Hidden behind the membership-only barrier of The Disney Movie Club is a long-delayed, long-missed key feature from The Mouse, Walt’s masterful super-production of the timeless Jules Verne classic. Despite the funny songs and an annoyingly ‘ork-ork’-ing sea lion, the lavishly filmed show embraces the dark side of Verne’s vision — Captain Nemo is nothing less than an anti-Colonial terrorist, waging a one-submarine war against international warmongers. With the commanding James Mason in the role, the film’s furious politics are as impressive as the to-die-for art direction: this Disney family attraction has us rooting for the terrorist and against the Imperialist European powers.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
The Disney Movie Club
1954 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 127 min. / Anniversary Edition / Street Date June 18, 2019 / Disney Movie Club exclusive.
Starring: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, Robert J. Wilke, Ted de Corsia, Carleton Young.
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Film Editor: Elmo Williams
Production Designer: Harper Goff (unacknowledged)
Original Music: Paul Smith
Special Visual Effects: John Hench, Robert A. Mattey, Joshua Meador, Marcel Delgado, Peter Ellenshaw, Albert Whitlock, Ralph Hammeras, Ub Iwerks, Howard & Theodore Lydecker
Written by Earl Felton from the novel Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers by Jules Verne
Produced by Walt Disney
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Have you ever seen this beautiful picture on a screen, in CinemaScope and Technicolor? The last theatrical release I know of was in 1971. I remember the show holding a giant audience at the Fox Venice spellbound — the hipsters and beach folk respected the tale of Captain Nemo: it was for all of us a magic childhood touchstone, and we were surprised to discover how subversive it was.
One the best projects Walt Disney ever undertook, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is an essentially faithful adaptation of Jules Verne’s most popular ‘Voyage Extraordinaire.’ It was received as a breathtaking wonder upon its Christmas release in 1954, and kept its glow in many reissues thereafter – I don’t remember ever hearing a kid say anything bad about it.
Disney’s vision was matched by the solid practical help of his businessman brother. For his first bigscreen live-action superproduction, he picked a property with countless unknown production hazards. It needed to have special effects the likes of which nobody had seen before. It would be filmed in a brand new process for which there were few lenses available. Although he had been producing live-action features in England for a couple of years, Disney was still known primarily as producer of animated cartoons. Working independently, he proceeded to assemble the best technical resources in Hollywood, renting space and know-how from the big studios. (For instance, the film’s ‘nuclear bomb’ pyrotechnic looks to have been concocted by the experts that created the blast for Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water, released earlier in the year.) Disney tackled this challenge at the same time that he was building one of the wildest dream projects of the 20th Century — Disneyland.
About sixteen years ago, Disney released an impressive DVD with many extras. This plain-wrap Anniversary Edition Blu-ray easily beats it in the transfer department.
1870. ‘Alarming rumors’ of a monster have emptied the sea lanes, and the United States dispatches a warship to track it down. Along for the ride are two French scientists, Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his faithful aide Conseil (Peter Lorre). When their ship is destroyed by the monster, they and harpoonist Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) find their way to its floating hulk, which turns out to be a submersible water craft. It’s actually the Nautilus, the invention of mad revenger Captain Nemo (James Mason), who exercises his grudge against war-making nations by sinking their warships and munitions shipments. At first charmed by Nemo’s personal undersea empire, the three captives soon conspire to escape, and to find a way to put an end to Nemo’s engine of destruction.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea opens with a screen bathed in light from a rippling underwater source. As the show was one of the first filmed in the new anamorphic CinemaScope process, the wide image was wider, spread out to a ribbon-like 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Disney shrewdly composed his titles in the center. As with his previous live-action efforts, he anticipated the film’s eventual transfer to the smaller format. The other time I remember seeing flat titles used on a ‘scope film was for Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, which also begins by composing its main titles as if they were from an Academy-ratio 1940s film noir. The story begins with some amusing scenes in San Francisco and an exciting passage aboard Ted De Corsia’s warship. But we are soon literally immersed in Captain Nemo’s fantastic underwater world, cruising in a submarine so well designed that we accept its reality without question. There are undersea diving suits and a round iris window to view the magic of the deep. The craft’s cramped but comfortable interiors are invitingly believable.
