Thursday, April 21, 2011

Classics Revisited: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

(1954) Directed by Richard Fleischer; Written by Earl Felton; Based on the Novel by Jules Verne; Starring: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre; Available on DVD

Rating ***** 

What’s It About?

It’s the year 1868.  Multiple warships are being lost under mysterious circumstances.  Rumors abound about a giant sea monster that’s singlehandedly (Or would that be singletentaclely?) responsible for the disasters.  The esteemed French professor Aronnax is invited by the United States government to accompany one of their warships on a tour of the South Seas, in an attempt to uncover the secrets behind the missing vessels.  His quest eventually leads him directly to the cause, the enigmatic Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus.

James Mason steals the show as Captain Nemo, the original eco-terrorist.  His experiences with men and their destructive ways have left him bitter and cynical, resulting in all-out war on those who would create and distribute weapons.  The only love that he feels is for the ocean, which he now calls home.  In a career that spanned decades and was distinguished by numerous iconic roles, Captain Nemo stands out as one of Mason’s most memorable portrayals.  Mason endows Nemo with a nuanced combination of sophistication, complexity and obsessive conviction.  He refuses to be cast in the stereotypical villain mold, with his morally/ethically ambiguous vendetta against warmongers spurred on by a tragic past.

Kirk Douglas plays the aptly named Ned Land, providing an earthy contrast to the genteel, scholarly countenance of the other main characters.  Land is elemental, practically a force of nature; grounded firmly in black/white thinking and unencumbered by any notions of ambiguity.  His desire to escape from the Nautilus is as singular as Nemo’s desire to wreak vengeance against all who would oppose him.  He doesn’t pause to reflect on his actions, or consider the consequences.  When challenged by Captain Nemo about his refusal to use a knife and a fork at the dinner table, he proclaims that he’s indifferent to them. 

There’s also some fine supporting work by Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre, as professor Aronnax and his middle-aged assistant Conseil, respectively.  Truth be told, Lorre is a wee bit over the hill for his part, but that scarcely seems to matter as he lends a subtle comic touch and wit, interplaying nicely with Douglas’ Ned Land.  In fact, I’d probably never argue with the casting choice of Peter Lorre in anything.

Since this is a 50s era Disney film, the filmmakers felt obligated to insert an extraneous musical interlude.  We’re treated to Kirk Douglas’ musical stylings as he sings “Whale of Tale.”  I cannot comment about whether or not this is a good thing, but this is another tune that you will be unable to exorcise from your skull for days.  There’s also a cute cigar-chomping seal onboard the Nautilus, presumably to keep the kiddies in the audience entertained.  These are just a couple of whimsical diversions in an otherwise thoughtful, sometimes somber picture.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

The 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is a reflection of the technological advances of the mid-20th century, as well as the 19th century.  It’s no small coincidence that the film was released the same year that the first nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus, was launched.  One of the central messages of the film is that our capacity to create is hobbled by our inclination to destroy.  This theme has been repeated countless times, but it bears repeating.

The Nautilus itself is a thing of beauty, and virtually deserves its own billing.  Its Victorian tech design set the standard for steampunk long before anyone ever invented the word “steampunk.”  Everything looks functional, down to the last rivet; nothing seems out of place.  The level of detail is astonishing, from the submarine’s interior to the diving suits.  The Nautilus clearly appears to have come out of a past era, even though it represents technology far beyond the grasp of late 1800s engineers.

Although the filmmakers took more than a few liberties with the source material, this remains the quintessential Jules Verne film.  There has never been another film before or since that captured the look of Verne’s descriptions with such a meticulous attention to detail.  Some adaptations have been fairly good (First Men in the Moon, Mysterious Island), but most did not come close to Fleischer’s visualization of a Jules Verne novel.  20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a vast improvement on the adequate 1916 silent version, or the mediocre made-for-television versions that have popped up over the years.  Once again, there is talk about bringing 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea to the big screen again, but it’s doubtful that any new filmmakers will improve upon this version (CGI submarine and squid, anyone?).

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is the serendipitous product of the rarest of moments when big budget and big ambitions met to create a superior film.  It’s also a reminder that great movies and big budgets are not always mutually exclusive – something that’s easy to forget, considering the typical sub-standard output from the Hollywood schlock factory.  It’s also one of the few films that still captures my imagination as a grown up, keeping me as entranced as my first Wonderful World of Disney viewing as a kid in the 70s.  Above all, that is why it remains one of my favorites today.


  1. I watched this film for the first time a few months ago as part of my Movies by the Numbers posts I was doing last Oct-Dec. I stopped the posts at 50, though, so I never did end up writing a review for this film. You've written a good one here.

  2. Thanks Chip! Sorry my reply is a little belated. This one's a childhood favorite; dated in a good way.


    1. He did, indeed! Glad to hear this film inspired a career. :)