Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (2010)

If I thought the 2005 version was poor, then this dull, cheap and silly Syfy channel produced and action-lite adaptation is without question the absolute nadir of Mysterious Island screen adaptations.

Bermuda Triangle time-travelling

It keeps the US Civil War escape, the hot air balloon, Captain Nemo and the island, and then introduces a Bermuda Triangle time-travelling aspect when a modern jet plane crash lands.

that sucker is now nuclear

Fortunately for our heterosexual male castaways, out of the wreckage step a pair of glamorous young white women, very much inappropriately dressed for the environment, and perilous encounters with strange creatures create opportunity for romance, as well as lame moments of culture clash comedy.

giant octopus

One is named Julia Fogg, presumably in homage to Jules Verne and his creation Phileas Fogg, from Around the World in Eighty Days.

Nemo is a very white and American genial grandfather, who has put aside his grudge against the British to pursue world peace. As for his submarine the Nautilus, to paraphrase Marty McFly, that sucker is now nuclear, and lightning is harnessed to facilitate the castaways escape.

electric gun

There’s pirates, a volcano, a giant octopus and an electric gun, the last two have clearly wandered in from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But at least that suggests someone on the production team is at least passingly familiar with Verne’s work.

However there’s no stars, no dog, a minimum of not-so special effects, poor acting, dreadful dialogue, and tepid direction. Devoid of tension, excitement or sense, this is worse than the most cheap episode of Dr Who, even the Sylvester McCoy ones.

fantastical element

Amazingly, it’s clear someone involved had hopes of a sequel, or maybe a franchise or spin-off TV series, which is the easily the most fantastical element of this entire sorry enterprise.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

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

Read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

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

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Captain Nemo and the Mysterious Island (1973)

Jules Verne’s second adventure novel to feature his greatest creation, Captain Nemo, is brought to somber if reasonably faithful life in this low budget Spanish production, which swaps the action packed thrills, larger than life monsters and wild imagination of previous adaptations, for the pleasure of Omar Sharif‘s company and plenty of political commentary.

Also known as La isla misteriosa y el capitán Nemo, or simply, L’Île mystérieuse, this production is either a TV movie or a TV mini-series, depending on where it was broadcast, and relies heavily on the undimmed star wattage of it’s sole name actor, Egyptian superstar Omar Sharif.

But it’s fair to say his decline at the box office had already begun from his sixties heyday of 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, and 1968’s Funny Girl, and his best efforts are hampered by a director more comfortable and interested with ideas than with pushing Sharif‘s performance or creating dynamic action sequences.

Verne’s US Civil War adventure about escaping Union POW’s being swept to a pacific island where they experience various perils as they establish a US colony and and meet Captain Nemo survives mostly intact. Yes, the extensive colonisation of the island is skipped, but the five principal characters are all there, including the African American, Nab, rechristened from Neb in other versions. He’s not given much character or agency but at least he isn’t relegated to a domestic role as in the source novel.

The POW’s escape from the stockade takes the form of a pitched battle and is excitingly staged on an impressive scale, but is sadly not indicative of what follows. The underwater photography is fine if far from groundbreaking, and the special effects are typical 1970’s TV quality.

Unlike the novel, Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus appear very early on to hook in sci-fi fans and the casual viewer with its star turn. Though a younger and more robust Nemo than fans of the book may expect, Sharif is a dignified and fittingly regal presence and never looks less than magnificent. And of course he has the charisma to carry off the role of Nemo, even in this staid production.

Nemo initially seems dressed in Flash Gordon’s wedding outfit, but later appears more conservatively in a turban and Nehru jacket, reflecting Nemo’s true identity as Dakkar, a deposed Prince of India.

I can’t be sure if Nemo’s real identity is explained or is just alluded to by his attire, but at least this version is giving Nemo’s Indian heritage its due, rather than whitewashing the character as some other versions will later do. Yes, I’m looking at you, Michael Caine. And you, Patrick Stewart.

Nemo uses his science to save a young boy from death. Harbert Brown is played by Rafael Bardem Jr. but I can’t find any biographical information for him. Though given this show’s director is the son of Rafael Bardem, a noted Spanish film actor whose career stretched from the 1940s through the 1960s. I suspect he is some relation.

Juan Antonio Bardem co-directs with Henri Colpi, and the former was imprisoned by Spanish fascist leader General Franco for making anti-fascist films. In case you were wondering, Juan Antonio is the father of director Miguel Bardem and uncle of actor Oscar-winner and James Bond 007 villain, Javier Bardem.

