20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)    2 Stars

“Walt Disney’s Mighty, Magnificent, Memorable 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!”

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Director: Richard Fleischer

Cast: Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas

Synopsis: A ship sent to investigate a wave of mysterious sinkings encounters the advanced submarine, the Nautilus, commanded by Captain Nemo.

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There’s a certain risk in revisiting a treasured movie from your childhood, a definite danger that the film you will find bears little resemblance to the magical one that resides in your memory. It happens so often that you’re almost tempted to avoid watching the thing entirely, or to view it with deliberately lowered expectations. But surely 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would stand the test of time. Wouldn’t it? After all, it’s got killer sharks, hungry cannibals, treasure, slave traders, a giant squid – a seal that eats cigars!

The story follows the adventures of Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his apprentice, Conseil (the ever-wonderful Peter Lorre) after they accept an invitation to take part in an expedition to find a sea-monster that has been sinking ships. It turns out that the culprit isn’t a monster at all, but an atomic-powered submarine captained by the urbane Captain Nemo, who allows the professor and his apprentice, as well as sailor Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) to board his vessel, the Nautilus, after scuppering their expedition ship. Once aboard, the trio realise they are Nemo’s prisoners, and react in different ways.

20,000 Leagues was the first live action movie to be filmed at Disney’s studio in the States, and also the first outside of 20th Century Fox to use Cinemascope. It was also the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release. Much of the evidence is up there on the screen: the production values are extremely high, and the special effects still hold up in today’s CGI-dominated world. The Nautilus is shaped like a giant fish, and foresees in many ways the fantastical lairs of Bond and Batman villains to come; its interior is perhaps a little over the top — Nemo’s quarters, all velvet seats and hanging drapes, puts one in mind of a Wild West brothel — but it all looks spectacular, nevertheless (to appreciate the full effect of cinematographer Franz Planer’s work — especially the breathtaking undersea photography — be sure to avoid pan-and-scan prints).

James Mason’s portrayal of the embittered Captain Nemo is surprisingly complex and multi-layered for what is essentially a kid’s movie; he’s a sophisticated and erudite character, but also a remote and committed misanthrope touched by madness. All this is suggested by Mason in a rather understated performance: Nemo comes across as a man wearied by his fellow man’s capacity for cruelty, and is often a target for our sympathy rather than a hissable bad guy, and he’s to be applauded for rejecting the easier path. It’s just a shame that Kirk Douglas didn’t follow his example; his performance is the movie’s only major flaw, and one can only wonder whether he was following director Richard Fleischer’s directions, or whether Fleischer was intimidated by Douglas’s status into permitting his cartoonish performance. Either way, Douglas never looks for one moment as if he is actually being directed. Couple this with the fact that Ned Land, the swaggering, rambunctious deckhand he portrays, is easy to dislike, and one can only heave a sigh of relief that his performance doesn’t damage the movie more than it actually does.

The only other real drawback is that the movie lacks a leading lady — and sorely misses one at times, if only to offer an occasional diversion from the inevitable clash of male egos. Not that it matters, but there is, in fact, a distinctly homo-erotic undertone to the whole film that, while it will fly straight over the heads of any watching kiddies, will be impossible to miss for any discerning viewer. Of course, there’s always a suggestion of homo-eroticism in any movie about a male-only environment, it’s inevitable, but there’s a fairly strong case for it being more than an unintended occurrence in this movie: it’s there in the relationship between the professor and his middle-aged ‘apprentice’, in the tightness of Douglas’s striped shirt, and in the ageing crew of the Nautilus with their moustaches and their natty blue uniforms. Hmmm…

Bottom line: with perhaps a few minor exceptions, Walt Disney’s version of Jules Verne’s 1870 novel looks as fine today as it did all those years ago. It may not enthral today’s kids the way it did those who were sprogs in the 50s — too much character, too much acting, too much Wonderful-World-of-Disney-wildlife slowing down the action — but it won’t fail to entertain those adults who still have in them a little of the child they used to be.

(Reviewed 24th September 2005)