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Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

This classic Disney movie adaptation of Jules Verne’s famous novel (released in 1954) is quite an achievement, a film far superior to the majority of genre efforts from the period (or any period, for that matter), with production design and technical effects that have dated hardly at all. Even more amazing, for a Disney production, is the level of complexity in the characters, especially in James Mason’s portrayal of Captain Nemo. Kudos also to Earl Fenton’s script for condensing Verne’s loosely structured tale into something resembling a dramatic plot.

The novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is generally considered to be Verne’s masterpiece. The story follows Professor Arronax, his servant, and harpooner Ned (more or less recreating the triumvirate of professor, faithful servant, and reluctant traveling companion from Verne’s earlier work, Journey to the Center of the Earth) as they are imprisoned aboard the Nautilus, a submarine that has been mistaken for a sea monster and which has been destroying the various whaling vessels that have tried to “kill” it. The Nautilus is commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo (whose adopted name is Latin for “no one”), who has withdrawn from the society of humankind, preferring to live in a world under the sea, where his technological genius enables him to achieve feats beyond the capabilities of whole nations. (As he responds when Arronax upbraids him for making decision not in accordance with decent civilized society: “I am not what you call a civilized man! I have broken with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right to assess. I, therefore, do not obey its laws, and I advise you never to allude to them before me again!”)

As with Journey, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues succumbs somewhat to the flaws symptomatic of its era. At a time when books were the closest thing to “virtual reality”—a way to transport readers into another world, where they had never seen—the amount of detail lavished on descriptions of places and on the minutia of travel to diverse settings separated by large distances, can be quite wearying for modern readers. In effect, the book is a fictionalized version of a travelogue, telling the reader when and where the narrator has been, and what he saw while he was there.

Much time is spent describing the wonders of the nautical world in which the story is set, including lots of didactic material meant to educate the reader about ocean life. Fortunately, there are also numerous episodic set pieces that add excitement and adventure (for example, the famous battle with the giant squid), but what truly makes Leagues interesting is Captain Nemo, easily Verne’s most memorable creation. On a superficial level, the novel (at least in its English translation) seems almost as plotless as Journey, but there truly is a story of sorts, and it all has to do with unraveling the mystery of the anonymous undersea Captain.

The various adventures seem to be Nemo’s way of impressing Aronnax, a scientist who can appreciate what the captain has accomplished, even if the professor is not entirely ready to break permanently with the world of land. But all the while, Arronax is trying to unravel the mystery of who Captain Nemo really is and why he is in the habit of sinking ships that are pretty much incapable of harming the Nautilus.

The mystery is never really solved in the original novel. Verne had planned to reveal Nemo as a Polish aristocrat whose family had been killed when his family was invaded by Czarist Russia. For political reasons (Russia and France were on good terms at the time), Verne’s publisher convinced him to drop this element. All that remains in the published text is the portrait of a family whom we can presume to be dead. (Later, in Mysterious Island, Verne revealed that Nemo was from India, where his family had been slaughtered by British colonialists.)

Earl Felton screenplay for the film had to condense Verne’s lengthy narrative down to a manageable level. The script also laid the story out in a way that was easy to understand. In his first scene with Aronnax (Paul Lukas), Captain Nemo (James Mason) pretty much lays out his entire rational for living under the seas (since his family was killed in war, he’s dedicated himself to destroying the weapons of war). Although this interpretation adds some sympathy to the character, Nemo is portrayed as someone who has carried his ideal to dangerous extremes and is therefore to some extent seen as the villain. Thus, whereas the film is about the wonders of the ocean deeps, with a loose series of incidents gradually giving us hints into Nemo’s psyche, the film becomes a story about a “prison break” (in the words of director Richard Fleischer), with Ned (Kirk Douglas) and Conseil (Peter Lorre) conspiring to rescue the professor from Nemo. Ned, in effect, becomes a fairly conventional machismo hero, the common-sense counterbalance to the appealing yet corrupt scientific mind of Nemo and the (perhaps naïve) mind of Professor Arronax, who is in some sense “seduced” by Nemo’s plans.

Film also modernizes the method of propulsion aboard the Nautilus, which seems to be nuclear powered (in the book it ran on galvanism – i.e., electricity). The film Nautilus does not resemble Verne’s description, which suggested a vessel with a smooth surface, resembling a giant torpedo. In the movie, we get a wonderfully Victorian-looking vessel that genuinely seems to have been bolted together using the available technology of its day; it’s one of the most memorable screen creations ever in the annals of cinefantastique.

Whatever the changes, the 1954 film stands (or, more to the point, swims) on its own as a fine example of what a Hollywood studio can achieve when all the departments are working at peak performance: sets, special effects, and photography are all excellent, combining on the screen like an artist’s paints on a canvas, to create a continual stream of astounding images that truly convey an imaginative “sense of wonder.” 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may occasionally succumb to some of the problems inherent in the source material (the episodic nature does slow the pace), but the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses, making this one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Directed by Richard Fleischer. Screenplay by Earl Fenton, based on the novel by Jules Verne. Cast: James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre

Copyright 2004 Steve Biodrowski

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.