Nemo and his crew wear head scarves and flowing robes which may be a nod to Sharif’s turn in David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, but it also certainly represents North Africa to the show’s Spanish audience, thus adding a layer of historical local conflict.

This version leans into the idea of the watchful Nemo not being an altogether benign presence, and allows this show to lean into the politics of Spain, then under the regime of dictator General Franco, who died in 1975.

Nemo employs electronic weaponised surveillance devices to spy on the shipwrecked POW’s, and this is reminiscent of 1967’s British avant-garde sci-fi TV series, The Prisoner, an idea also used in the 1995’s Canadian adaption of The Mysterious Island.

And this island surveillance of the shipwrecked also draws on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, whose central character, the powerful magician Prospero, spies and manipulates the behaviour of the castaways on his desert island. Later versions lean more heavily into Nemo-as-Prospero. I’m still looking at you, Patrick Stewart.

The costume department doesn’t shirk from styling the pirates in bandanas and Breton shirts, and when the action picks up the sound editor gets to be loudly expressive. It’s just a shame this decent bit of work is undermined in a lack of interest in or development of the characters.

The design of the Nautilus exterior errs towards the work of Gerry Anderson of Thunderbirds fame, which would no bad thing if the quality achieved were anything near even his weakest moments. And there’s an absence of the novel’s sojourn to a nearby island.

However there’s good location work at sea with a raft and a canoe, and Verne’s volcano is intact until it isn’t and erupts. It’s a spectacular if all too brief moment, and I assume it’s stock footage, albeit of a superior quality. That said my viewing copy was a poor transfer to digital and the colours were certainly more muted than I suspect were intended.

I’ll point out here I watched the original Spanish-language version of this without subtitles, any very basic grasp of Spanish means any exposition, nuance or sophisticated humour was pretty much lost on me, assuming it’s in there to begin with.

This sits nicely alongside BBC’s sci-fi series, Blake’s 7 by way of Mike Hodges’ 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon, in that exterior locations exploit the possibilities of local quarries, there’s plenty of stagey composition in the single camera set-ups, and the cast are all acting in capital letters. Only I enjoyed both those shows more than this middling-at-best take on Verne’s masterpiece of speculative fiction.

This is a generally dour and ponderous adaptation, not helped by the mournful and haunting soundtrack. As ever, Verne’s dog and chimp are employed to provide the meagre laughs.

Verne returned to Captain Nemo in his 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, which has been filmed several times. Read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

Read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

@ChrisHunneysett

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea {1954}

This definitive big screen big budget adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1870 science fiction novel is a handsomely-staged family adventure mostly remembered for Kirk Douglas star performance and fabulous design. Yet there’s also a surprising degree of Cold War concerns bubbling beneath the surface, making this hugely entertaining version far more interesting than most subsequent adaptations.

Running at just over two hours, the filmmakers sensibly abandon the vast majority of Verne’s self-aggrandising scientific posturing in successful pursuit of huge box office success.

Broadly faithful to the wide-eyed adventurous spirit and plot of Verne, we follow a Professor, his servant and a harpooner, who’re kidnapped at sea by the mercurial and revenge-driven submariner, Captain Nemo, and join him for several escapades onboard his submarine, the Nautilus, while plotting their own escape.

The trio were recruited by the US government in San Francisco, a reassuringly ‘Western’ opening location for the audience, before sailing to the South seas to confirm or deny the existence of a sea monster which has been sinking ships. 

The smooth but shady US recruiting agents want to to beat other nations in capturing this sea monster in order to establish and exploit any military capability it may possess. And thus the 1950’s audience is immediately plunged into an allegory of the post-war arms race with the Soviet Union.

Whereas the French writer Verne had the US government employ Professor Aronnax in order to have a compatriot hero to appeal to Verne’s home readership, here Aronnax is not only valued as a scientific advisor but his nationality offers the cover of political neutrality to a US military expedition in contested overseas territory.

This accurately reflects the use of other nation proxies to project US power and further its national interests during the then developing Cold War and establishes a degree of paranoia which the film later develops when it deploys mushroom cloud imagery. 

However while the film demonstrates the destructive power of nuclear weapons, it also offers an argument in their favour and sympathy to those who developed them. More of which later.

