Dragonflight

By Anne McCaffrey, 1968

This brisk and inventive breakout novel is a romantic coming of age medieval sci-fi fantasy, which sees a pair of unrelated orphans who’re each cheated of their birthright, brought together by fate to attempt to save their world from a malevolent cosmic spore.

important and influential

Originally published as three short stories, and brought together in one volume in 1968, it became the first in a long series of books by the Irish-American writer who carved out an important and influential space for herself in the genre.

Set on the planet Pern, Dragonflight is an exciting medieval revenge story which is as concerned with time travel as it is with flying fire-breathing lizards, but where the former is a device to explore grief and regret, the latter are a means of allowing surrogate maternity, an experience which is crucial to charting the central character’s emotional development.

gloriously unrepentant

Our protagonist, Lessa, is a highborn young woman who’s introduced as living in serfdom having been robbed of her birthright. Using her wits, courage and resilience, and with the aid of F’lar, leader of the socially disparate dragon riders, Lessa becomes queen of all the dragon riders, which is about to face a cosmic menace which threatens the existence of all human life on the planet.

Lessa is a a masterful creation, a gloriously unrepentant figure who never dwells on the killing she performs to execute her plan of revenge, and who at one point considers infanticide as a means to her bloody ends.

Proud, astute, clever, Lessa constantly confounds the men she meets, proving to be better than than the best dragon riders, who earns respect for her deeds and never coasts on her regal heritage. Unless it suits her purposes.

the book shows its age

Where it’s easy to imagine Lessa as a role model the young Princess Leia, her beau, F’lar, is tall, dark, handsome, arrogant and aloof figure, who combines the swashbuckling of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood with the emotionally reticence of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy.

He’s a man of action, but also rational, a thinker, a planner, and frankly a bit dour. And in contrast Lessa acts on her wits and frequently on instinct.

Their contrasting personalities allow for dramatic sparks, and it’s here the book shows its age. McCaffrey has a clear eye for power imbalance in the sexual relations and there is stuff in here that’s uncomfortable to read.

When F’lar considers Lessa disobedient or hysterical, F’lar shakes and slaps her. A lot. And F’lar’s abuse of Lessa is publicly tolerated. A passage where F’lar shruggingly dismisses his own recognition that his sexual congress with Lessa is on a par with rape is particularly egregious.

And where hopefully such brutish and abusive behaviour would now be frowned upon or acknowledged as a bad thing by the author, McCaffrey seems inclined to not even admonish F’lar. Instead McCaffrey at all times emphasises that Lessa is a survivor as well as a potential saviour.

The author’s real focus is on the mother and daughter relationship which is the beating emotional heart of the book. Long before Game of Thrones, Lessa was the mother of dragons, specifically her golden dragon, Ramoth. And in McCaffrey’s world it’s motherhood that’s capable of making life complete and healing society.

leather-clad sword-wielding warriors

Ramoth is Lessa’s surrogate child and Ramoth growth to maturity reflects Lessa’s rise to the top of the social hierarchy, instigating a rebirth in all around her and a flowering of empowerment and growth.

This is a also a very modern story of a young mother coping simultaneously with parenting and a new partner while running a large business imbued with centuries of deeply ingrained misogynistic practices. And having to save the world from the apocalypse at the same time. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer thought she was having hard time of it.

chattel and concubines

McCaffrey’s brutal medieval world of of castles and keeps is fully realised with tapestries, poems, and ballads, and various strands of society rubbing up against each other. The author understands this macho world of leather-clad sword-wielding warriors who treat women as chattel and concubines, and seems to enjoy the testosterone-fuelled attempts of men to assert authority over each other.

There are exciting duels and airborne battles aplenty, and the scenes of the airborne fire-breathing dragons fighting are as exciting as any aerial dogfight in a Second World War movie.

blood, rank and destiny

Yes, Dragonflight could be considered more fantasy than sci-fi, though the author apparently bridled at the suggestion, pointing out her humans are descendants of future colonists from Earth, and who’ve genetically engineered local species to assist them in their new planet. This history is established with a brief Introduction to the novel, and dictates how the story develops in future volumes.

Despite having a fiercely strong woman protagonist, there’s no social commentary as you will find in writers such as Miriam Allen deFordMcCaffrey is happy to create a world of royal bloodlines, and talk of purity of blood, rank and destiny without pause of thought. It’s a striated society with little if any crossing of lanes

In contrast to Ursula K. Le Guin, or Nicola Griffith, McCaffrey’s world is also a predominately heterosexual and mostly white world, though race, class and sexuality are, to an extent, explored in later books.

sci-fi movie, Avatar

Safe to say McCaffrey is determined to tell a barnstorming adventure in the most straightforward manner possible, which is not to suggest she’s not a great storyteller. She rattles along at a fair lick, gleefully swooping about her planet, plotting here and there, dropping breadcrumbs of clues as to how our heroes will win.

