20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

‘I have done with society for reasons that seem good to me. Therefore, I do not obey its laws.’ – Captain Nemo

First off, I would like to state that this review was a joint effort.  Thanks Dad!  It would be silly to know a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fan and not utilize their wealth of information…

After Treasure Island and Robin Hood rolled out of the Disney studios in the early 1950s, another live action adventure would not be far behind them.  Though originally intended to be an animated feature, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (based on the novel by Jules Verne), after much storyboarding, was put into production as a live action feature.  This is the 2nd Cinemascope film ever made, took 2 years to make and wound up at $9 million.  This is one of Disney’s hidden treasures, which almost got the Disney Studio closed down, and which also apparently never made any money…

The Story

At the start of the movie, curtains go up to give the feeling of being in a theatre.  An elaborate copy of the novel appears on the screen and opens to a page that tells of a sea monster that is menacing shipping in the year 1868.  Next, a steam ship is seen sailing on a calm evening sea.  The camera pans down to show a monstrous shape surrounded by a green glow, rising from the depths of the sea and heading for the ship at a great speed.  A large explosion suggests that the ship has been destroyed.

The scene then switches to San Francisco harbour, where three of the principle characters are introduced; Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), a harpooner, immediately gets involved in a western salon-style fist fight for no logical reason.  Meanwhile, French Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his apprentice Conseil (Peter Lorre) are trying unsuccessfully to find a ship to take them home.  Approached by a government official, the French pair are persuaded to join an American warship that is setting out on an expedition to prove or (preferably) disprove the existence of the monster that is causing such havoc with the nation’s shipping.  Ned Land also joins the expedition-to hopefully kill the monster if it can be found.

Whilst in search of the monster, there are a few false alarms, such as the sightings of whales and dolphins.  They finally give up searching for the mysterious creature.  Ned celebrates in the form of song.  His singing causes a ship to blow itself up in the distance.  Well, actually, a ship just blows up, causing them to believe that something struck it, possibly the sea creature.  Sure enough, the creature’s menacing shining lights are soon seen in the distance.  We never really see much of the creature other than the very top of it and its gleaming ‘eyes’ for a good while into the film.  This adds to the mystery of what it might be.  The warship fires at the monster which attacks their ship, and unfortunately, Ned’s harpoons are no match for its tough outer shell.  The creature strikes the ship a glancing blow, causing the Professor and Conseil to go overboard, and while they are swimming, looking for safety, the monster emerges out of the mist, looking a lot less frightening without its menacing lights aglow.  Finally, realising that it is a man-made craft, they climb aboard, searching for signs of life, but to no avail.  Pierre discovers a large room in the submarine with beautiful red velvet seats, matching curtains, and a grand organ taking centre stage at the end of the room, with reflections of the sea coming in through the window and adding a mystifying characteristic to the silent submarine.

Ned is found floating along on one of the warship’s boats, and ends up joining Conseil and the Professor on the submarine.  Aronnax, fascinated by the underwater view through the saloon window, spots the submarine’s crew performing an underwater burial ceremony, complete with coral cross.  It isn’t long before the Professor and Conseil are spotted through the window by the crew, who capture them as they try to escape in Ned’s boat.  We then meet Nemo (James Mason), captain of the submarine that we now learn is called the Nautilus.

The three companions end up as guests/prisoners of Nemo’s, who by his own admission is not a civilised man.  After an eventful meal where we meet the remaining main character, Esmeralda the sea-lion, Ned’s best buddy, there is an expedition to collect food which provides an opportunity for some spectacular underwater photography.  There is also the obligatory tour of the submarine and its (apparently) atomic power plant. 

Aronnax, Ned and Conseil have different attitudes to Captain Nemo and their captivity on the Nautilus.  Ned has several confrontations with Nemo, and is desperate to escape.  Aronnax is overwhelmed by Nemo’s genius, and makes it his mission to persuade the captain to share his secrets with the rest of the world.  Nemo at first refuses, saying that such power in the wrong hands could destroy the world.  Conseil, at first, remains faithful to his professor.  Nemo gradually opens up to Aronnax, revealing some of his past.  At one point, he takes the professor ashore, to show him gangs of slaves loading nitrates into a ship-a cargo used for the manufacture of explosives.  Nemo reveals that he was once one of those slaves, before escaping and setting up a base on the island of Vulcania.  The Nautilus lies waiting for the nitrate ship to sail, and when it does, it attacks it, ramming the ship at full speed.  The ship sinks and explodes-watched by Aronnax, Ned and Conseil through the Nautilus’ window.  Aronnax is furious with Nemo, calling him a murderer and a hypocrite.  Nemo defends himself, calling himself ‘the avenger’, and saying that those on the ship were the real dealers in death.  In his mind, by preventing that cargo from reaching its destination, he has in fact saved hundreds of lives.  His actions are, in modern terms, those of a terrorist.

The Cast

It is hard to imagine anyone else but James Mason as Captain Nemo after watching this film.  He lives and breathes the role, perfectly portraying the mysterious and questionably villainous captain.  Kirk Douglas’ portrayal of the outspoken, down-to-earth Ned Land is also wonderful, providing comic-relief in an atmosphere which needs a little lightning from time to time.  Conseil as played by Peter Lorre, is the voice of reason, though torn between the beliefs of the Professor and the thoughts of Ned.  Paul Lukas portrays a perfect vision of a professor of this period of time.  He is intrigued by Nemo, and in a way they are similar through their fascination with knowledge; however the professor is much more civilized than the captain.