Peter Lorre is a wonderfully cowardly cynic as Conseil, servant to the dull Professor Aronnax, played by Paul Lukas, who’s performance suggests the Hungarian actor fully understands he’s not there to upstage the top-billed star, Kirk Douglas, who plays the two-fisted harpooner, Ned Land.

Already a household name and a double best actor nominee for 1949’s Champion, and 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Douglas perfectly understands the material, and delivers a wonderful cigar- chomping, scenery-chewing and scene-stealing performance, which screams ‘movie star’.

A role tailor-made to demonstrate his athleticism, humour, charisma and boisterous comic ability, Douglas also commits fully to the required singing and dancing, and if he’s not the greatest at either, well I doubt there was anyone on set with the authority or nerve to tell him.

It would be hard to find a scene in his career more joyous than the one where he shares a song and kiss with a pet seal, and their duet is a piece of wonder that is comic, angry and tender. If only Douglas had always been this generous to his co-stars.

And in the fight scenes you have to worry for the stunt team as the 38 year old Douglas, still six years from  playing rebellious Roman slave, Spartacus, seems determined to never pull his punches. At times he seems to be auditioning for a live action version of Popeye the sailor.

Director Robert Fleischer would re-team with Douglas two years later with The Vikings, and in a lengthy career, Fleischer would go on to make 1967’s serial killer drama, The Boston Strangler, 1973’s sci-fi conspiracy thriller, Solyent Green, 1980’s musical remake, The Jazz Singer, and 1984’s Sword-and -Sorcery sequel, Conan the Destroyer.

The mysterious Captain Nemo is revealed by turns a brilliant scientist, ruthless, an intellectual and a sympathetic victim, an ‘other’, i.e. a non-WASP, who serves his ‘guests’ ‘unusual’ food.

All this is true to Verne, but although early film incarnations of Verne’s novel recognised Nemo’s royal identity as an Indian prince, here Nemo is played by white British actor, James Mason. His other major role that year was alongside Judy Garland, in A Star is Born.

Here the template is set for subsequent interpretations to whitewash the role and those who follow in Mason’s footsteps include the very non-Indian actors, Herbert Lom, Michael Caine and Patrick Stewart.

But Mason’s character is more interesting than many later interpretations, with Nemo’s non-white otherness being coded as Jewish, and Nemo’s struggle for revenge on the British empire being substituted for the fight to use nuclear power to defend the state of Israel.

Verne’s Nemo wants revenge for the slaughter of his wife and child by the British during the 1857 Indian War of Independence, but Mason’s Nemo is a widowed state-less refugee, a survivor of slavery in a mine producing phosphate for war weapons. 

We later see the mine which is visibly intended to evoke the Holocaust of the Second World War. Nemo was sent there after refusing to divulge the secret of the power source of the Nautilus, implied as nuclear power. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the European Jewish emigre scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and its development of the first nuclear bombs, will be able to see the intended parallels.

The world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was delivered to the US Navy in 1955. Thus Nemo using nuclear power for world peace dovetails nicely with contemporary US military policy, he’s also trying to protect his island sanctuary from assault, a haven which can be read as a proxy for the recently established state of Israel. Nemo repeats, ‘There is hope for the future, when the world is ready for a new and better life then all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time.’

There is hope for the future, when the world is ready for a new and better life then all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time.

The giant squid which threatens the Nautilus is direct from Verne’s novel, but allied to the theme of nuclear power aligns 20,000 Leagues with sci-fi monster movies of the day, which saw humanity threatened by insects and other creatures mutated to enormous size by nuclear sources.

Nuclear paranoia of sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still, had been released in 1953, and Ray Harryhausen’s 1955 The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, saw a hibernating dinosaur released by an atomic blast to terrorise the world.

Released the same year as 20,000 Leagues, Them! saw huge radiation-affected ants bring terror to the US, and Godzilla stomped into cinemas in 1954. The US was threatened by aliens in 1953’s It Came From Outer Space, and by giant spiders in 1955’s Tarantula! Whether aliens, monsters or giant insects, and whether nuclear powered or not, 1954 was hotbed of paranoia about the Soviet nuclear threat.

It must also be noted that 1954 was the height of McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the communist ‘witch-hunts’ in Hollywood. Ever the patriot, Walt Disney had testified before the HUAC hearings in 1947, and it’s interesting that the ultimately sympathetic Nemo argues in favour of the benefits of nuclear power, and the film ends on an audience-reassuring note in faith in god, science and the future.