Today, the most startling aspect of Leagues is its tone. There’s some singing and a cute trained seal, and Kirk Douglas’ blustery seaman and Peter Lorre’s dour valet share a few comic gags, but the film overall is deadly serious. At a time when real submarines were risky craft likely as not to kill their crews, Jules Verne proposed this super-sub as a fanciful visitation from the future, with its propulsive secret only superficially explained. His Captain Nemo was an escaped slave, once an Eastern prince – not a white man – who somehow became a scientific genius, creating miraculous futuristic technologies solely for revenge. (Actually, Verne changed the origin of Nemo for subsequent published versions… see my review for MGM’s silent Verne saga The Mysterious Island.)
Verne’s unlikely hero is easily recognized as what we now call a Terrorist Madman. He’s a political zealot who uses violence to strike back at the colonial powers that have oppressed him, and tortured and murdered his family. In the original book, he was a slave put to work mining the ingredients for high explosives. Everything he does is motivated by loathing for what he refers to as ‘that hated nation.’ If Verne had added a religious motive, Nemo would be a clear cipher for Osama Bin Laden, packing a weapon of mass destruction in the form of his futuristic submarine.
James Mason’s filmic Captain Nemo glowers and fumes with an intensity that overshadows the whole enterprise. His singular vendetta is echoed in grand shots of the Nautilus prowling the blue depths accompanied by the grim chords of Paul Smith’s musical score. Nemo is the original unconscious manifestation of sub-versive hatred, a pacifist who hates the hypocrites of society, and sees all politics and nations as an Enemy to be opposed at every opportunity. Nemo may be irrationally conceived, but he’s a magnificent antihero. The movie endorses the humanistic reasoning of the dull Professor Aronnax, who assumes that Nemo is a misguided madman. Preparing to destroy a ship loaded with nitrates to make explosives, the Captain works himself into a psychotic, homicidal fever.
Just about the only actor who could pull off the same role would be Vincent Price… but in our hearts we know that Price is really a rather jolly fellow. James Mason is obsession personified. Placed in scenes opposite the jocular everyman Kirk Douglas, who pulls clown-faces and acts all hale and hearty, James Mason’s gloom wins every time.
The adventures of the Nautilus are magnificently realized. It cruises beneath the waves and navigates submerged tunnels like a beautiful but dangerous sea creature. When attacking, it churns a terrifying wake, with its glowing eyes screaming across the water’s surface. It has no modern weapons, but uses its knifelike keel to rip through the hulls of its seagoing prey, gutting warships like a sword. We don’t see the Nautilus take on any iron warships, but we believe it would have no trouble sinking anything afloat.
There was a Fox Theater chain in California that began every film performance by opening curtains over a film’s logo, or the first shot in a coming attractions trailer. I remember going to see the Disney release Summer Magic (or was it A Tiger Walks?), and then cheering like mad along with a theater full of other ten-year olds, when the first thing on the screen was the trailer for 20,000 Leagues. The high-pitched Tasmanian Devil whine of the Nautilus zoomed toward us, its wake splashing over its yellow viewport eyes. The sight of the sub’s screaming attack projected on the theater’s shimmering curtains as they opened was a wonderment. Movies in the big theaters were magic back then.
The pace of the action is deliberate and linear, and perhaps too slow for modern audiences. The comedy relief now seems a necessary diversion from the film’s dark themes. When the movie was newer, we kids accepted dedicated villains at face value, as if they needed no motivation but to provide us with exciting and violent thrills. Nemo’s vows of vengeance and delirious musings now seem all too relevant, as is his suicide pact with his dedicated crew. The only crewman with a speaking part is played by Western villain Robert J. Wilke (High Noon, Man of the West). It is subtly disturbing to see an actor associated only with degenerate outlaws playing Nemo’s respectful, loyal, devout right hand man. No doubt Disney was simply trying to be faithful to the book that had fired his imagination as a kid back in Kansas, but because he didn’t alter Nemo’s political motivation, 20,000 Leagues retains an amazingly dark streak at its center.
A sidebar note: The Disney I love is the maverick producer before Disneyland, before he became an institution. With an almost edgy creativity, Walt had no problem expressing his personal fears and quirks. There are scenes in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi and Pinocchio that terrify little kids. Fantasia and Dumbo have sections that express the delirium of a drug addict or an alcoholic. If Dumbo has a message beyond mother love, it’s that You Have to Get Bombed if You Want to Fly, Kid. Even smaller projects like The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad show a delight in the joy of social irresponsibility. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea recognizes Verne’s terrorist hero as yet another of the author’s futuristic visions. Along with the atomic submarine, he foretold the day when colonialism would give birth to implacable terrorist avengers.
