Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
“A fabulous world below the world”
Director: Henry Levin
Cast: James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl
Synopsis: An Edinburgh professor and assorted colleagues follow an explorer’s trail down an extinct Icelandic volcano to the earth’s center.
WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
Back in the 1960s and ‘70s, Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth was one of those movies that would be aired as a Christmas treat for kids almost every year. It’s not shown so often these days, and when it is I suspect it’s for the viewing pleasure of the 50-somethings who were kids back in the 1960s and ‘70s rather than the kids of today. It’s difficult to see this generation getting much of a thrill out of seeing some iguana skipping along with a sail glued to its back, pretending to be a dinosaur. And it’s funny, the tricks your memory plays on you: I seem to remember Journey to the Center — or Centre, if you’re British and spell your words proper — of the Earth being crammed full of dinosaurs, but its only in the last half-hour or so, after we’ve travelled through miles and miles of polystyrene caves and tunnels, that they finally make an appearance.
James Mason plays Oliver Lindenbrook, a professor at Edinburgh University. One of his students is young Alec Mckuen, played by Pat Boone. Now it would be remiss of me not to mention young Mr. Boone’s lamentable accent at this point just so I can get it off my chest before getting on with the plot synopsis. There are two bad movie accents in movies: there’s the Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins school, to which the likes of Don Cheadle subscribes, and there’s the Sean Connery in The Untouchables school which sounds pretty much like the actor in question’s normal accent, and which is quickly dropped when it becomes apparent that the actor or actress in question just doesn’t have an ear for accents. The character name should be enough to denote nationality, anyway, so why bother with an accent? Strangely, Boone seems to have a foot in both camps: his Scottish accent is so thin it’s emaciated, but he stubbornly perseveres with it nonetheless, weakly rolling the occasional R here and there. Why the producers felt it necessary to make him Scottish instead of taking pity on the poor Boone and having him as a prototype exchange student or something is beyond me. Pop stars have a difficult enough time just trying to act, but to saddle them with an accent as well is just cruel.
Ok, now that I’ve got that off my chest…
Young Alec has the hots for Lindenbrook’s daughter, Jenny (Diane Baker) and, when he learns that the professor is planning to immediately depart for Iceland in order to follow the previously lost trail of Arne Saknussem, an explorer who disappeared while exploring volcanoes, he quickly volunteers to go along. Lindenbrook found, encased within a lava rock given to him as a gift by the sucky-uppy Alec, a plumb bob with a message from Saknussem on it which reveals the location of the entrance to a network of tunnels which lead to the centre of the earth. However, on arrival in Iceland, Lindenbrook and Alec are dismayed to find that Professor Goteborg, to whom Lindenbrook had disclosed his findings, has arrived ahead of him and bagged every piece of exploration equipment near the volcano which houses the entrance.
However, upon tracking Goteborg to one of the local hotels, Lindenbrook and Alec discover that their rival has been murdered, just as the dead professor’s busty young(ish) wife, Carla (Arlene Dahl) arrives from Sweden. It has to be said that Lindenbrook isn’t too tactful about getting his hands on his rival’s equipment so soon after the widow learns of her new marital status, and it’s fairly understandable that she balks at giving him what he so ungraciously demands. But when Carla reads her deceased husband’s diaries and learns that Lindenbrook wasn’t lying about him stealing his discovery she acquiesces — on the condition that she is allowed to accompany him and Alec on their expedition. Of course, the misogynistic professor loudly protests, but after a lot of bluff and bluster, is forced to accept the widow’s condition. Also coming along is Hans (Icelandic track athlete Peter Ronson, whose one and only movie this is), a hulking blonde native, and his pet duck, Gertrude (and why not?).
All of this exposition and preparation is pretty tough for a juvenile audience that just wants to see dinosaurs roaming a cool land different from our own, and it seems to take an age for Lindenbrook and his gang to finally make it to the mouth of the tunnel. When they do, they find that, once again someone has beaten them to it. This time it’s the dastardly, moon-faced Count Saknussem (Thayer David), a descendant of the explorer, who feels the right to be the first survivor of the journey should be his.
Lindenbrook’s entry into the network of cavernous tunnels marks the beginning of a surprisingly lengthy sequence which sees the expedition traversing caves and tunnels that seem to be magically lit from within (the lamps they use would barely illuminate the inside of a matchbox) and free of dirt, judging by the tiny smudges that eventually appear on our intrepid explorers’ faces after a month or two’s journeying. But that’s all by the by. We children at heart are willing to overlook such inconsistencies as long as we’re provided with an adventure, and Journey to the Center of the Earth certainly delivers in that respect. We get a giant boulder, perched precariously on the edge of a cliff top, as if left there by Wile E. Coyote who got bored waiting for the Road Runner, which finally topples over the edge at just the wrong moment and rolls after our heroes like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. We also see the hapless professor instigate a deluge that nearly drowns them all when he dislodges a crystal from a cave wall with his hammer. One tiny pinprick quickly becomes a gaping hole through which untold gallons of water has been waiting eons to gush, and again the moment reminded me of one of those Wile E. Coyote cartoons — although I’m sure that wasn’t the intention.
The biggest question I always ask myself when revisiting a favourite movie from my childhood is how does it stand up to my — usually faulty — memories of how great it was. After all, the critical faculties of an eleven-year-old kid who just wants to see people being chased by dinosaurs are not that demanding. Journey to the Center of the Earth holds up pretty well, even though its pace seems incredibly slow compared to today’s hyperactive action movies. The special effects are creaky — but that simply serves to lend the movie a certain charm it probably never possessed when it was first released. In fact, it was no doubt an ambitious, cutting edge blockbuster in the 1950s, and despite its hokiness it still stands up as solid entertainment more than half a century later. And, let’s face it — any movie in which the villain dies as a consequence of eating a duck has to be worth a watch…
(Reviewed 8th September 2013)