Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Monday, June 22, 2009

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) * * *

In 1866 Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his apprentice Conseil (Peter Lorre) are on their way to Saigon but get stuck in San Francisco by the halting of ships. Rumours of a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean have created apprehension and fear among sailors, disrupting shipping. The U.S. Government invites Prof. Aronnax to an expedition to either prove or disprove the monster's existence. One of their fellow crew mates is the cocky master harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). After months of searching, the monster strikes, ramming their frigate. Ned, Aronnax, and Conseil are thrown overboard, and watch in horror as their ship, badly disabled, is unable to rescue them.

The three drift into a strange-looking metal vessel, and realize the "monster" is a man-made "submerging boat", that seems to have been deserted. It's a fully functional submarine capable of ramming ships and sending them to the ocean floor. Inside, Aronnax goes down into the Salon, where he finds a large viewing window and sees an underwater funeral taking place. Then the submarine crew returns to their ship and capture the three castaways. The captain introduces himself as Nemo (James Mason), master of the Nautilus and a mad scientist. Wavering between genius and insanity, Nemo has launched a deadly crusade across the seven seas. He returns Ned and Conseil to the deck, but Prof. Aronnax, whom he knows from his research work, is allowed to stay. He tempts Prof. Aronnax to remain with him, but Aronnax prefers to share his companions' fate and thereby passes a test of character.

(boarding the Nautilus for the first time)
Prof. Aronnax: There is great genius behind all this.
Conseil: Yes, and great evil. Don't forget this, this is an engine of destruction.
Captain Nemo: Accept one of these cigars, professor.
Prof. Aronnax: Thank you. (he lights it) Delightful smoke. Different somehow. Havana?
Captain Nemo: Seaweed. I am not what is called a civilized man, Professor. I have done with society for reasons that seem good to me. Therefore, I do not obey its laws. Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight, tear one another to pieces. A mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here on the ocean floor is the only independence. Here I am free! Imagine what would happen if they controlled machines such as this submarine boat. Far better that they think there's a monster and hunt me with harpoons.

Captain Nemo: There's a fork on your left, Mr. Land. Or aren't you accustomed to utensils?
Ned Land: I'm indifferent to 'em.
Captain Nemo: Eat your pudding, Mr. Land.
Ned Land: I ain't sure it's puddin'. (Ned cautiously samples his "pudding") What is it?
Captain Nemo: It's my own recipe, sauté of unborn octopus.

After dinner that night, Nemo takes them all on an underwater expedition to gather supplies, and Ned tries to salvage a treasure chest from a sunken wreck, almost getting attacked by a shark. Later on, Nemo takes Prof. Arronax to the penal colony island of Rora Panthe. Nemo reveals he was once a prisoner himself, as was the crew of the Nautilus. At sunset, the Nautilus rams a munitions ship, killing the entire crew. When confronted by Prof. Aronnax, Nemo says his actions have just saved thousands from death in war, and also disclosing that this "hated nation" that had taken him prisoner, had killed his wife and son in an attempt to force him to reveal his atomic secrets.

Captain Nemo: I asked you to leave, Professor.
Prof. Arronax: You also asked me ashore, to show me man's inhumanity to man. Why? To justify this? You are not only a murderer, you are a hypocrite. The proof lies out there.
Captain Nemo: You call that murder? Well, I see murder, too. Not on those drowned faces out there, but on the faces of dead thousands! They are the assassins, the dealers in death. I am the avenger! Do you know the meaning of love, professor?
Prof. Aronnax: I believe I do.
Captain Nemo: What you fail to understand is the power of hate. It can fill the heart as surely as love can.
Prof. Aronnax: I'm sorry for you. That's a bitter substitute.

Meanwhile, Ned has found the co-ordinates of Nemo's secret island base, and has been putting messages in bottles, hoping somebody will pick these up and free him from captivity. Off the coast of New Guinea, the Nautilus gets stranded on a reef. When Ned and Conseil go ashore to collect specimens, they are chased back to the Nautilus by cannibals, who are repelled from the ship by electrical charges on the Nautilus.