The end of the Nautilus, in Disney’s version, is a bleak götterdammerüng. If I recall correctly, the book had the damaged sub fall victim to a Norwegian maelstrom. Writer Earl Fenton pulls in ideas from Mysterious Island and other Verne stories. Nemo returns briefly to his secret island base Vulcania, only to discover it overrun by colonial troops. The slopes of the island’s interior crater were filmed at the distinctive Red Rock Canyon 150 miles North of Los Angeles. We get a quick impression of Nemo’s super lab — complete with radar dish ?? — before he pulls a patented Bride of Frankenstein lever to blow it all to kingdom come. Nemo prevents ‘that hated nation’ from stealing his scientific secrets, and gets a revenge of sorts by nuking a small army and navy of assorted national interests. The setup — a ring of ships around a central super-explosion — must have reminded audiences of the Operation Crossroads Bikini Atom Test of 1946.
Nobody ever seems to point out that this mainstream fantasy film ends with the murder of hundreds, perhaps thousands of First World colonial troops, performing an ‘operation enduring obliteration’ police action against a terrorist foe. There isn’t a similar scene in films until the overtly radical Giù la testa (Duck You Sucker!) in which James Coburn gleefully dynamites an armored cavalry column, content to ‘rid the world of a few uniforms.’ We’re given Aronnax’s verbal judgment on Nemo as a warped madman, but the Professor seems naïve when he volunteers to spread Nemo’s message of Peace Or Else among the warring human tribes. The official moral preaches that the world isn’t ready for Nemo’s technical miracles, which is a laughable understatement. Humanity might as well be a bunch of apes fighting over a rancid waterhole. Everyone with whom I ever saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea wanted Captain Nemo to prevail and sink every warship afloat.
Fans of Disney’s movie know that this huge success inspired a series of Verne screen adaptations. The ones that found financial success were Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days, the Schneer-Harryhausen Mysterious Island and Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, which also starred James Mason as a charming, less neurotic scientist. The A.I.P. epic wanna-be Master of the World could have been great. Vincent Price comes through with a fine performance as the Captain Nemo- like Robur, but the production took too many shortcuts. The most magical of the Verne adaptations came from Czechoslovakia, Karel Zeman’s utterly charming and creative Vynález Zkázy.
The Disney Movie Club’s Blu-ray of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a handsome encoding of a full restoration performed eight years ago, and we’ve been waiting for a Blu-ray ever since. The holdup reportedly happened because Disney had notions of a 20,000 Leagues remake in the works. The show has never looked better on a home movie screen — those special effects by Peter Ellenshaw, Albert Whitlock and the Brothers Lydecker are truly magnificent.
On August 19, 2011 the new restoration was premiered at the AMIA’s The Reel Thing presentation in Hollywood, and Grover Crisp graciously allowed me to attend. That screening was the last time I saw the late Rick Mitchell, a noted editor. I wrote up the occasion up for the DVD Savant Column:
“A quick report on the opening night of this year’s technical symposium The Reel Thing here in Hollywood, mounted by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA):
The first night’s opening screening, provided by Disney, was the world premiere of a 4K digital restoration of their CinemaScope blockbuster 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Disney executives gave a brief explanation of what had been done to maximize the film’s colors; they also said that no grain management or sharpness enhancement had been applied to the picture. They presented the film exactly as it had been premiered for Christmas of 1954, with a CinemaScope Donald Duck cartoon, Grand Canyonscope.
The execs explained very clearly the improvements made to the picture. 20,000 originally had numerous shots plagued by the CinemaScope Mumps — any actor in a close-up (or a tight two-shot) has always looked horizontally squashed. It was an early flaw of the anamorphic process. By scanning the original negatives, Disney reclaimed more image ‘real estate’ on the horizontal axis. Bits of image area to the extreme left and right had always been unused because it was covered by magnetic soundtracks. For the shots with Mumps, the extra width allowed the digital compositors to squeeze the image slightly — without blowing it up — putting Captain Nemo’s face back into its proper proportions. It really helps.
I’m not sure, but I think that something similar was done to Warners remasterings of A Star Is Born and Love Me Or Leave Me, both of which no longer seem to have squashed-head close-ups in new DVD and Blu-ray versions.
