“Giant squid astern, sir!”

In 1954, Walt Disney and company decided to tackle their first science-fiction venture, a full-length live-action adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1870 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Originally, the plan was to animate Verne’s story–after all, Disney’s animation studio had found undeniable success in adapting literary works ranging from Felix Salten’s environmental novel Bambi, A Life in the Woods (1942) to Lewis Carroll’s inventive children’s classic Alice in Wonderland (1951). But Disney felt ambitious. The studio had recouped its losses of the 1940s with the phenomenal success of Cinderella (1950), and he was in the midst of building the Disneyland theme park (which would open in the summer of 1955, a mere seven months after the release of League). A live-action, big-budget “prestige” picture would give the studio new cachet and could potentially be a huge moneymaker … if Walt were willing to take a risk and invest millions of dollars to build the facilities and staff necessary to do the project justice.

The risk paid off. Though the film went severely over budget (it even surpassed 1939’s Gone With the Wind as the most expensive movie ever made … at least, at the time) and did not turn a profit upon its original release, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was nonetheless a gigantic hit–not only was it critically acclaimed, but it was second only to White Christmas in the year’s box office. It was also the first movie to be released under Disney’s own distribution company, Buena Vista, after years of having his films released under the RKO banner. Leagues went on to win two Academy Awards, for Best Special Effects and Best Art Direction (it was also nominated for the Best Editing prize, but lost to On the Waterfront). And to this day, for a multitude of reasons, it remains one of the most popular live-action films to ever be released by the Disney studios.

The film takes place in 1866, as an unidentified sea monster terrorizes Pacific shipping routes, destroying ships and leaving few witnesses to its carnage. Frenchman Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his right-hand man, Conseil (Peter Lorre), travel across the ocean on a U.S. battleship in search of the monster. When their ship is attacked and sunk, the men discover that the “monster” is actually the Nautilus, a highly-advanced submarine captained by Captain Nemo (James Mason), an erudite man who is, by turns, charming, paranoid, and menacing. The men discover that Nemo has crafted advanced underwater technology, including nuclear power, and uses the sub to destroy ships carrying munitions and slaves in a solitary attempt to make the world a “better place.” Aronnax, Conseil, and a young harpooner named Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) are held prisoner on the sub, as Nemo fears that the trio will reveal his secrets to the world should he let them go. As Aronnax forms an intellectual connection to Nemo which leads him to sympathize with the captain’s motives, the rebellious Ned and the increasingly skeptical Conseil attempt to escape from “the madman” holding them captive.

The movie is relatively faithful to Verne’s original story, although it does make the same general mistake as many translations of the tale, adding two additional appendages to its sea monster by turning the French “poulpe” (an octopus) into a giant squid. The screenwriter, Earl Felton, also fleshed out more of Nemo’s background and changed the ending to clarify Nemo’s fate, which is left ambiguous by Verne.

The highlight of Leagues is, undoubtedly, the fight between the Nautilus and that giant squid. The version that ended up on the screen is actually quite different from the filmmakers’ original intentions. The scene was first staged on quiet seas at sunset. However, the footage could not be finessed enough to hide the obvious artificiality of the squid–the wires controlling forty-foot-long tentacles were visible, and the creature itself looked undeniably fake. Some test footage (embedded below) remains of the scene as it was originally shot.

Having viewed this footage, it’s little wonder the scene was redone. The setting was changed to nighttime, and the quiet seas gave way to a maelstrom–all the better to hide the wires controlling the squid’s movement. The special effects coordinators also crafted special tubes, concealed in the “squid’s” arms, which used air to assist with the arm movements and make the creature look all the more realistic. The end result (as seen in the video embedded below) makes for a much more believable, and much more terrifying, attack sequence.

Disney hit the jackpot with the casting of this picture. James Mason is nothing less than an inspired choice for the role of Nemo. The smooth elegance of his typical cinematic persona is on full display here. Mason brings a sympathetic slant to a complex character, and does it with seeming ease. Though Mason is undoubtedly the star of this movie, Lukas plays well against him, as do costars Douglas and Lorre. Douglas is a particularly winning presence as the cocky harpooner who’s always looking for a way out (if only to avoid eating more octopus fetus…). Ned Land’s growing friendship with Nemo’s pet seal, Esmeralda, provides welcome touches of humor and warmth amid the darker themes of the film.