The Production

So 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, may not be one of the most famous Disney movies, but the Nautilus is instantly recognisable, even if you don’t know exactly what it is!  In fact, there were several different models of the submarine used for filming, including 20ft, 11ft and 6ft models, as well as a model of the fin of the Nautilus which was attached to a real submarine, for shots showing only that part of the vessel sticking out of the water.  Along with these outer elements of the submarine, a 150ft deck of the Nautilus was also made for shooting interior scenes.  A ‘squeezed’ version of the Nautilus was also created, to be filmed with a standard lens, and still be seen normally when projected in Cinemascope.  Production Designer Harper Goff designed the Nautilus, and said that it was basically a cross between an alligator and a shark, and was powered by nuclear energy, not by electricity as in the novel.  The Nautilus was furnished by Emile Kuri, who also designed Walt’s apartment at Disneyland.  The organ used in the film was bought for a mere $50, and can be found in the Haunted Mansion attraction in Disneyland, being played by a ghost!  The curved couch from the Nautilus can also be seen in the library set of the Haunted Mansion movie.

Harper Goff also designed the special diving suits which were worn by crew members when shooting underwater scenes.  They were essentially scuba diving suits, made to look like diving suits.  They had metal helmets which weighed 150lbs, and had tanks on their backs which contained enough air for 1 hour of filming.  Underwater shots were particularly difficult to shoot, especially as, when the crew all stood on the sea bed, the silt was stirred up and everything became too cloudy to film.  They got round this by putting carpet (that’s right, carpet) on the surface, preventing them from kicking up any of the floor.  Another difficulty they faced was that they were using only natural light to film, and weeks of cloudy weather put the film behind schedule.

A total of 3 lots were used for filming: Burbank, Universal and 20th Century Fox.  Of course, filming was expensive, with the original estimate at $2.7 million and the final total reaching $9 million.  It took them two years to complete the film.

The part of the film where we see Ned and Conseil trying to escape from natives on an island was shot in Jamaica, and there is a lot of footage of the crew, including Walt himself filming here.  If you look closely as the natives run towards the camera, you may see that one of them has ‘Eat at Joe’s’ written on his head…Another man’s head says ‘I ate Joe’.

Whale of a Tale is a fairly well-known song, especially in the world of Disney fans.  However, Kirk Douglas does not believe that he had a very good voice, but admits that he thought he did at the time.  Whilst this is the only song in the film, the main theme of the film is dramatic yet delicate and adventurous.

The Squid Attack


Of course, I don’t want to give the whole story away; however, one of the most famous scenes in the film is the dramatic squid attack.  This scene was undoubtedly the hardest scene for the crew to film.  There were two takes of the scene; the first take was ruined by a terribly unrealistic squid and a very calm sky, rather than a terrifying squid and a thunderous sky.  The cables which held up the tentacles kept breaking, and the crew started to see that the take wasn’t going to work.  More importantly, this scene had a lot of the film’s budget tied up, and filming it again was going to be very costly.  Everyone working on the film was gravely concerned not only for the future of the movie, but for the future of the Disney Studios, because of the vast amounts of money that were being sucked up solely on that feature.  Thankfully, the extra money was secured after financial backers were shown some shots from the film, and convinced that it would be a success at the box office.  When the second squid scene was filmed, the sky was made darker, taking place at night in a thunder-storm, which meant that the squid would be seen only in flashes of lightning.  However, this was not completely necessary, as a new 2 ton squid had been built, with longer tentacles giving the effect of snakes, as well as different methods being used to move them.  So much water was used on this scene that the entire set was flooded, pouring out into the lot, with even Mr. Disney himself having to don his wellingtons!


The Theme Parks

Disney’s Fantasmic was originally to have a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea sequence which would include a Nautilus on one barge, a squid on another, and presumably a fight between the two!  CinéMagique in Disneyland Paris also missed out on a taste of 20k, when the clip was not included in the final cut, and was instead replaced by a clip from The Hunt for Red October.   20,000 Leagues Under the Sea also found its way into the Disney theme parks.  Walt Disney World’s Fantasyland welcomed the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction in October 1971 as a sister attraction to the Submarine Voyage in Disneyland.  This ride lasted until 1994, and is very much missed by 20k fans and Walt Disney World purists.  In Tokyo DisneySea’s Mysterious Island, which is based on the storytelling of Jules Verne, and is home to the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea dark ride.  In Disneyland Paris’ Discoveryland, which is based on the style of science-fiction writers (Jules Verne in particular) you can find Les Mystères du Nautilus, a walkthrough attraction, allowing you to tour the Nautilus for yourself, including a glimpse of the menacing squid!  Disneyland in Anaheim also housed the sets from the film from 1955-1964.

The Verdict     

If you made it this far, well done!  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is certainly a film that you should see a least once, as it is a Disney classic.  I am reviewing this film from the 2 disc DVD edition, which contains as much information as anyone could wish to know about the film (unless you are a die-hard fan of course!).  Let us look forward to the Blu-Ray!

I give this movie 5 Tinks.


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