The Mysterious Island (1941)

A USSR production, this historical action adventure is a straightforward and mainly faithful rendering of Jules Verne’s novel of 1875. Undermined by a varying mix of production values, it’s most notable for taking Verne’s celebration of the energy and innovation of the US and subverting it into a dire warning of capitalism’s threat to communism.

The Mysterious Island, is a semi-sequel to Verne’s 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, both featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Being a Russian-language production of the Odessa Film Studio without subtitles, and not having the least command of Russian, all nuance within the film was lost on me, but the melodramatic broad strokes are clear.

A title card; please translate

True to Verne the film begins with a brief battle during the US Civil War and sees four men, a boy and a dog, escape by hot air balloon from a prison to a distant pacific island, where they battle pirates, redeem a wild man of the woods, adopt a pet ape and encounter the legendary Captain Nemo.

Captain Nemo; sleeping with the fishes

Eduard Pentslin’s only directed five features of which this was his second, and there’s nothing in his approach to filmmaking or to the material to suggest he should have directed more. His camera is too often and simply pointed at characters while they stand about in conversation, so on the rare occasions we’re treated to a screen wipe or whip pan, it’s quite alarming.

A midnight swim to recce a pirate ship is nicely staged, the subsequent shoot-out raises the spectre of excitement, and the volcano is impressive. But none of this is wildly exciting.

The novel

However the location work is strong, with the mountainous island composed of vertiginous slopes and wild crashing surf, all of which offers a much needed and welcome sense of the epic. And though I don’t know where it was filmed I do know the actors are risking life and limb in those breakers on the beach.

The acting style is perhaps best described as theatrically manly, and while there’s lots of joshing it never quite slips into full thigh-slapping panto-mode.

As the book spans several years, inter-title cards fill in time gaps in the narrative, and their use seem wildly outdated for a film arriving two years after the vivid Technicolor dream of Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz.

Stock footage is used to add colour rather than thrills or narrative, and though it was common practice for a considerable time after this movie, the monkeys and leopards which supposedly populate the island are so clearly library footage they feel as if they’re dropped in from a great height from a different continent.

In contrast to many other adaptations, the character of Jupe the orang-utan is included, and though his close-ups are inserts of a real orang-utan, actor Andrei Sova gets to monkey around in a hairy body suit among the rest of the cast.

Captain Smith: mean, moody, magnificent

Alexei Krasnopolsky is commanding and stern as Captain Smith*, leader of the balloonists, and to my mind resembles Rasputin, the supposedly degenerate ‘mad monk’ associated with the pre-revolutionary Russian royal family.

*Smith is named Harding in some versions of the story.

As the aged Captain Nemo, Nikolai Komissarov sports a biblical beard even more impressive than that belonging to Smith. Nemo’s advanced submarine, the Nautilus, swims very close to Verne’s description, and now submarines had dived from science fiction to science fact, the Nautilus looks ever more alien and advanced.

Of greatest interest is the subtext which twists Verne’s lauding the white male colonisation of the world into a piece of pre-Cold War anti-US propaganda, and double downs on Verne’s own apparent racism in order to do so.

The Nautilus; a craft of joy and beauty

As a determinedly militaristic score plays, the Western capitalist colonists build a thriving civilisation which includes a windmill, carts, boats and an electric telegraph.

Verne considered American expansionism a good thing, but I doubt the Russians agreed, and here American expansionism is very much portrayed as a threat. Americans are first encountered as a society at war with itself and at the end of the film the balloonists are sailing into the sunset leaving a burning paradise in their wake.

However there is a great deal of buffoonery as well and at times I was reminded of Claude Rains’ line in 1942’s classic romantic drama, Casablanca, and his description of the US ‘blundering into Berlin‘.

Central to the negative portrayal of Americans is the African American character of Neb, who in the book is a freed slave turned ‘faithful servant’ to Captain Smith. I’m unsure of the exact nature of their relationship in the film, but Neb is clearly subordinate to Smith.

According to IMDB.com, Robert Ross was an actor of African American descent who emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1928 and became ‘the first black man to become a citizen of the USSR’. Alongside Weiland Rodd, Ross was one of only two African American actors employed at Mosfilm, and was also an physical instructor at The Russian State University in Moscow.

Ross plays Neb, who true to the book, is the film’s sole non-white character, is relegated to the ‘female’ role of ‘the domestic’, and is paired with the orang-utan, Jupe*, as comic relief. Neb isn’t the only balloonist to be portrayed as a simple minded buffoon, but his presence is central to the anti-American slant of the film.

*named Joop in the novel

Neb; central to the slant of the film

Though I suspect Verne would decry any suggestion of racism in his work, his paternalist racism is evident in his treatment of Neb, and it fits easily alongside the US doctrine of Manifest destiny, the belief in the God-given superiority of the white race. The survivors of the book take the fortune bequeathed by Nemo to acquire ‘a vast domain in the state of Iowa‘.

Despite Verne being a firm Americanophile, there’s no acknowledgment this Iowan land was available to be bought as a consequence of the removal of the Native Americans to Kansas, allowing Iowa to be admitted into the Union as a state in 1846.

Some filmmakers who’ve adapted The Mysterious Island have displayed their own prejudice by dismissing or marginalising Neb as a character. And nearly all filmmakers have avoided including Jupe at all, though this is probably due more to the difficulties of animal wrangling rather than any sensitivities surrounding race.

I suggest the Russian filmmakers understood exactly Verne’s racism, and decided to use it to further their own political agenda. This version makes strong use of Neb, giving him plenty of screen time and emphasising his relationship with Jupe.

But where Verne regarded African Americans as a lesser race than white Europeans and found humour in elevating Jupe to Neb’s social equal, this film uses the Neb and Jupe comic relief double act to suggest their fellow balloonists, and therefore all Americans – and by extension all western capitalists – as one step closer to animals than the fine upstanding comrades of the USSR.

Hollywood director, D.W. Griffith, would have understood exactly what the Russian filmmakers were doing.

And no doubt ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin’s Politburo considered this a helpful message to propagate on the brink of war, as the USSR would have understood themselves to be when this film entered production, and were most definitely at war with Germany by June 1941.

This is a middling adaptation of The Mysterious Island, fascinating for Verne completists and for those for with an interest in pre-Cold War propaganda. Mostly I was left feeling a doofus for not being able to speak or read Russian.

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1929’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1951’s Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

And you can read my review of 1967’s The Stolen Airship, HERE

@ChrisHunneysett