The nuclear subtext is dressed up in art direction and special effects and 20,000 Leagues deservedly won Oscars  in both those categories, as well as scoring a nom for the editing. 

The sets, model ships and submarines are great and the locations are epic, representing Hollywood at the top of its game. If the Nautilus is more a metallic fish than the tube of Verne’s imagination, the submarine is a gorgeous steampunk creation, with brass fittings, red upholstery and a magnificent organ. And long before Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur adventure Jurassic Park, the animatronic work of the giant squid is spectacular.

Although stock footage of whales and dolphins is occasionally mixed in with scenes on deck clearly filmed in a studio, there’s an impressive commitment to the underwater diving sequences, made when aqua diving was a novelty not an easily-accessible holiday activity. 

These sequences were filmed in the photogenic waters of the Caribbean, as was the silent 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues, and if that gives some sections the air of a travelogue, it’s worth remembering foreign travel was an expensive luxury at the time and this form of visual escapism was very much intended to drive box office. 

Still, the shark attack is very impressive and the location work helps retain Verne’s tone of wide-eyed wonder and his view of the sea as a resource to be worked. Mind you, the man-handling of crabs and giant turtles by the underwater performers wouldn’t be allowed today.

Sadly the same couldn’t said for the depiction of the South sea islanders, who Nemo describes as ‘cannibals’, and whose appearance is played for laughs, and their portrayal is no less sophisticated than similarly portrayed people in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. 

And though Nemo drolly asserts the ‘cannibals’ right to attack the Nautilus, true to the book he then defends the Nautilus with electric shock treatment. 

Similarly to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, there’s no denying the scale of the action is impressive, perhaps ever more so than then, in our CGI era. And seeing Douglas run through the jungle reminds us of his son Michael, in 1984’s Romancing the Stone.

Despite the film throwing a series of grandly staged set-pieces at us, it’s possible a modern multiplex audience may find the pace plodding. Yet the crowd-pleasing ticking clock plot and punch-ups of the finale are pure Hollywood entertainment, harking back to Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, and anticipating the missions of 007 of the following decades.

And though the final scene of the novel is downbeat, the filmmakers compromise by cleaving closely to Verne yet also providing a note of uplift, in which Kirk Douglas’s seal is seen to survive, and Nemo is given the last word.

To do this a cinematic sleight of hand is used which would be echoed two years later in Elvis Presley’s big screen debut, Love Me Tender. The enduring fascination with and longevity in popular culture of Verne’s greatest creation, Captain Nemo, lies with his mercurial nature which allows for continual reinvention. However, never did I think when I began writing this that I would end with a comparison with the King of Rock ’n’ Roll.

Available on Disney+.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Verne returned to Captain Nemo in his 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, which has been filmed several times. Read my review of 1961’s Mysterious Island, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

Read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

The Stolen Airship (1967)

Magnificent boys in their flying machine

A delirious fusion of live-action and animation very loosely based on Jules Verne’s 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, this glorious fantasy is a heady kaleidoscope of boys’ own adventure, wild invention, political satire and knockabout action, with occasional moments of whimsy and a huge amount of humour.

Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War and sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island. However Czech film director, Karel Zeman, often called the ‘Czech Melies‘, uses Verne as a jumping off point for madcap escapades as a group of schoolboys makes a bid for freedom from an oppressive and corrupt regime.

Brave, bright eyed, loyal and combative, they steal an airship and fly to a remote island, and in their absence are tried in their absence and sentenced to hang.

Zeman’s energy and imagination are boundless and we’re treated to a multitude of Heath Robinson-style devices and flying contraptions, as well as Mission Impossible-style face masks, sharks, shotgun-toting boot-makers, dancing ducks, and pirates.

Heath Robinson, I presume?

Among the fights, physical humour and acrobatic antics, a woman castaway becomes allies with boys and together they run rings around the men trying to subdue them.

Old buoy; Captain Nemo

In the middle of the madness, and lifted from The Mysterious Island, there’s a brief meeting with Verne’s most memorable creation, Captain Nemo, who’s portrayed as a tech-loving Methuselah, while his submarine, the Nautilus, is handily labelled ‘Nautilus’.

Ideas tumble over each other at dizzying speed in a bewildering mix of illustrative styles, musical interludes, and stock footage.

Much of Zeman’s style may seem familiar to you and that’s likely due to his influencing not only his countryman, the famed animator Jan Svankmajer, but also to the filmmakers Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, and Wes Anderson.

