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.