Archive for November 5, 2021

Ned Land Ahoy

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2021 by dcairns

So, first Lana Wood finally confirms the rumours of her sister Natalie’s account of being raped by Kirk Douglas. I’d long been inclined to believe this rumour, not religiously or anything, it just seemed likely to be true based on Douglas’ character as he presented it himself. “I didn’t become a nice guy until after my stroke,” he said. His memoir is a saga of sexual conquests, with a meaningless anecdote about Wood as a young girl dropped in for no comprehensible reason, right before he tells us about his affair with Evelyn Keyes, a married woman at the time. So, even though Dennis Hopper was one source for this story (“Not a reliable witness” according to a judge who heard his testimony in an unrelated case), I found it credible. There didn’t seem any reason for inventing it.

It was, however, a coincidence that led us to watch the 1916 version of 20, 000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, in whose remake Douglas would star forty-eight years later. And we didn’t know, going in, that the film’s plot would eerily turn on a whole succession of fate-worse-than-death tropes. Kind of strange.

The film is available — FINALLY! — from Masters of Cinema as centrepiece of their Early Universal Vol. 2 box set. As one might expect from its being a very early feature film, it’s a mixture of the surprisingly skilled and the clunkingly naive. The blame for the bad and the credit for the good belongs to the film’s director and writer, Glaswegian Stuart Paton. His script is pretty terrible — he mashes up Verne’s novel with its sequel, Mysterious Island, resulting in two lots of heroes who never interact, dividing the action between them, slowing narrative development to a crablike sidewise crawl and depriving most of his multitudinous heroes of anything dramatic to do. Ned Land, “prince of harpooners,” the Kirk Douglas character, ricochets a single spear off the Nautilus’ hull and then troubles us no more, except as a face in the crowd. When things get too slow, Paton adds an attempted sexual assault or three to spice things up. While the Kirk Douglas news story may have subconsciously inspired our viewing of the film, only the long arm of coincidence or synchronicity can account for this persistent theme of toxic masculinity.

On the other hand, his filming is often quite sophisticated for the period. The Williamson Brothers provided the production with special reverse periscopes for filming underwater, the full-sized Nautilus upper portions, and the biggish miniature for subsurface action, are impressive. As are some of his angles, such as a startling top-shot of Indians playing their tom-toms (!).

The only cast members to make much of an impression are Allen Holubar as Nemo, and Jane Gail as A Child of Nature, both in brownface, both fairly terrible. Gail goes Cavorting around the woodlands in a permanent state of pixilation: “Being a child of nature seems a lot like just being drunk,” Fiona observed. Nemo, coated in shoe polish with vivid white eyelashes, looks simultaneously exactly like Santa Claus and exactly like a Woodsman from Twin Peaks season 3. Never not disturbing. The idea of either figure being in charge of a submarine is somehow deeply wrong. In fairness to Holubar, one never suspects him of being in his early thirties, or of being about to drop dead, both of which he was. One never suspects him of being an Indian submariner either.

The film is very worth seeing — “dated,” lavish, loopy, sophisticated and primitive. If Paton had any idea of narrative structure it would be a lot more watchable than it is, but it piles on enough spectacle and absurdity and innovation — there are flashbacks and dream sequences and giant sets as well as the aquatic footage — to be consistently surprising.

I may have to see more work from my crazy countryman — Kim Newman in the extra features suggests THE HOPE DIAMOND MYSTERY, another Indian-themed epic with Boris Karloff in one of his early Asian roles.