Spies are us

More specifically, The Stolen Airship, with it’s love of steampunk tech, a fairground rumpus, zeppelin, an incompetent bowler-hatted spy, and with a corrupt official and his glamorous wife bearing more than passing resemblance to Baron Bomburst and his wife, it seems to have been a considerable influence on the Cubby Broccoli’s 1968 family musical fantasy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I suspect the screenwriter of that film, Road Dahl, would have enjoyed this occasionally macabre and surreal tale with its shades of Kafka. And Zeman’s merry mocking of social conventions and keen eye for the absurdities of life also takes aim at pomposity, greed and stupidity.

Scrumptious? Moi? Truly?

His film is undeniably underpinned by the thrill of freedom, and is unmistakably political in its ruthlessly condemnatory of the military, which along with the corrupt bureaucracy and a surveillance society, are ridiculed throughout.

And there’s also a great deal of courage in Zeman’s needling of authority as this was made in the period immediately before The Prague Spring, the period of political liberalisation and mass protest in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic which ended abruptly at gunpoint on 21 August 1968, when the USSR invaded the country to suppress the reforms.

Absurdly charming, and occasionally just a little bit saucy, I watched it in its native Czech language without subtitles and so lost some of the nuance and detail.

What I received in perfect clarity was Zeman’s breathless collision of invention, cynicism and optimism. An absolute delight throughout, The Stolen Airship beat The Beatles’ psychedelic animation Yellow Submarine, to the punch by a year, and I loved every extraordinary minute of it. Please watch.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

You can read my review of the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

Read my review or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

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

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Mysterious Island (1961)

A showcase for the sublime talent of stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, this sci-fi fantasy family adventure sensibly swaps the plodding civilisation building of Jules Verne’s source novel for monster action and romance.

Faithful to Verne’s novel, the story begins during the US Civil War where we see a handful of men escape the war in a hot air balloon and cast by a storm to a Pacific Ocean island. And it’s at this point the film and the book depart ways, only to be reunited towards the end with the appearance of Verne’s greatest creation, the legendary sub-aquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Nemo introduces the castaways to the Nautilus

Though not related in to Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which is Verne’s other novel featuring Captain Nemo, this version of The Mysterious Island is very much an unofficial sequel in tone and style, and was clearly intended to capitalise on the box office success of previous film, even if the $2m budget of Mysterious Island pales next to the $9m cost of Disney’s movie.

Very much in the Disney mould of the time, the men are suitably manly, the women exist to be rescued and romanced, and everyone is white, except for Neb who is black. He is however promoted from being the freed slave of Verne’s book to a ranking soldier, albeit only a corporal. There’s no pet dog or adopted orang-utan as in the novel, and I doubt Disney would never have failed to include those opportunities for cuteness.

A British production shot at Shepperton Studios, England, it’s directed by Cy Endfield, whose most enduring work is 1964’s action adventure, Zulu, a period war movie set during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War in south-eastern Africa. Well worth a watch, Zulu features the terrific Stanley Baker, a rousing Welsh choir, and is responsible for introducing Michael Caine to the world.

In Endfield’s hands Zulu is a Western in all but name, with British imperialism taking the place of American imperialism. And Enfield similarly delivers Mysterious Island as a Western, and has the story play out – at least until Captain Nemo appears – as disparate frontiers-people coming together to face local challenges to survive. Only with mutated creatures are the principle threat, rather than ‘injuns’.

Plus the pyrrhic endings of both films are free of triumphalism and prefer to strike a downbeat note, suggesting a disillusionment with and a critique of the development of the US, viewing it as an errand of violence, exploitation and squandered utopia.

Sting in the tale

It’s no surprise these are works of Endfield, who was exiled in Europe as a result of being blacklisted by HUAC*.

*HUAC - The House Committee on Un-American Activities - an investigative committee of the United States which investigated alleged subversive activities of citizens and organisations suspected of being communist.

The monsters are crafted by ingenious care and dedication by the peerless stop-motion master, Ray Harryhausen, who enjoyed a lengthy partnership with American producer Charles H. Schneer, one which lasted up to Harryhausen’s final creature feature, 1981’s Clash Of The Titans.

Harryhausen introduces into Verne’s work an creatures of enormous size, including a flightless bird, a crab and giant bees, the latter also appearing in Dwayne Johnson’s 2012 adaptation, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.