McCaffrey puts the reader’s need to be entertained before any egotistical drive of her own to be considered a great stylist or an ‘important’ writer. By a dedicatedly tending to her craft, McCaffrey creates a fabulous living and breathing world.

The dragons are given voice and communicate telepathically with their chosen rider with whom they have an emotional bond. Dragons are a metaphor for animal instincts of humans which must be tamed and unleashed at the correct moments in order to demonstrate one’s maturity, such the sexual experience, where the telepathic bond with one’s dragon heightens the emotionally experience of sexual congress.

convention-defying survivor of domestic abuse

It’s difficult to read McCaffrey’s scenes of the dragons hatching ceremony where they form an emotional telepathic bond with their human rider, and not imagine director James Cameron was not at least passingly familiar with Dragonflight when he wrote the script to his 2009 sci-fi movie, Avatar.

Dragonflight, made McCaffrey the first woman to win a Hugo Award for writing fiction, as well as the first to win a Nebula Award, and by creating Lessa, a rule breaking, tradition-challenging, convention-defying survivor of domestic abuse to rise to pre-eminence in a male-dominated world, it’s the least McCaffrey deserved.

If you haven’t read Dragonflight, please do.

Love sci-fi? Check out my website, Nemo’s Fury

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

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

Mysterious Island (2005)

This Hallmark TV movie is an uninspiring adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic colonisation adventure novel which is chiefly remembered for featuring the return of famed aquanaut Captain Nemo.

Reasonably faithful to Verne’s story, a starry headline cast of Patrick Stewart and Kyle MacLachlan is supplemented, or possibly squandered alongside screen stalwart Roy Marsden, TV stars Gabrielle Anwar and Gabrielle Anwar, footballer-turned-actor, Vinnie Jones, and Omar Gooding, the brother of Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr.

giant rats, scorpion and giant bees!

Cleaving reasonably close to Verne, MacLachlan stars as Cyrus Smith, the leader of a band of US Civil War castaways stranded on a desert island and suffer various perils including giant monsters and pirates.

Verne’s upstanding hero Smith is nicely subverted by the casting of MacLachlan, an actor who’s incapable of not suggesting a less than healthy and far from incorruptible moral fibre beneath his square jawed Hollywood leading man looks.

The younger of the two women is kidnapped twice.

Impressive Caribbean location, compensate for lack of CGI, and what special effects there are make you feel nostalgic for the virtues of MacLachlan’s 1984 sci-fi adaptation, Dune.

Anwar and Calvert play characters invented for the film whose job is to provide glamour and be rescued. The younger of the two women is kidnapped twice.

As ever, Neb is the only non-white character and unlike in Verne’s novel is an equal member of the team, and often at odds with the cowardly southern ‘gent’, Pencroft.

nuclear weapons

Verne’s Indian prince, Captain Nemo is once again whitewashed, but at least Stewart adds gravitas to his portrayal of the ageing aquanaut. This version of Nemo was born an Englishman who was raised in India and committed acts of war against the British Empire killed his wife and child.

Nemo now wants to end all war by creating a weapon so powerful it could obliterate an entire city. This not so-veiled nod to nuclear weapons would have been perfectly at home in the post-war paranoia of the 1950’s.

But here Nemo seems more a low-budget steampunk 007 Bond villain. Nemo’s Neru jacket-wearing English henchman alludes to Nemo’s Indian upbringing, but also calls to mind 007’s adversary, Dr No, itself a riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

There’s a dinner party scene with Stewart and MacLachlan where some actual acting breaks out, and
at least both actors are in the same room when it was a shot, unlike a later scene where Stewart is palpably absent, and seems a post-production inclusion to make Nemo a more sympathetic character.

swashbuckling intellectual property

I suspect in their thespian heads Stewart and MacLachlan are playing out a version of The Tempest, with the outcast scientific ‘wizard’ Nemo as Prospero, and Smith as Prince Ferdinand.

Jones contributes his unique acting skills in a pleasingly minor role as the pirate Captain Bob, and I’ve a strong suspicion his vocal performance has been dubbed out of existence.

Anyway, the side effects of Nemo’s experiments cause local flora and fauna to grow to prodigious size, producing giant rats, scorpion and yes, giant bees! They have nothing to do with Verne and were first introduced to The Mysterious Island mythology in Ray Harryhausen’s 1961 film version, as well as recurring in the later 2012 version.

However the special effects seem to have gone backwards in quality since Harryhausen’s time, and the giant Preying Mantis is sadly laughable.

Cast, crew, production designers and presumably the effects guys are all trying hard, but this whole enterprise is a great example of what happens when the budget and schedule are far from sufficient.