Beautiful, engrossing, and innovative, Disney’s two-hour journey under the ocean holds up well even in the face of modern-day F/X wizardry. We’ll have to wait and see if the upcoming CGI-heavy updated adaptation of Leagues, reportedly to be directed by David Fincher, will be just as entertaining in the long run.

This post is my entry for the 50s Monster Movies blogathon at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear. To see contributions from other bloggers, check out the site.

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32 thoughts on ““Giant squid astern, sir!”

  1. I was terrified of being dragged down into the Pacific by a giant squid for years after seeing Disney’s “20,000 Leagues” as a child. It’s a great classic, tho, with wonderful performances by Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas…and the Nautilus. Had no idea it had gone over budget – and on a par with GWtW!

    • “I was terrified of being dragged down into the Pacific by a giant squid for years after seeing Disney’s “20,000 Leagues” as a child.”

      I know how you feel. When I was ten, our family took its first trip to Disney World, and I nearly had a panic attack on the 20,000 Leagues ride. I think it was a combination of mild claustrophobia and wondering if we were *really* going to get attacked by that damn squid. To this day, those things give me the heebie-jeebies!

    • It might have made an interesting animated feature, but then we’d have been deprived of seeing Mason and Douglas’ oh-so-handsome faces for two hours! 🙂

  2. Intriguing article. I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between pulp/B-movies and the cinematic techniques and technology that they inspired. Some of the most groundbreaking science fiction and effects-driven films redefined how films were made. People never give Disney enough credit for how many technical advancements he pioneered.

    • It’s interesting that you should mention that, Nathanael. I had wanted to talk about some of those advancements in this post, but figured I had rambled on enough. Before I researched this post, I had no idea that the Disney folks behind this film had developed the first honest-to-God diving suit, specifically for the walking-under-water scenes. It’s amazing what kinds of advancements in technology can be (and have already been) offered by the film industry.

  3. I love your review of one of my all-time favorite Disney live-action films. Before I ever saw 20,000 LEAGUES, I saw a documentary on Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” that focused on its special effects. It was a great behind-the-scenes look at movie-making. My only complaint about the film is that it’s a little slow in spots, but before one can complain too much,,,there’s a giant squid to be fought! I had no idea that the original intent was to have the scene take place at sunset. That’s an actual clip you included. As you wrote, James Mason is excellent as Nemo. He adds surprising depth to the movie. Thanks for a well-done review of a true Disney classic.

    • Thanks, Rick. I’ll admit I had trouble getting into this movie the first time I tried to watch it because of some of those “slow spots” you mentioned. But it’s completely worth sticking it out, because it truly is an entertaining film all around.

  4. You chose to review 20,000 Leagues? Be still, my heart. This was one of my favorite live-action Disney films, even though I haven’t seen it in years. Unlike some of the live-action films, it had the benefit of a really stellar cast and budget; I think Mason was just about the perfect Nemo. Thanks for bringing back fond memories.

    • Always pleased to be of service, Rachel! My favorite live-action Disney will probably always be The Parent Trap (the Hayley Mills version … though the 90s Lindsay Lohan take on it is actually not bad), but Leagues is right up there for me, too.

  5. I haven’t seen this one in years but your review makes me want to look it up again; your love for this film really comes through! Fascinating difference between the 2 clips; the storm scene really does work better (and it looks so much more WET). Wonder if there was any cross-influence between this film and the whale fight in John Huston’s Moby Dick, which I think came out around the same time? Thanks for your terrific and informative review.

  6. I remember my dad taking me to see this one evening on a re-issue sometime in the 1970s. Just loved it. As a kid I especially enjoyed Kirk’s singing “A Whale of a Tale” and being dismayed when one of the television networks showed it with this scene cut out. The nerve! It’s a nice song and well staged before all the mayhem with the Nautilus begins.

    Despite my love for the giant squid sequence, I can remember being haunted by the scene of the funeral service under water.