Two other notes. We were told that the density (and slight softness) of original Technicolor prints effectively hid the many wires used to manipulate the giant squid’s arms in the stormy battle scene. When scanned at 4k, the sharpness and less-dark blacks revealed more wires. So Disney painted them out, as they weren’t originally visible.
I also heard the film expert Rick Mitchell say something after the show that immediately got my attention. When the bomb goes off, one view of the exploding island with the sub in the foreground was filmed flat, and allowed to stretch out horizontally. That’s apparently been fixed as well. I was looking for it and thought I missed it; the sharp-eyed Mitchell pointed it out.”
The new Blu-ray has definitely been made from this improved transfer; Nemo’s extreme close-up has round eyeballs and no squashed-out wide shot of the island aftermath is in evidence.
The picture is rich and some grain is visible, but it’s an excellent rendering of the original experience. The audio is listed as 5.1 DTS — the original was definitely stereophonic, although I’ve never heard it that way to my memory. The aspect ratio does seem a bit wider than the usual 2:35 — thanks to companies like Twilight Time, we’ve become accustomed to seeing full early CinemaScope 2:55 Blu-rays. The image looks centered on the screen – a 35mm showing I saw at the El Capitan in Hollywood in the early ’90s used a lopsided print that favored the right extreme of the 2:55 frame.
The only other complaint is against the occasionally lazy subtitles, which apparently didn’t bother to consult a transcript. When the frigate’s artilleryman Jack Pennick orders his cannoneer to push a gun forward to its gun port (“Run her out!”) the subtitles catch it as “Rudder out!”
A big drawback for the Disney Movie Club discs is that no extras are included, not a one. The old 2003 DVD came with a second disc brimming with goodies — original promos and docus, and retro takes on various aspects of the film. Leagues was one of the most aggressively promoted pictures of the 1950s. Disney bought advertising space everywhere and produced an entire hourlong TV show about the production and sold it to one of the networks. Instead of shunning TV as did the big studios, Walt got them to pay for his advertising. Add ‘business visionary’ to ‘creative visionary’ and you have the full picture of good ol’ Dalt Wizzy, conquerer of the entertainment universe.
The extras on the old DVD did good by nominating as the film’s most important creative contributor a homely design genius by the name of Harper Goff. The design of his submarine has never been beaten. He obviously was director Fleisher’s #1 man, for he engineered not only the long ships for The Vikings, but a cool inter-vascular cruiser for Fleisher’s later Fantastic Voyage.
When Harper Goff was told that the production would have access to only one CinemaScope lens for the whole film, he came up with an inspired way to achieve some of the miniature model shots. He had ‘squeezed’ models made of the Nautilus, so It could be filmed with flat, spherical lenses. When expanded with a CinemaScope lens, the shots look correct! If you look closely, a number of underwater shots are done this way — note that the rocks and seaweed look a little stretched-out.
Goff’s designs become especially noteworthy when one notes the patchy work on fantasy submarines seen elsewhere. Typical are the no-budget vessels of The Atomic Submarine, which look as if they came out of a cereal box. The super-sub Seaview of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which ‘borrowed’ Peter Lorre to play a similar role) looks extremely cool, like a finned Cadillac ready to tour the ocean bottom, but the Fox effects people could do little more than just shove it through the water and hope it would go straight. In many takes it leans to one side, and its poorly animated diving planes move like a bad toy. Toho’s Atragon also occasionally achieves the grandeur of Harper Goff’s work. Atragon is more of a shape-shifting ‘transformer’ toy, flying through the air and drilling through the Earth. I like its wooden decks though, they’re a nice touch.
BTW, the Goff Nautilus appears to still be a major attraction at Tokyo Disneyland.
This might be a good place for a remembrance of Tom Scherman, a prop maker and designer in the ‘Cascade’ generation of special effects men. Tom built many beautiful replicas of Goff’s Nautilus, some so elaborate that they were bought by Disney for display purposes. He was even selling them for hundreds of dollars, I believe. And I heard legendary stories about Tom and his brother remodeling parts of a house, to look like the interior of the Nautilus. I read about Scherman when I was twelve years old, when Famous Monsters reported that ‘little Tommy Scherman’ had seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in theaters forty times. I met him several times through the miniature crews I worked for, and he was a great guy.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 30, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson