20,000 Leagues of Their Own

Inspired by the Karel Zeman documentary we didn’t watch a Zeman film but instead looked at Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. First time I’ve made it through the thing, more or less, without drifting off. And yet, it’s not THAT boring.

It’s an impressive technical feat — everything they need to do, they pull off, and Bob Mattey’ giant squid is a wow. No wonder they brought him out of retirement to do Bruce the shark in JAWS. Quick! What was Richard Fleischer’s lawyer’s name? If we knew that, we would know what the squid should be called.

Melvin? Ken? Diablo?

Jules Verne’s episodic, meandering novel has given the adaptors some trouble — scenarist Earl Felton had written a couple of LONE WOLF movies (yay!) and a few small-scale works for Richard Fleischer, including the fantastic THE NARROW MARGIN, and suddenly he’s charged with penning this undersea epic which never had much of a plot. Once the protagonists are taken prisoner by Captain Nemo (James Mason) there’s nothing to do except wander around the magnificent Victorian sub, and go for the occasional jaunt. It all looks great but there’s no dramatic ticking clock to say anything in particular needs doing.

It’s interesting that Nemo is an ambiguous character and the fellow most sympathetic to him, Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) is also most sympathetic to us. No strong decision seems to have been taken as to who Peter Lorre is playing, so the film’s best actor is somewhat rudderless, although as Fiona pointed out it’s kind of nice to see him playing somebody basically nice. And then there’s Ned Land, whaler and troilist, an appalling lout-hero, ably personated by Kirk Douglas, giving it both knees as usual. This seems to connect somehow to the Harryhausen/Juran FIRST MEN IN THE MOON — both feature delightful Victorian scifi vehicles (see also Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE) and thuggish heroes contrasted with appealing but powerless intellectuals. The Harryhausen movie actually made this WORK, though. (And this almost brings us back to Zeman, since his BARON PRASIL begins with a modern cosmonaut meeting Munchausen on the moon, much like FIRST MEN’s NASA opening, drafted by Nigel Kneale.)

THE BLACK HOLE, it’s been pointed out, is Disney’s unofficial remake of LEAGUES — Maximilian Schell even borrows James Mason’s beard (well, he had no further use for it) — to the extent of stealing the maelstrom from Verne, which doesn’t appear in the movie, and putting it front and centre and calling it a black hole. Where LEAGUES is meandering, though, HOLE is violently incoherent, though it does have an insane psychedelic/religiose ending which elevates it to the category of something or other that happened.

This must surely have been storyboarded to within an inch of its life but, curiously enough, Fleischer’s compositional genius isn’t much in evidence. I guess it’s his first Scope film.

Asides from the actors named above, the movie has one other favourite figure, Percy Helton, who turns up at the start as a salty sea-dog, looking less grotesque than usual in a beard of his own. He should’ve kept it, or vice versa. It’s one of those no-moustache Irish jobs, which usually make people look worse (Lincoln pulled it off, sorta), but dear Perc has the kind of face you can’t disimprove upon, so he ends up looking quite cute — from goblin to garden gnome.

8 Responses to “20,000 Leagues of Their Own”

  1. Fiona Watson Says:

    As we were watching this, I mused on the idea that if Conrad Veidt hadn’t died on a golf course in 1943, he might have made a great Professor Aronnax (teamed up with Peter Lorre again!), but then I mused some more and realised he would have been too interesting, which would have unbalanced the film. So Paul Lukas it is then.

  2. If Veidt had been available, I’d like to think that he might have been cast as Nemo. What a trio he, Lukas, and Lorre would have made!

  3. bensondonald Says:

    The infamous first attempt at the squid scene, salvaged and included on the DVD release:

    Somewhere out there is Disney’s Eisner-era television remake. I only remember some of the opening hour:
    — Arronax was presented as a young scientist, with a disdainful father and a sultry young stepmother setting up a different movie entirely (don’t know if they figured at all later on). He also had nightmares about drowning.
    — Ned Land seemed to be a hearty surrogate dad for Arronax.
    — Captain Nemo’s crew included his pretty Victorian daughter.
    — Nemo was Michael Caine.

    “Master of the World” is a maddening 20,000 Leagues knockoff, laughable but with clear, squandered potential for being a genuinely good movie. There, intellectual vs. he-man becomes gentleman vs. Charles Bronson. Government agent Bronson gives Vincent Price his word he won’t try to foil his plans, but does so anyway. The rival for the girl is offended by such ungallant duplicity.

    The anime series “Nadia and the Secret of the Blue Water” starts promisingly: A young girl of mysterious origins and a boy inventor meet in Paris at a turn-of-the-century exhibition, then end up prisoners of Nemo on the Nautilus. It then turns out Nemo is a space alien, trying to stop his fellows from conquering earth. Reportedly there was a mid-production decision to pad it out with additional episodes, so there are long, unfortunate digressions including a clip show framed as a karaoke night.

    “Captain Nemo and the Underwater City” offers Robert Ryan as an avuncular Nemo, the benign ruler of a Wonka-esque steampunk paradise. Instead of aggressive pacifism he and his people are just going to avoid civilization altogether. But Chuck Connors wants to escape because he’s on a mission that could end America’s Civil War. Juvenile, but oddly lavish for a mock Disney.

    “The Black Hole” trivia: It was eventually packaged with a re-release of “Sleeping Beauty”, another 70mm spectacle. The San Francisco Chronicle positioned the ad on their “adult entertainment” page, some filthy-minded ad manager evidently seeing the titles but not the artwork.

  4. Fiona Watson Says:

    Wow. Love that piece of trivia at the end. Thank you for that comprehensive rundown bensondonald and that amazing out-take. I hadn’t seen the film for decades and was blown away by the giant squid scene. I said to David as we were watching that it still stood up as a practical effect. They just had to figure out how to shoot it after the initial misfire. It’s absolutely ground-breaking. The ending of The Black Hole is one of my favourite things. Bat-shit crazy genius. When Disney did scary, they really went for it. And Daniel, YES, I would watch the hell out of your version! I can imagine Veidt bringing quite a lot of sympathy for Nemo. I love Mason, but it’s a very one note performance, but then tbh, so’s everyone else’s. As for Ned as played by Douglas, he needs a good kicking. What an asshole. Tragic to see the magnificent Lorre so comprehensively wasted, but sadly, that was the story of most of his Hollywood career.

  5. Kirk calls Peter “a sad, washed-up drunk” or some such thing in his memoir, perhaps indicating he was cast perfectly to type in this.

    Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen opts for a swarthy Nemo in a turban, following fairly clear clues in the text ignored by all other adaptors. Although I noticed with approval that Mason’s skin is somewhat dusky, rather than the pallor you’d expect from a white dude living in a submarine.

    Naseeruddin Shah plays Nemo in the lamentable movie of the comic.

    I would probably try to watch the Michael Anderson TV remake with Ben Cross (?) as Nemo: Anderson had form as a Verne filmmaker…

  6. bensondonald Says:

    I almost enjoyed TLOEG, even if it was a sanitized shadow of the comic. What killed it for me was it kept overplaying its hand: The Nautilus was too ****ing big (it filled the Thames), the mock science too ridiculous, and the CGI camera moves too impossible. It’s like they didn’t want to let you suspend disbelief. I’d compare it to comedies that get too meta and/or break the fourth wall too often, making sure you’re never vested in characters or involved in story.

    A few less visionary Verne riffs:
    — “Five Weeks in a Balloon”: Irwin Allen cheese, but you get Richard Haydn, Peter Lorre (a lovable slaver), Billy Gilbert (a sneezing sultan), Henry Daniell (a villain, of course), and a chimp. Also higher-billed Barbara Eden, Red Buttons and Fabian.
    — “In Search of the Castaways”: Disney, with nearly everything an appealing soundstage set, matte painting or miniature. Hayley Mills, Maurice Chevalier, George Sanders, and rope-climbing natives on visible wires.
    — “Island on the Top of the World”: Disney again, not based on Verne but pretending it is. An airship seeks a North Pole colony of Vikings. Stodgier than ISOTC, but the same production virtues. Mako plays an un-PC comic eskimo before going on to much better parts.
    — “The Great Race”: In the pre-race section Professor Fate flirts with steampunk via submarine, rocket car and peddle-powered airship.

  7. Verne was versatile: Les tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine seems to be the origin of that old chestnut “A depressed man hires a hitman to kill him.” In 1965, Marc Behm sold that idea to the Beatles, with Ringo as the depressed one, and then they got wind of the Belmondo film and a hasty rewrite was required… Help! was the result.

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