    • Yes, I find the underwater funeral scene to be rather creepy myself. I think part of the success of the movie is due to the way it deftly combines mystery, thrilling derring-do, and tempered horror. At the very least, it keeps you on your toes!

  7. Brandie, I love your 20,000 LEAGUES…. blog post, and I’m glad you included the “before and after” (so to speak) versions of the giant squid attack! As great and detailed as it is, I never dreamed it was the most expensive film ever made at the time! I’m sure glad that over time it made back its money and then some, in addition to becoming a classic. Now I’ll be singing “A Whale of a Tale” to myself for the rest of the evening! 🙂

  8. So glad you included the ‘sunset scene’ which I’d heard of but never seen. In addition to the objections you gave, the scene also went in the binary opposite direction from the color theory of the art direction: working my way through film school in Los Angeles by having a job at Walt Disney movie studios in the ‘seventies, one older mentor told me of 20,000 LEAGUES that “that whole movie is in blue!”

    • That’s an interesting point about the color scheme. I never really thought about it before, but the sunset coloring really is jarring in comparison to the majority of the film!

  9. Excellent post, Brandie, and thanks for including both versions of the squid fight. I’d heard for years about the “sunset” sequence but never it until it was included as a supplement on the DVD. A comparison of both versions makes it clear that reshooting that scene was the smartest thing Disney ever did. Leaving the first one in would have ruined the movie and made Disney the laughingstock of Hollywood.

    I have a bittersweet memory associated with 20,000 Leagues. It came to our town around Easter of 1955, and after Easter dinner my aunt and uncle took me and my brother to see it. But when she saw the line around the block, my aunt said it was too long and we should skip it. My brother and I weren’t given a vote. So I became, in 1955, the only seven-year-old boy in America who hadn’t seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; I had to wait until the ’61 reissue.

      • I think you’re so right about the decision to re-film being an incredibly smart one on Disney’s part. The way the squid scene was ultimately filmed differentiated it greatly from the other “monster movies” of the period. It’s remarkable how realistic Disney’s crew made this fight when so many other films of the period showcased rubbery, obviously fake creatures that would hardly frighten a five-year-old child. On the other hand, the monster attack in this movie, while still not the most realistic thing to ever grace the screen, actually incites a bit of fear (at least in me) because it seems–and looks–so plausible!

  10. Brandie, I am so late coming over to read your post — life just kept happening the last couple of weeks! I just love this movie, and your description and assessment are right on. James Mason was mesmerizing as Nemo. I remember Herbert Lom did a fine job in “Mysterious Island”, but could not overtop the great Mason. I love to see Peter Lorre in anything, and Paul Lukas is a really fine actor. Was Kirk Douglas ever more buff, young and pretty than in this film? I love the striped seaman’s shirt!

    Your clips were fascinating. Just a wonderful article, Brandie!

    • Thank you very much, Becky! I agree–Mason truly is mesmerizing, in every possible way. Particularly his voice–it’s so authoritative (and, let’s face it, shiver-inducing) and perfect for the role. I liked both Lorre and Lukas, and this is one of my favorite Douglas roles. It might be considered a “minor” part of his filmography by some, but to me, he’s rarely been more charming.

  11. I’ve always thought that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea should run as the second feature in a double with A Star Is Born. That way, when James Mason walks into the ocean at the end of the first film, the second film helpfully tells what happened to him.

    Good post. I’ve always loved that squid sequence. Disney knew how to scare the crap out of little kids, that’s for sure.

  12. Christianne, I always sign up to see other responses, and I’m glad I do. You are a woman after my own heart. Your idea about the first and second features — well, I’m still laughing. That is so sick — and I LOVE sick! To put Mason’s tragic walk into the sea and think of him just climbing aboard the Nautilus is inspired! Forgive me if I should already know this, but do you have a blog of your own? If you do, I’d love to visit! Mine is http://www.classicbeckybrainfood.blogspot.com. Come on over and let’s get together — my sense of humor is sick a lot too! LOL!

  13. Well for Pete’s sake – I must not have noticed your real name! That is so funny! Well, further prove that even if I don’t recognize you, I love your stuff!

    Brandie, hope you don’t mind your readers connecting like this!

  14. Pingback: Shooting a Giant Squid | *Abraham Thinkin'*

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