There’s no obvious love of the source material, and Verne’s work seems treated as a convenient vaguely swashbuckling intellectual property to be exploited in a mediocre-at-best manner in the wake of the Oscar-nominated blockbuster box office success of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

the door ajar for a sequel

Mysterious Island aims for mainstream family swashbuckling fun but everything feels geared to just passing muster, and will make you feel a lot kinder to even the most bloated episode of Keira Knightley’s pirate franchise.

This was directed by Russell Mulcahy with the love of hammy performances seen in his far superior 1986 fantasy action movie, Highlander, and he provides a more open ended finale than Verne did, leaving the door ajar for a sequel which so far hasn’t occurred.

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 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

Mysterious Island (1995)

A lengthy and largely location set TV adaptation of Jules Verne’s second Captain Nemo adventure, this Canadian & New Zealand co-production is underpinned by the intriguing premise, ‘what if Captain Nemo was the bad guy, a psychopath enjoys playing mind games with people instead of helping them?’

Staying true to the sweep of the novel, the US CivilWar-era castaways crash land on a deserted island. Only here they have been shot down by Nemo. This is a knowing riff on how Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest begins, with the wizard Prospero creating a storm to shipwrecks passing boat so he can toy with them.

Further drawing on The Tempest, this Nemo is a manipulative figure played with theatrical relish by John Bach, who uses the island castaways for lab rats in a series of experiments to explore the limits of human psychological endurance.

Nemo becomes increasingly sinister and violent figure, adding much needed tension, with the tone nearing that of TV’s The Prisoner at its best moments, with the castaways being provided with gifts by Nemo, while subject to ever more ingenious and dangerous trials, and anticipates the rise of Reality TV shows such as, I’m a Celebrity.

Far from being an exiled Indian prince, Nemo is white, nor is he seeking revenge on the British for past wrongs. He does live in a steampunk Nautilus, and is introduced early as the antagonist. He’s interestingly complex, wanting to be the sole arbiter of death on the island and not taking kindly to his will being thwarted.

Living in splendid isolation with no-one to talk to, he records his thoughts by speaking them into a machine, so the audience can hear his thoughts and intentions. And his viewing machine harks back to communicator device of Ming the Merciless from the 1930’s Flash Gordon serial.

This version mixes up, takes away and adds to the core list of castaways, enhancing them from Verne’s empty paragons to more complex, more realistic and dramatically interesting, failures of humanity.

There’s no dog or orang utan and the characters are fleshed by the game performers. Verne’s character of young Herbert is reconfigured as the teenage son of Jack Pencroft, who is accompanied by the new character of his Irish wife, Joanna. A woman!

As Joanna, actor Colette Stevenson often outshines the men and is a scowling sarcastic nurse and nursemaid and object of attention from not just her husband. And she’s frequently frustrated at being left at the home while the men go off hunting and fishing.

Here the Confederates among the castaways are unrepentant racists, and Neb is a freed slave turned Union soldier under command of Captain Cyrus Harding, which allows for more dramatic conflict among the castaways than Verne achieved or was interested in.

Neb is eager to act as a salve to Cyrus’s conscience, and no sooner has Neb been used b the scriptwriters to forgive Harding his slave-owning past, then Neb is dispiritingly revealed to be regarded as little more than a Star Trek redshirt.

For an adaptation which cleaves reasonably strongly and pleasingly to its source, this is one departure than rankles rather than enhances the series.

However the introduction of Maori characters make for an interesting addition to Verne’s story, and they speak in own language with the show providing subtitles. And Nemo revels in the castaways ‘becoming a downtrodden minority in their own home’.

Yes this series is often formulaic and each episode feels padded, but it’s no worse than other shows of the time and it improves as it goes along. There’s great use of New Zealand locations, the stunt team are working hard, and with a little more money spent on interiors and props, plus a sharper sense of humour, this could have been very good indeed.

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


The Mysterious Island (1975)

This brisk sixty minute animated adaptation is hand drawn in the style of the famous TinTin cartoon series, and delights in its similar sense of old fashioned derring do.

Faithful to Verne in its story, character, US Civil War-era setting and spirit of adventure, it sees am intrepid band of balloon-wrecked castaways and their dog attempt to colonise their new island home.

Fighting pirates and escaping the erupting volcano are given prominence, and the characterisation is appropriately two dimensional.

Nemo appears early, a watchful, mysterious and potentially malevolent figure, but is eventually revealed as an old dying man, and though his appearance alludes to his background as Verne describes it, his identity of Dakkar, Indian prince is not mentioned, nor is his vendetta against the British. Neb is introduced as a manservant, but is otherwise treated as simply another member of Captain Harding’s team.

The Nautilus is an enormous, palace-like vessel, bearing little relation to Verne’s description and unlike Verne’s version is capable of firing torpedoes.

Unremarkable yet straightforward, faithful and enjoyable, and played at a pace it’s target audience of young kids may have been content with at the time, but to a modern generation it will seem painfully slow.

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 1929’s 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

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

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