As well as the stop-motion work, the production uses scale models and giant props such as a crab’s claw. Plus some lovely matte paintings complement the decent location work in Catalonia, Spain.

Lady Fairchild is aiming to survive

The island’s volcano provides lots of bubbling lava which is always great to see on screen, especially when it flows in torrents in the explosive finale. And the underwater photography is fun, as is the ‘incredible’ electric gun.

Plus the lost sunken city finally gives the film something of the sense of the epic, as does the battle with another great Harryhausen addition – a giant octopus. Meanwhile the exterior of Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, owes far more to Disney than to Verne.

Leela, sorry, Elena

In contradiction of Verne’s strict ‘no gals allowed’ policy, a Hollywood sensibility catapults a pair of women onto the island in the glamorous upper class form of Lady Mary Fairchild and her niece Elena, whom the balloonists find washed ashore.

As Lady Fairchild, Joan Greenwood is wonderfully, assertive and courageous in cut-glass accent, and the notorious Rank Films starlet, Beth Rogan, is generally either screaming or swooning, and ends up dressed as Leela from TV’s Dr Who. There’s little room for working class women in the world Verne.

South African-born actor, Dan Jackson, appears as Neb, the only non-white character, and the first of the balloonists to be attacked on the island. Then true to the book, he’s relegated to the domestic sphere while the other four men go off manly adventuring.

But least in this film Neb has the two ladies to keep him company, which must be something of an improvement in circumstance, for in the book he’s left home alone with an adopted orang-utan called Joop.

Neb’s dead, baby. Neb’s dead (almost)

Michael Craig plays Captain Cyrus Harding* as a stolid leader of men, who relies on his rank to lead, instead of any noticeable charisma. Far from being the genius engineer of the book, Harding breaks the balloon’s only control device and is therefore responsible for casting them across the ocean.

*Smith in some versions

Once on the island Harding immediately imposes martial law, and ‘drafts’ into his command the two Confederate balloonists: Sergeant Pencroft and Gideon Spilitt, who serve as light comic relief to Harding‘s gruff leadership.

Firmly men of the Union in the book, they’re now Confederates, presumably to help garner an audience in those US states who were on the losing side of the war.

Having previously originated the role of Riff in West Side Story on Broadway, Michael Callan is enthusiastically energetic as the romantic lead, Herbert Brown and makes an attractive pairing with Beth Rogans Elena.

Best remembered for his role as an agitated police inspector in Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther franchise, Herbert Lom appears as Nemo. Presumably the budget didn’t stretch to a return for Disney’s Nemo, James Mason.

Lom’s late entrance was echoed in 2018’s superhero movie Aquaman, and the Czech-born actor’s accent gives Nemo a sense of being ‘other’, though he doesn’t reveal he’s the deposed Prince Dakkar of India, as happens in the novel. And instead of having a grudge against the British Empire, Nemo is trying to solve the world’s food crisis.

Nemo and the castaways. We’ve circled Neb’s shoulder so you can see him

As with Harryhausen’s other classic productions such as 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, the musical score was composed by Bernard Herrmann. Though it’s more than adequate for this film, the Oscar-winning composer for Hitchcock’s Psycho and Scorsese’s Taxi Driver would probably be the first to agree this is not among his finest work.

Mysterious Island hasn’t aged terribly well, the pace will seem slow for a modern action audience and the effects will feel very creaky and stiff. And they don’t represent Harryhausen’s finest work which is undoubtedly the skeleton fight in 1961’s Jason and the Argonauts.

Nevertheless Harryhausen’s work retains its charm and should be appreciated for the craft and dedication involved in its making, and of course it’s part of an important chapter of the history of movie special effects. Plus they anchor this still very watchable film, one of the superior adaptations of Verne’s book.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

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

Read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

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

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

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

Mysterious Island (1951)

Treating Jules Verne’s 1875 novel The Mysterious Island as a leaping off point, this black and white sci-fi adventure serial of 1951 is a throwback to two decades earlier and the days when Larry Buster Crabbe took to the skies as Flash Gordon.

Yes it’s preposterous and silly, yet it’s also daftly enjoyable, due in large part to its enthusiastic and impressively straight-faced cast, as well as for possessing none of Verne’s reluctance to embrace cosmic romance.

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

The novel: hot air

Set during the US Civil War, the book sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where Captain Nemo assists their survival.

