let alone heard of even. But now have a lot on DVD. But this one is very similar in storyline to the odd Peter Sellers 1964 opus, The World of Henry Orient. Best Wishes -- Ken Henderson
Hi!!! Great to see somebody remembering wonderful Zeman work. I have very fond memories of his movies, broadcast on Italian TV when I was a child. A couple of DVD are available in France and I just showed The Stolen Airship to my 9 year-old daughter who was delighted (amazing, considering the difference between Zeman and her beloved Hanna Montana...). Could be great if Criterion could publish his movies in the Eclipse collection. In the meantime just one title is available here in France: The Stolen Airship. I own On the Comet on VHS, but my player died recently. Keep talking about beautiful things. World is ugly and boring enough... ;-) Best regards -- Pasquale Russo
Hi Glenn, do you have or have you seen the short documentary called The Special Effects of Karel Zeman? I just looked at it again myself and it's excellent (only 17 minutes). There's clips from almost everything Zeman made between 1947 and 1980. Most of it is in color with an English soundtrack. He's shown on camera setting up several effects. It reminds me of the line I once heard describing Zeman's work. It went something like this: "We don't suspend disbelief while we're watching his films, we rush to abandon it completely". -- Bill Shaffer
Hi Glenn, The best release of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was a Japanese DVD that was released by the same company that released the Japanese box set of Karel Zeman's films -- Verne was released later as a stand-alone, I believe. I hoped that Criterion or someone else would import the box set to the US, but I suppose that they would have to subtitle everything. The Japanese releases were in Czech language only and may have had Japanese subtitles. No English audio or subtitles. The Japanese DVD of Fabulous appeared to have been mastered from a 35mm print. The two VHS releases in the US were from VCI in the 1980s and from Wade Williams' label in the nineties.I believe that both of those tapes were struck from (name deleted)'s 16mm print, which had the Hugh Downs intro (not included on the Japanese DVD). Williams' release also had a vintage 18-minute documentary about Karel Zeman. -- John Black
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