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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Based on the novel of the same name by Jules Verne (and incorporating elements from his other novel, The Mysterious Island) and released by Universal Studios in 1916 after roughly a year and a half of development and production, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was directed by Stuart Paton and was unique in that it made clever use of underwater photography techniques developed by brothers Ernest and George Williamson, the creators of the "photosphere."
Shot in The Bahamas, the story begins when the U.S. government assigns the crew of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to head out to see and investigate and destroy a ‘monster' that has been spotted in the area. On board for the journey are French Professor Aronnax (Dan Hanlon), his daughter (Edna Pendleton) and a champion harpooner named Ned Land (Curtis Benton). This turns out to The Nautilus, a submarine ship designed and run by an Indian man named Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar in blackface). Nemo, on a mission of revenge we're told, rams the ship and it sinks, but he rescues Aronnax, the daughter and Land, though once he does he assures them that they will never again leave The Nautilus.
Around the same time, Lieutenant Bond (Matt Moore) and four Union army men escape from Richmond by hot air balloon and land on a seemingly deserted island only to find it inhabited by a ‘child of nature' (Jane Gail, also in blackface), a jungle woman of sorts. When Nemo learns of their arrival, he sends some supplies but also some men, while Bond attempts to civilize the jungle girl by having her dress in modern clothing. As Nemo forms of a truce with Aronnax and the others, he takes them on undersea excursions and hunting trips where oxygen tanks allow them to breath underwater. All of this ties into a man named Charles Denver (William Welsh), with ties to Nemo's past, the subject of the Captain's thirst for revenge.
While this is hardly the most faithful adaptation of Verne's work, it is a technically impressive picture given its age. The design work that went into creating both the interior and extras of the Nautilus looks great and the scenes submarine the zips around on the water, even diving at times, are seriously cool even by modern standards. Of course, the main draw in the film was and always will be the underwater sequences. These were key to marketing the film when it was first released and seem to be what the picture is best remembered for even now. This was a genuine rarity in the cinema of 1916, and on this level alone 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is historically significant for incorporating them into its narrative. These scenes are definitely interesting to watch, particularly when the cast are visited by some rather sizeable sharks during their hunting expedition (which, we're told, uses rifles powered not by gunpowder but by compressed air).
The acting is decent as well. While it is understandably odd to see two Caucasian actors playing Indian characters, the sad fact of the matter is that this was commonplace in Hollywood at the time. Holubar, as Nemo, definitely commands the screen during the scenes that he's in, the guy has got some serious screen presence.
Oddly enough, the movie adds on an addendum of sorts towards the end of the movie, taking some obvious creative liberties with Verne's source material. We won't spoil that here, as it would give away the movie's finish, but it comes across as unnecessary. Additionally, while the movie really does impress on a visual sense, there are some pacing problems here and there that could have probably been fixed by a more judicious editor. Still, the good outweighs the bad, and there's a lot to like about this remarkably creative endeavor.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea comes to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.33.1 taken from Universal Studios' own 4k restoration of a ‘35mm nitrate print' and taking up just over 23GBs of space on the 25GB disc. There are sequences here that look fantastic, and there are sequences here that are in pretty rough shape. Quite a bit of the underwater footage shows extensive print damage that clearly could not be repaired, as do some of the shots on the island where we first meet Jane Gail's character. Most of the scenes that take place above water, on the boat, on the island or in Nemo's submarine itself look quite nice, however. There's still mild to moderate print damage in these moments but for a print taken from elements well past their centennial, detail can often times really impress. Contrast is generally pretty strong, blooming occasionally, but black levels more often than not look nice here. There are no noticeable issues with compression artifacts nor is there any noticeable noise reduction or edge enhancement to complain about. All in all, this is a nice transfer of a less than perfect print but fans of older movies, silent films in particular, should have no problem with the picture quality save for a few scenes here and there.
The soundtrack is provided in 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 and it sounds beautiful. The orchestral score has a lot of very impressive depth to it and it sounds crystal clear. The levels are balanced nicely and you can make out all of the different instruments used in the music perfectly. Recreated intertitles are provided in English only.
Aside from menus and chapter selection options, the only extra feature on the disc is an audio commentary track from film historian Anthony Slide. This is a well-researched track that does a nice job of covering all the bases. Slide provides as much information as he can about director Stuart Paton (there isn't that much available, it seems) as well as the film's leads. He details Allen Holubar's life and career as well as his early death, he covers why it is that Captain Nemo is portrayed in this film as an Indian, he addresses the blackface issues in the film, offer up some interesting facts and details about the shooting schedule and the box office success of the picture, talks about the sets and props built for the movie, gives us information on the underwater work that the Williamson Brothers did for the film, fills us in on how the movie was received by critics and talks up the unusual choice to add a bit more toe Nemo's story in this movie version than what we get in Vernes' book. There are a few moments of quiet scattered about the track but for the most part, it's well-paced and very informative.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea could have been a tighter film and the addition to the ending, while interesting, feels out of place. Still, the visuals here are very impressive and there's a lot of wild creativity on display throughout the film. Kino's Blu-ray release provides a strong transfer of imperfect elements and offers a really good audio commentary track as its main extra features. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.