20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, Jules Verne’s classic nautical adventure, was first published when Ulysses S. Grant was President. Eighty-five years later another general manned the White House in the steady-as-she-goes form of Dwight Eisenhower and Verne’s seaborne saga became one of THE must-see movies for kiddies of the Ike Age. Verne’s Victorian Era imaginings were brought to Technicolor life by a fellow dreamer when Walt Disney sank at least $5,000,000 into his biggest-ever live-action feature. Producing it personally, Walt delivered a 1954 whopper—“A Whale Of a Tale“—one voyage to the drive-in that pleased Dad’s almost as much as their Dodge, Buick & Oldsmobile-loads of excited offspring. A giant squid! Neato!
1866. Reports of a sea monster attacking ships generate an expedition to scour the Pacific and find out what’s behind the stories. When some spooky thing rams their vessel, three men end up in the water together: rugged harpooner ‘Ned Land’ (Kirk Douglas), cultivated ‘Professor Arronax’ (Paul Lukas) and his wry assistant ‘Conseil’ (Peter Lorre). They clamber aboard the “monster” to find it’s actually a fantastic submarine craft; they become the prisoners/guests of the brilliant and fierce ‘Captain Nemo’ (James Mason). Adventures on the ‘Nautilus’ include exploring sunken cities, dodging cannibals and battling a gigantic squid.
Kids of all ages get a world-class show, gorgeously shot in Jamaica and the Bahamas. The marvelously configured and outfitted Nautilus is one of the coolest props ever, there’s goofy humor with a trained sea lion, still-impressive special effects and a driven, ruthless but moral Nemo waging a noble crusade against warships and the arms trade, regardless of the flag they serve.
“YOU CALL THAT MURDER? Well, I see murder, too, not written on those drowned faces out there, but on the faces of dead thousands! They are the assassins, the dealers in death; I am the avenger!”
Douglas is called on to strut, manly-mate-style, rather more than needed (Kirk and ‘warmth’ are a grin too far), and Lukas is too dull to make his scientist more than a conveyer of caution and ‘reason’. Lorre is amusing as usual. Performance-wise, the movie is royally owned by Mason, who puts fire and passion into his avenger. 1954 was his banner year all around, topped by superlative work in A Star is Born. He also added a jot of respectability to the silliness of Prince Valiant and headlined a little-seen trilogy item called Charade, which he produced, co-wrote and starred in with his wife Pamela.
To keep Walt’s coffers company with the $22,900,000 gross (54’s third biggest hit) the Academy Awards granted a nomination for Film Editing, and saw that it took home—we presume to a secret lair in Disneyland—Oscars for the splendid Art Direction and exciting Special Effects: that fight with the squid was one of the 50’s most memorable ooh-ahh action sequences.
Directed by Richard Fleischer, scripted by Earl Fenton. Familiar 50s faces dot the supporting cast: Robert J. Wilke, Ted de Corsia, Carleton Young, J.M. Kerrigan, Fred Graham, Jack Pennick, Herb Vigran, Percy Helton. You are hereby advised that Charles Grodin, 18, made his uncredited debut, as a drummer boy. The sea lion was ‘Esmerelda’. Speaking of lions, let’s hear it for the special effects magicians: Harper Goff, John Hench, Howard & Theodore Lydecker, Robert A. Mattey, Albert Whitlock, Joshua Meador, Peter Ellenshaw, Ralph Hammeras, Ub Iwerks, Marcel Delgado. 127 minutes.
* Some sites harpoon the cost as a deep-sixed $9,000,000, but that seems more Tale than Scale.