Captain Nemo: The natives over there are cannibals. They eat liars with the same enthusiasm as they eat honest men.
Conseil: Cannibals! Hundreds of cannibals! Captain, Captain, scores of boats!
Ned Land: Captain, we're under attack!
Captain Nemo: Naturally, since you invaded their privacy, they have every right to invade ours.

A warship approaches, firing and striking the submarine. As the Nautilus breaks free of the reef, it descends into the depths, where it attracts the attentions of a giant squid. The electric charge fails to repel the monster, so Nemo and his men are forced to fight the creature on the surface. During the battle, Nemo is caught in one of the squid's tentacles, but Ned jumps to his rescue and saves his captor's life. This event causes Nemo to have a change of heart and share his brilliant scientific secrets with the world.

Captain Nemo: Mr. Land, you saved my life. Why?
Ned Land: That's a good question. Well, there's only one thing a fella can do when he's made a mistake as big as this.
Conseil: What?
Ned Land: Get drunk!

As the Nautilus nears Vulcania, Nemo finds the island is surrounded by warships, whose marines are converging on his hideout. He goes ashore to set a time bomb and destroy his discoveries, but when returning to the Nautilus he is struck by enemy fire and mortally wounded. After navigating the Nautilus out of Vulcania, Nemo announces he is "taking the Nautilus down for the last time." Loyal to Nemo to the very end, his entire crew declares that they will accompany their captain in death.

Prof. Arronax, Conseil, and Ned are taken by force to their cabins. Ned fights back, escapes to the now deserted bridge, and manages to surface the Nautilus--hitting a reef in the process which begins to rapidly flood the ship. After rescuing Prof. Aronnax and Conseil, the three escape in a lifeboat. In his final moments, Nemo staggers to the viewing window, collapses, and looks at his beloved ocean one last time before he dies.

Because they must escape quickly, Ned Land knocks Prof. Aronnax unconscious and carries him out when he tries to go back and retrieve his journal, which contains an account of the voyage. The companions witness Vulcania destroyed in an explosion, followed by a mushroom cloud. The shock from the explosion causes the Nautilus to begin sinking, and as it disappears beneath the waves forever, Nemo's last words to Aronnax echo: "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass. In God's good time." Prof. Aronnax's diary of the voyage is lost, and when Ned apologizes for having hit him, the Professor replies "Perhaps you did mankind a service, Ned".

This entertaining Jules Verne story of adventure under the sea was Walt Disney's debut into live-action films. It is the first sci-fi film produced by Walt Disney Pictures, as well as the only science fiction film produced by Walt Disney himself. We see the future technology that Verne dreamed up in his novel, including diving equipment and sea farming. The film's physical prowess is anchored by the Nautilus, an impressive full-scale gothic submarine complete with red carpet and pipe organ. In the era of big sets, 20,000 LEAGUES set a precedent for films shot on the water and deservedly won Oscars for art direction and special effects. An inventive film and spellbinding adventure, it has great sets, good performances, and exciting action such as a giant squid attack. James Mason is the perfect Nemo, taut and private, clothed in dark fabric that counters the Technicolor ship and the red and white shirted Kirk Douglas. Paul Lukas adds another brilliantly understated performance to his memorable career and narrates some of this movie. While Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre are hardly the Ned Land and Conseil of the Verne novel, they have wonderful chemistry and give the film considerable charm. The movie works as peerless family adventure over half a century after its production. 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is a mesmerizing masterpiece, very enjoyable from start to finish.

At the time of its release, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA was the single most expensive motion picture ever made. Ironically it would loose that distinction later the same year to another film featuring James Mason, A STAR IS BORN (1954). All of the money spent shows onscreen. Many of Disney's live-action films are fondly remembered, but few have had enduring fame or claim to be art--but this film is the exception. Although the episodic nature of the story seems a little sluggish from time to time, it remains an important milestone and one of the most influential films of its decade.

