To begin Digression Week, we go back to 1954. This was an 'epic' film in the Disney paradigm, but a somewhat minor star in the 50s sci-fi universe. It was based rather well on Jules Verne's 1870 novel of the same name. Verne is one of the founding fathers of science fiction, but what was 'gee-whiz' in the 1870s did not necessarily retain its sense of wonder. Where 50s audiences were fascinated with flying saucers, a mere submarine was less likely to impress. Nonetheless, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (20k) is a 50s edition of a 19th century sci-fi classic, so it has an ancestral claim for inclusion in the 50s sci-fi herd.
Quick Plot Synopsis
A mysterious "sea monster" is sinking ships in the Pacific. We get to see one sunk. Crews refuse to sail. This strands Professor Arronax and his sidekick Conseil in San Francisco. The US Government promises him passage to Saigon in exchange for helping search for the monster. They find it. During its attack on the ship, Arronax, Conseil and harpooner Ned Land are knocked overboard and left behind. They drift upon the submarine Nautilus. Captain Nemo considers them prisoners, not guests, but softens when he recognizes Arronax. Nemo sees Arronax as a potential ambassador to the world for Nemo's technology. Nemo shows Aronax many of the wonders of the deep and the marvels of Nautilus. Conceil and Land continually conspire to escape. Nemo shows Arronax an island where slaves mine nitrates from gunpowder. The back story is that Nemo and his crew were once such slaves, but escaped. Hence, Nemo's "war" on the munitions trade. Nemo sinks the ship carrying the nitrates, but its exploding damages Nautilus's rudder. Land throws messages in bottles overboard, with coordinates for Nemo's home base, the island of Volcania. Later, the balky rudder causes Nautilus to get stuck on a reef. Land tries to escape, but is chased back by cannibals. A warship fires on the grounded Nautilus as it escapes. It's hit. It sinks to a record depth before Nemo regains control. At that depth, they are attacked by a giant squid. On the surface, the squid grabs Nemo. Land harpoons it and saves Nemo. They all arrive at Volcania to find it surrounded by warships. Troops swarm to the dormant volcano's summit. Via an underwater cave, the Nautilus gets to Nemo's secret base. There, he plants explosives to cover his secret. Nemo is shot in the back as they flee. Once back out at sea, Nemo prepares for a suicide dive. Land breaks free, fights first mate, and brings Nautilus back to the surface. The three escape in the skiff. The island blows up. Nemo dies of his wound. Nautilus is swamped by the wave and sinks. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
From a regular diet of black & white, and low-budget sets and effects, the colorful big budget Disney production feels almost luxurious. The acting is general A-level. James Mason does a great job as the tormented tyrant. Peter Lorrie is just fun to watch anytime. Fans of steampunk could easily see the Nautilus as the actual star of the film.
Cold War Angle
Verne had no inkling of nuclear power in his original novel. The Disney writers adapted the tale to the Cold War era by having the Nautilus powered by a nuclear reactor. With it, comes the customary cautions. "Such a power could revolutionize the world!" says Professor Arronax. "Or destroy it," retorts Nemo. The movie ends with a softened cautionary moral. Nemo's words are replayed: "There is hope for the future, and when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass in God's good time..."
Glorious Steampunk -- The term "steampunk" wasn't coined until the late 1980s, and then to describe tales in which modern technology is accomplished with 19th century means. The Nautilus in 20k is a grand example of the modern (1950s) nuclear submarine rendered in 19th century forms. Actually, Disney made his Nautilus more retro than Verne did. Verne's Nautilus had a sleek electric motor drive. Disney's Nautilus had large steam engine (albiet running on reactor generated steam) It is interesting to keep in mind, however, that when Verne was imagining his Nautilus, 19th century technology was the cutting edge. Big gauges, steam pipes, levers and plate steel with big rivets were to Verne's day, what aluminum and plexiglas were to folks in the 50s. Electricity was the magic marvel of Verne's day. Atomic energy was the corresponding magic marvel for the 50s.
Movie vs. Book -- Many movie adaptations depart significantly from the books their based on. Disney's 20k, however, actually does a fair job of paralleling Verne's novel. Some changes were inevitable, such as the glossing over of the nebulous enemy to downplay Verne's more blatant anti-British attitude. Verne's novels often have a heavy travelogue flavor to them. Disney's 20k managed to retain just enough of that. To Disney's credit, he avoided inserting a female lead to become a love interest -- as many scripts did. Disney also avoided inserting a youngster as audience-identifier star. He would do this in many of his movies, but not in 20k, thankfully.
Sub Star -- As in Verne's novel, so too in Disney's 20k, the submarine Nautilus is one of the stars. Verne often wrote a tale that featured some wonder-gizmo around which the story revolves. Verne had a visionary's eye. In 1870, the submarine was so primitive that it would have been easy to miss. In 1864, the Confederate sub CSS Hunley sank the USS Housatonic. The Hunley was crude. It was essentially a 40 foot long, four-foot diameter plate steel tube. The "engine" was eight men who turned a common hand crank to drive the propeller. The explosive they planted into the hull of the Housatonic succeeded, but the shock from it may have doomed the Hunley as well. It never returned. For Verne to imagine the Nautilus when the Hunley was state-of-the-art, was quite a visionary leap. In the 1950s, complex submarines, driven by atomic reactors, traveling thousands of miles, would be state-of-the-art, so some of Verne's gee-whiz magic was lost.
Bach to the Future -- A fascinating detail in 20k, is the scenes of Nemo playing his ornate pipe organ. With facial expressions of deep inner pain and torment, James Mason pounds out Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Modern movie fans can't help but recognize in this the iconic Phantom of the Opera scene. That scene, however, appears in Hammer Film's 1962 version of Phantom of the Opera. Disney's 20k was eight years prior, and very widely seen. The Nemo-playing-Bach scene could not help but have influenced Hammer, yet the '62 version with the Phantom became the cultural icon associated with the music, not the '54 version with Nemo. Go figure.
Bottom line? Disney's 20k is a classic that should not be missed. The sci-fi component may be a little light in the context of saucers and aliens, yet it touches sci-fi's foundations.