This fifteen chapter movie serial from Columbia Pictures is subtitled ‘Captain Harding’s Fabulous Adventures’, with the upright engineering officer and leader of the balloonists is played with no-nonsense square-jawed heroism by Richard Crane.

It all begins faithfully enough, and spending a lot time at the Civil War allows for plenty of opportunity to hook in any Western fans who may be watching by mistake.

 My name is Darth Vader. I am an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan

Anyway, five intrepid men and a dog escape in a balloon from a stockade, and when a storm carries them to an island they have to – check notes – foil an alien invasion.

As Verne’s novel is a bit of a slog, I can’t help but think had the author known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction‘ built this kind of excitement into his story, it might be more widely read today. Sadly Verne never did and the world had to wait until HG Wells‘ arrived for Martians to invade.

Bring out the gimp

The alien invaders of this story however, are from Mercury, a nod perhaps to Orson WellesMercury Theatre, whose 1938 radio play of HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ became infamous for terrifying those who listened to it. Well, perhaps not. There isn’t the budget here for that kind of meta-behaviour.

Referred to as ‘a girl’ who has ‘the appearance of one from another planet’, Karen Randle manages to maintain her dignity as the comely alien scientist, Rulu, whose mission is to extract a super explosive element in order to conquer the Earth, using a laser gun and a mind-controlling wand.

And then you simply reverse the polarity of the neutron flow

Caught between the Volcano People and Mercurians, err, Mercutions? Mercuroorians? Ohh, whatever. Caught between the Volcano People and aliens, the balloonists are assisted in saving the world by Leonard Penn as the suave and avuncular Captain Nemo, who appears early but doesn’t have much to do.

African American actor Bernard Hamilton, plays Neb. He’s billed last, is often stood apart from the others or excluded from the frame entirely, and is generally the last man in line as the balloonists queue up to escape from yet another threat.

There’s a huge amount of what looks suspiciously like stock footage used at the beginning, and the costumes and props have been recycled from a production with a more generous budget than this. Which I’m guessing is any other production.

Neb; not first

The emphasis is on action with many enthusiastic fistfights and shoot-outs. Director, Spencer Gordon Bennet, a name who you may feel compelled to partially invoke at the serial’s weaker moments, seems happy enough to always accept the first take of any shot, and the editor is seemingly under strict to always, but always, cut to the chase. Plus there’s a lot of running about the Southern California countryside, later to be a favourite location of TV’s sci-fi series Star Trek.

The story rockets breathlessly along as if it’s scared it might lose your attention at any moment, consequently the balloonists aren’t able to do any of the building and farming work which occupies much of their time in the novel.

Neb, not even third

On the plus side the writers know their audience and the myths and fears of the US are played upon by dressing the pirates as English merchant seamen, a decision which has echoes of the Revolutionary War, and the technologically advanced alien invaders point to 1950’s anti-Soviet paranoia.

I have a strong nostalgic liking for this kind of nonsense, especially as no-one involved in this is under illusion as to the value of what they’re making. Cast and crew are all aware they’re making a disposable action adventure for kids of all ages, but everyone gets stuck in like the pros they are, and their love of the game is just about enough to overcome myriad shortcomings and jolly the audience along with them for the ride.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

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 or the 1941 Russian adaptation of The 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

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

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.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

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

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett

The Mysterious Island (1929)

This epic sci-fi melodrama feature is absolutely terrific fun due in no small part to its gleeful abandoning pretty much all of Jules Verne’s novel on which it’s based.

Discarding fidelity for crazed creative ambition, it hits the creative sweet spot between the high-minded social consciousness and outrageous spectacle of Fritz Lang’s German expressionist classic, Metropolis, and the all-out gung ho whizz bang of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon adventure serial.

An army of mermen pull along a captured and tethered submarine

Verne is often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, and 1875’s The Mysterious Island, is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It’s notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.

Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the story, and discloses himself to be Dakkar, an Indian Prince deposed by the British Empire.

The novel: absent

There’s an absence of Verne in terms of character or story, but a filmmaker’s love of their source material is never a guarantee of fidelity. Yet the author’s spirit is in every frame of this tremendous movie bursts with Verne’s spirit of adventure, love of exploration, and sublime imagination. Plus it’s wrapped up with a moving and respectful finale.

Plus we have land and underwater battles, a giant squid, an army of humanoid fish people with costumes inspired by Melies, and – I kid you not – a drunken orgy. Verne was a writer who hunted down every opportunity to avoid including women in his stories, and would presumably be aghast at the very thought. Great fun for the rest of us, though.

We’re treated to twice the usual number of submarines and other wondrous technology, plus there’s a volcano, a giant squid and rapacious European powers seeking to overthrow Lionel Barrymore’s Count Andre Dakkar, a generic European aristocrat, rather than the Indian Prince of the novel. The name of Nemo is never mentioned.

However we can sense Verne’s influence extending beyond this film, with Nemo/Dakkar cast as a proto-Dr Who, an irascible older scientist accompanied on his futuristic vessel by two younger and attractive companions to provide across some across-the-class-barricades romance.

You’ll forgive me for occasionally confusing the daughter Sonia here, for the granddaughter Susan in Dr Who. And yes, though the terrific Jacqueline Gadsden’s Susan spends a lot of time waiting to be rescued, is also sexually confident, violently combative, loyal, daring and scientifically trained.

The island itself is not isolated in the Pacific but just offshore the fictional European kingdom of Hetvia, and the story swaps the US Civil War for an attempted European coup. There are no balloonists, dog, castaways or pirates, and no sign of the former slave Neb, or indeed any non-white characters.

Dakkar is a scientist inventor and an egalitarian hero in this version, while the villainous black-caped Baron Falon and his army of henchmen resemble Cossack horsemen, whose invasion of Dakkar’s island home seems designed to invoke the 1917 Russian revolution and the threat of Communism. It also speaks against over-reaching power of European monarchy and in favour of the equality of all ‘men’. That is, it seems designed to play to the political prejudices of its audience in the New World by demonising the Old World.

‘I dunno boss, it sounds as if they’re singing. Something about, radio gaga?’

Produced on a grand scale which suggests this was intended as a Hollywood response to Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, the filmmakers commit to their barking vision in quite magnificent style. We’re encouraged to gasp in awe at the glorious Art Deco design, extensive use of miniatures, large crowds of extras posing as workmen, futuristic control consoles and prodigious industrial machinery.

Plus they give us giant underwater lizards interacting with live action humans long before Ray Harryhausen did it in the stop-motion classic One Million Years BC. And the giant octopus is wonderful. Various sizes of submarines and parts of submarines are used, with the smaller scale models possessing a lovely Gerry Anderson charm, and clearly inspired the look and feel of 1936’s Flash Gordon. Watching this you realise Gordon‘s rocket ships were really re-tooled flying submarines.

It’s not all a hymn to modernity and the machine age though, with the story drawing on imagery of European legend as a beautiful maiden is used as a Siren to draw an enormous sea beast to its doom.

And we’re given actual hymns, with sweaty chest-baring workmen praising god in song as a prelude to a submarine launch, a surprisingly moving scene in itself despite it being presumably included as a calculated appeal to a US Christian audience.

The not-Nautilus is ready for blast-off

Writer and director Lucien Hubbard previously produced 1927’s Oscar winner, Wings, and he fills his 90 minute running time with all manner of great stuff, such as platoons of horse guards, sunken triremes, a duel to the death and a race to repair a sub before the crew asphyxiates.

Hubbard provides us with some very impressive underwater photography where he can, and the rest of the time he uses theatrical tricks, such as making the diving-suited actors mimicking the effect of walking in water, much as later films would have actors mimic the effect of zero gravity.

And the use of sound in this this hybrid production reminds us there was no clear divide between ‘Silent’ films, and Talkies’. Many of Barrymore’s scenes’ using synchronised sound for his dialogue, and inter-title cards used elsewhere.

Plus it’s as noisy as hell. The constant score is accompanied by wonderful and frequent array of industrial noise hisses and clanks, plus hoofbeats, gunfire, animal noises, sung prayers and general alarum.

Despite the name this tremendous entertainment bears almost no relation to the novel, but it captures something of the spirit of Verne, while speaking to the versatility of his ideas and the great flexibility of his greatest creation, Captain Nemo.

I enjoyed this immensely, and if you’re more a submarine than sci-fi fan, there’s still plenty for you to enjoy as well, so dive right in.

Love classic sci-fi? Check out my website HERE

Read my review of Disney’s fabulous 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, HERE

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

You can read my review of the 1941 Russian adaptation of The Mysterious Island, HERE

My review of 1951’s Mysterious Island is 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

And my review of 1973’s version HERE

@ChrisHunneysett