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Friday, December 4, 2009

Mysterious Island

Columbia released yet another adaptation of a Jules Verne story in late 1961. Mysterious Island (MI) tries to follow Verne's novel as much as Hollywood tended to. Variations aside, the big screen, bigger budget production has more special effects and even some Ray Harryhausen animation to provide an almost modern level of eye candy. Even though the science part of the fiction is pretty thin, there is more than enough action to make up for it.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Three Union soldiers, a war correspondent and an unwilling Southern soldier flee a Richmond prison in 1865. A huge storm blows them far out into the Pacific. The balloon tears and they land on an island. They are joined by Lady Mary and her niece Elena, shipwrecked. The seven set up a camp and begin work on a boat. They encounter a giant crab and a giant bird chick. Both provide ample food. Elena and Herbert develop a love interest and become trapped in a giant bee honeycomb. Some pirates arrive to replenish supplies. A gun fight ensues until the pirate ship blows up and sinks. Captain Nemo is revealed as the cause of the sinking and other mysterious events on the island. He reports that the volcano will soon blow up. Everyone's only hope is to repair the sunken ship, pump it full of air from the Nautilus and refloat it. Everyone sets to their chores to do so, but the volcano erupts sooner than expected. Nemo despairs, but Captain X suggests they repair their balloon and use it to quickly float the ship. While arranging all this, Pencroft is grabbed by a giant squid beast. Herbert uses Nemo's electric gun to make it retreat. Nemo turns on the pumps. The ship refloats. Everyone climbs aboard, but the eruption traps Nemo aboard the Nautilus as the volcano causes massive damage. The seven sail away, vowing to work for a peaceful world as Nemo would have wanted. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Despite deviations from Verne's novel, MI has a well crafted and action packed screenplay. The special effects are still effective, even in today's CGI world.

Cold War Angle
The message via Nemo is clearly anti-war, though nothing is particularly nuclear.

Nemo III -- MI marks the third appearance of Nemo references in 1961 films. It is also the most clearly Nemo. The first was Master of the World which featured Robur as a sort of airborne Nemo, opposing war as well. The second was Atlantis which featured a Nautilus-like submarine. Interestingly, MI included some submerged Greek ruins as an unnamed reference to Atlantis. MI was the most blatant of the three Nemo films in featuring Nemo himself.

Typical Nemo -- The writers paid homage to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by making their Nemo (Herbert Lom) very similarly to Disney's Nemo (James Mason). They even have their Nemo play Bach's Toccata and Fuge in D minor on the pipe organ.

Gotta Have Women -- As with most Hollywood adaptations, the writers inserted two female characters which Verne did not have. The young and voluptuous Elena (Beth Rogan) provides the usual love-interest for young Herbert, who are then the modern movie demographic interest. Elena gets to wear a very short goatskin dress with a cleavage enhancing neckline -- a ticket-selling scheme in the Hollywood tradition. Young Herbert, just to be fair, gets to run around in just shorts so the ladies can enjoy his shirtlessness.

Naive Peacenik -- MI's Nemo monologues about stopping war by solving world hunger via his huge animal technology. The assumption is that people fight wars over food. Yet, even the Civil War, which Verne used as a background, had nothing to do with anyone's lack of food. Even with Nemo's giant chickens, men would still find things to fight over.

Second Go-Round --Ten years earlier, in 1951, Columbia produced a theatrical serial of "Mysterious Island." This, too, followed the novel to various degrees, although it added some aliens from the planet Mercury, who had ray guns. It starred Richard Crane as Captain Harding. Crane would go on to star as Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Gene Roth, who often played the villain in early 50s serials, did so here too, as the pirate captain.

All Hail Harryhausen! -- Ray Harryhausen lends his talent to make the various giant creatures come to life. His unmistakable touch can be seen in the giant crab, the giant chick and of course, the sinister squid-beast near the end.

Bottom line? MI is entertaining and captivating, even today. It is well worth the effort to find a copy.

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