The cast also includes: Robert J. Wilke (First Mate of the Nautilus), Ted de Corsia (Capt. Farragut), Carleton Young (John Howard), J.M. Kerrigan (Old Billy), Percy Helton (Coach Driver), Ted Cooper (Mate on "Lincoln"), John Daheim (Nautilus Seaman), Jack Gargan (Reporter from The Post), Harper Goff (Minister in San Francisco Steam Packet office), Fred Graham (Casey Moore), Harry Harvey (Ticket Agent), Dayton Lummis (Reporter from The Bulletin), Eddie Marr (Shipping Agent), Laurie Mitchell (One of Ned's Girlfriends), T. Monaghan (Crewman), Gloria Pall (Blonde Girlfriend), Jack Pennick (Cannon Mate Carson), Jack Stoney (Police Detective), S. Tarnell (Crewman), Herb Vigran (Reporter for the Globe) and Esmerelda the seal. Paul J. Smith is credited with composing the original music. Earl Felton wrote the screenplay from Jules Verne's novel. Richard Fleischer directed.

Earl Felton's script deviates noticeably from the original Jules Verne book by including elements of the lesser known Jules Verne book "Facing the Flag", whose main attraction is an invention of peril which Felton re-interpreted as nuclear power rather than the super nitroglycerin Verne had envisioned. Other elements borrowed from "Facing the Flag" were Ned Land's messages in bottles and Nemo's base Vulcania, inspired by Ker Karraje's pirate hideout Buttercup Island. Among the many other changes:

* Ned Land is an unwilling passenger in both versions, but only in the film is he locked up in the brig.
* In the book, Prof. Aronnax is more deliberate about joining the original expedition than in the film.
* In the book, Ned Land is described as a man of few words, but in the film he is talkative and outgoing.
* Conseil doesn't speak in the third person, as in the book.
* Esmerelda, the trained seal, was created for the film as comic relief.
* The film's main song, "A Whale of a Tale," was also created for the film. The theme was used 19 times throughout the movie by music composer Paul J. Smith as Ned's musical motif. Al Hoffman (music) and Norman Gimbel (lyrics) composed "Whale of a Tale", however, Disney didn't list the two men in the credits of the film and this has not changed for the DVD releases.
* The Nautilus in the novel is described as being streamlined and cigar-shaped, while the Nautilus of the film is shown to be massive, looking like a cross between an alligator and shark and is capable of incredible surface speed.

Film critic Steve Biodrowski wrote that the film is "Far superior to the majority of genre efforts from the period (or any period, for that matter), with production design and technical effects that have dated hardly at all." and that it "may occasionally succumb to some of the problems inherent in the source material (the episodic nature does slow the pace), but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, making this one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made."

In May 2003 a 2 Disc DVD was released, packed with outstanding extras. It's like like a "Criterion Collection" DVD of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA at half the cost. The movie has been beautifully restored and you won't find a better Disney classic anywhere. While labeled as a "Special Edition", this DVD doesn’t deviate in the slightest from the "Vault Disney" line of 2 Disc sets--the presentation and organization of the material and the menus are exactly the same. Both discs are held in a white alpha keepcase that is double the thickness of the standard amaray cases. A single-page chapter listing and an advertisement for MSN internet service are also kept inside. The first Disney movie made in Cinemascope widescreen, the film is represented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of about 2.55:1, and is enhanced for 16x9 televisions. This is a first-rate transfer for a very old movie, in which detail and colors are sensational.

A Dolby Digital 5.1 track is very good. The audio coming from the rear speakers mainly supports what’s going on in the front channels. The sound is very rich, with good handling of higher pitches and delivering exceptional response in the bass. There are two extras on the first Disc along with the feature. The cartoon short that originally played along with the film in theaters, "Grand Canyonscope" (6:50 minutes) stars Donald Duck as he visits the famous national park. An audio commentary is provided by film historian Rudy Behlmer, who interviews director Richard Fleischer. Enlightening information on the nature of the project covers the constraints from shooting during the era of the 1950s, the complicated special effects, and the rivalry between Walt Disney and the director’s father, Max Fleischer.

Disc 2 featues bonus materials. "The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (87:37 minutes) is a feature-length look at the production of this landmark motion picture. Rudy Behlmer and Richard Fleischer come back from the audio commentary, next to actor Kirk Douglas, Roy E. Disney, photographic effects man Bob Broughton, matte painter Peter Ellenshaw, Senior Vice President of the Creative Department John Hench, stuntmen Al Hansen and Bill Stropahl, set decorator Emile Kuri’s son John Kuri, photographic techniques developer Ub Iwerks’ daughter Leslie Iwerks, collector of movie memorabilia Bob Burns, and sci-fi illustrator Vincent Di Fate. This documentary is truly an in-depth overview, discussing details on the script, the actors, the sets, the shoot, and the final release. Archival footage is always presented alongside corresponding topics. This is the most comprehensive making-of on any of the Vault Disney DVDs.

