Archive for 20000 Leagues Under the Sea

20,000 Leagues of Their Own

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2021 by dcairns

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.

No Excuse

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2014 by dcairns


In the first film I directed, I was lucky to have a Distinguished Thespian, from whom I learned crucial stuff (“Never ask for effects, because if you do, that’s all you’ll get”). And I heard some good stories, though alas I missed a lot of them while setting up shots. I would walk in to fetch our star and catch him in the middle of a sentence like “The crookedest film I was ever in was A TOWN CALLED BASTARD.” One time I caught the line, “Of course the best films to be in, for drugs, were the Disney films.” Some surprised looks. “Because you got these cool Californian guys coming over…”

But no chemical intoxicant can really excuse this — a broken-down toy robot with the voice of Slim Pickens. I like Slim Pickens, but make him play a cute robot with sympathetic cartoon eyes and you really are thumbing my vomit button very hard indeed. Stuff like this makes you actually respect how restrained George Lucas was — his cute robot was essentially a fat bullet with legs. No anthropomorphism at all, and no voice. The audience does the humanizing.

If rampant hallucinogen abuse can’t excuse the film’s robots (Roddy McDowell voices the other one, FFS), it may at least explain the deeply bananas ending, probably the most batshit crazy ending to a kids film ever — even more disorienting than TIME BANDITS. As the heroes plunge into the titular singularity, TV director Gary Nelson spins his cast in a tumbrel, replays their dialogue at them through an echo chamber, dilates them with an optical printer and otherwise confuses the young audience, Maximilian Schell floats by in dreadlocks as if attempting a very special James Bond title sequence, seemingly mates with his hulking Gort-substitute robot henchman, then finds himself INSIDE the robot looking out, then he’s on a papier-mache promontory in heavy metal Hell — the weirdness is so extreme it even wakes composer John Barry from his movie-long slumber to offer up some swooning arpeggios, as he does.


And then it’s Heaven, which is of course far more skeletally imagined, and then there’s more normal outer space and the cast look very confused and then the movie kind of stops.

Obviously they were thinking of 2001, and obviously they weren’t able to handle the visual abstraction and so needed to show some kind of solid imagery. And their ideas were thoroughly confused. I think Professor Hawking would refute their depiction of an event horizon.


It couldn’t happen now, and it shouldn’t have happened then. But, after a movie that just recycles 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA in space with a sticky STAR WARS paste slathered over everything, an ending so batshit crazy has to be welcomed. They tried something, finally.