Thursday, August 29, 2019

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: A Review


This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film and Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Today's star is Paul Lukas.

I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and fell in love with the book, though Jules Verne did keep going on about the minutia of fish. Pages and pages about fish to where after a while I skipped all those pesky pescatarian descriptions and moved on to the actual story. It's to where I remember the Disney film adaptation more than the book, apart from all those fish. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a brilliant film and a personal favorite, mixing adventure and humor with some strong thoughts about the state of man.

It's 1868 and the world is captivated by stories of a 'sea monster' roaming the oceans and taking down many ships. Some sailors believe these fish stories but others don't. French Professor Aronnax (Lukas) is willing to keep an open mind, but his assistant Consiel (Peter Lorre) is more dubious. They, however, agree to go on a U.S. Naval expedition to search, with the government bringing another passenger, Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), a master harpooner.

They do find 'the monster' that does take down the ship, but the three survivors discover that it is not a living thing. Instead, it is something unheard of: a submarine craft called the Nautilus, where Captain Nemo (James Mason) rules unquestioned. Nemo is impressed by Professor Aronnax but dismissive of Consiel and especially Land, who goes out of his way to antagonize him.

Aronnax is conflicted: fascinated by the technological advances Nemo has uncovered particularly when it comes to the seas but appalled at Nemo's hatred towards humanity and ease with which he sinks ships and kills men. Land and Consiel join forces to find someone to rescue them, leading to a fiery conclusion for all involved.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea balances family-friendly action/adventure with surprising intellect and even some humor and comedy. Children can find amusement at the double-act of Land and Consiel or the hijinks with Nemo's pet seal Esmeralda. Adults can think on the morality of Nemo's actions, on whether he was right or wrong or even a mix, a question that Aronnax keeps going back to.

Visually it is breathtaking, with its two Academy Awards in Set Design and Visual Effects more than worthy. Looking at it now at times some of the effects may be a bit dated, but in other respects 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea astonishes. A climatic fight with a massive squid is thrilling, and while the Nautilus may be a model, it's a damn good one. It looks so real that one would have thought Walt Disney had built an entire submarine and then sent them to his theme parks.

We also get breathtakingly beautiful underwater images when the Nautilus crew explores and even cultivates the ocean depths for food. The sets too, particularly the Nautilus interior, are also elegant.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea allows for a surprisingly light side to Kirk Douglas. Douglas was not known for comedy or light entertainment but in the film he's quite adept at being charming, even funny. Douglas' Land is still an action lead: fighting physically and verbally with nearly everyone, especially Nemo. At times he does come close to letting his all-out anger erupt.

Image result for 20 000 leagues under the sea movie sealHowever, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea also allows Douglas to have a little fun. His scenes with the pet seal are a delight, showing Douglas as a bit of a lovable scamp. Douglas even belts out a delightful tune, A Whale of A Tale, showing a nice and rarely tapped comic manner with a humorous song.

Douglas also works well with Lorre, who like Douglas would seem an odd choice for such a family project. However, with his sad eyes and meek manner Lorre was equally delightful as Consiel, doing what he thought right for the Professor even when the Professor didn't think so. He and Douglas make a wonderful double-act, down to adopting a routine where Ned would mess what hair Consiel had one way only to have Consiel return it to how it was when Ned left.

Lukas was the moral and intellectual center of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, so his Aronnax had to be a little more on the serious and stoic side. Professor Aronnax was not about to burst into A Whale of A Tale anytime soon. However, Lukas' role was just as important as the action star Douglas or the somewhat comic relief of Lorre. He is where the audience should be: simultaneously fascinated and appalled by Nemo's actions. At times Aronnax seems to think the Sun rises and falls on Nemo, while at other times he cannot accept Nemo's indifference to individual lives. Like Nemo, Aronnax is an intellectual, but unlike Nemo he has a code that will not bend.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea may be James Mason's best-known role. It is also I think one of his finest as the mad Captain Nemo, one who is in turns snobbish but wise. He berates Ned for going after treasure when they were sent to find food on a sunken island, noting that genuine treasure is "a sound mind and a full belly".  Mason's Nemo is in turns genius, elegant and completely bonkers. He brings Nemo's rage along with his passion and wisdom for the ocean. It is a fully-formed performance.

It is a massive credit to director Richard Fleischer that despite the episodic nature of the film he kept things flowing well and got great performances out of his cast. Paul Smith's score is eerie and haunting, echoing the otherEarl Felton's adaptation also managed to keep things flowing despite a two-hour running time. In hindsight one of Ned Land's lines as he attempts to escape a sinking Nautilus could have been revisited.

"Let me out of this glory hole!" Ned shouts. AY DIOS MIO!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of my favorite films, and I am so happy I got a chance to revisit an old friend. It is A Whale of a Tale, fun, exciting, a bit funny and never failing to thrill and entertain.


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