"Jules Verne and Walt Disney: Explorers of the Imagination" (16:09 minutes) brings Rudy Behlmer, Vincent Di Fate, and Bob Burns back from the previous documentary, and further insights are given from sci-fi writers Samuel R. Delany and Gregory Benford, University of California Professor George A. Slusser, and collector & editor Forrest J. Ackerman. "The Humboldt Squid: A Real Sea Monster" (7:07 minutes) takes a real-life look at the monster that attacks the Nautilus. Filmmaker Scott Cassell provides facts about the giant sea creature, and goes on to show real footage of the animal from the bottom of the sea. Cassell comments on how being amidst these creatures can be quite frightening. "Lost Treasures: The Sunset Squid" (3:16 minutes) was long thought to be destroyed. After a scrolling text puts it into context, black-and-white behind-the-scenes footage of the original version of the squid attack scene is revealed. It is set at sunset, as the title says, making the squid appear less believable than the final nighttime version.

The "Galleries" section is divided into many more sub-sections. Each gallery is a marathon of flipping through full-screen stills, instead of the thumbnail presentation found on other Disney DVDs that I prefer. "Production Stills" (422 stills) has photos of the cast and crew hard at work. Concept art, costumes, and storyboards are inside "Production Art" (253 stills). "Biographies" (70 screens) are provided for James Mason, Peter Lorre, Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, and Richard Fleischer. Posters, lobby cards, publicity posters, and merchandise are kept in "Advertising" (139 stills). "Documents" (244 stills) has shooting schedules, call sheets and notes on the movie from Harper Goff to a magazine editor. A "Screenplay Excerpt" (11 stills) is taken from the climax, and gives the option of viewing the completed scene after reading. All this adds up to over 1,100 stills. "Production Gallery" (3:23 minutes) is a slideshow of select photos from the aforementioned still frame gallery. "The Musical Legacy of Paul Smith" (10:37 minutes) is a featurette on the film's composer. Richard Sherman and Alexander Rannie shed light on Smith’s career and the work he did for Disney, and give their thoughts on the music itself. "Touring the Nautilus" (5:21 minutes) dissects a model of the submarine and uses photos of the actual set to show us around. "Storyboard-to-Scene Comparison" (7:02 minutes) is self-explanatory, using a split screen to show storyboards next to segments from the film, particularly an underwater diving sequence and the squid attack.

A welcome addition is "Monsters of the Deep" (6:38 minutes), a clip from a 1955 episode of the Disneyland TV anthology series, in which Walt Disney introduces Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre, who show off storyboards, sets, and some movie clips. "Movie Merchandise" (9:05 minutes) features collectors Larry & Paul Brookes. "Unused Animation" (3:02 minutes) exhibits a lot more material than what finally ended up in the movie. More footage shows up in "Trims" (8:59 minutes)--several silent, behind-the-scenes snippets that Walt was planning to show on his TV show, but were unused. Then there's the lengthy original Theatrical Trailer (4:33 minutes). "Audio Archives" takes us to a jukebox. Available for playing are three Radio Spots (2:37 minutes), looping session audio in "Peter Lorre’s ADR Tracks" (6:13 minutes), and recordings for "Captian Nemo’s Organ Music" (5:21 minutes). The last bonus is a signature to all "Vault Disney" DVDs: "Disney Studio Album" (4:08 minutes) is a rapid-cut montage of the many events at the mouse house in 1954. Film, television, and theme parks are glimpsed at in this closing featurette.

On January 6, 2009, Disney announced that a remake entitled "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Captain Nemo" was being planned with McG attached to direct. It will be his next directorial project after "Terminator Salvation". Serving as an origin story for the central character, Captain Nemo, and apparently having little to do with Verne's novel, it was written by Bill Marsilli and Justin Marks was brought on to do a rewrite. It will be produced by Sean Bailey with McG's Wonderland Vision and Sound.

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