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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Tunnel

A year later, and in a very similar vein as F.P.1 there was another triple set of sci-fi movies dealing with transatlantic travel. The english version, The Tunnel (TT), was actually released in 1935. Der Tunnel and Le Tunnel were released in 1933. While the French and German films were, like FP1 nearly identical reshoots, TT was a separate production. Not only did it have a different cast, but had its own sets and special effects. All three were based on the same novel, had the same characters and followed the same story. The German version starred Paul Hartmann as "Mac Allen". The French version starred Jean Gabin as "Mac Allen." The English version starred Richard Dix as "Richard 'Mack' MacAllen." The screen play of the english version was, like FP1, co-written by Kurt Siodmak. The American release was called, The Transatlantic Tunnel.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Mr. Lloyd, a rich financier, assembled a group of other rich industrialists to hear Richard "Mack" MacAllen give his sales pitch on building a tunnel from England to America. They're skeptical at first, but buy in when Lloyd says he will. Mack's wife Ruth is excited at the news. So is Varlia Lloyd (the beautiful platinum blonde daughter). She secretly loves Mack. Mostyn outwardly professes love for Varlia, so the stage is set for a fidelity crisis AND a love triangle. Mack throws himself into his work, neglecting Ruth and his young son Geoffrey. Work progresses more slowly than expected, even with the spiffy high-tech "Radium Drill." Investors get nervous, so Lloyd sends for Mack to do publicity tours in America. Varlia likes the idea, because she gets to accompany him everywhere. Ruth, under the care of Mack's best friend Robby, laments about her absent husband and Varlia. Robby suggests she get a job so she's not moping around the house. Turn out she gets a job as a volunteer nurse, treating men with Mine Sickness, which causes blindness. She goes blind. When Mack is on his way home, Ruth tells Robby that she's running away. She does. Mack throws himself into the work, but progress hits a snag as a volcano lies in the tunnel's path. Financier's Mostyn and Grellier conspire to exaggerate the crisis, so as to drive the tunnel's stock low, then buy up a controlling interest. They do. When other backers balk at funding a detour, Mostyn and Grellier smile at the opportunity to gain a controlling interest. Mack's only hope is special funding. Varlia promises to marry Mostyn if he'll back Mack and the tunnel for the detour. He agrees, but Grellier handles Mostyn's defection from The Syndicate, with a poison cigarette. Mostyn is dead in his car, but apparently the funding still went through. Mack rallies his disgruntled workers with a rousing pep talk. Turns out his grown son is now among the workers -- a mixed blessing for Mack. Work proceeds in Sector K, but they hit hot gas and fire. Men flee, but the safety door closes, trapping a hundred or so, including Geoffrey. Meanwhile, Varlia visits Ruth asking her to divorce Mack so she can have him. No can do. Ruth still loves him. Then show it! Ruth goes to Mack, learns that Geoffrey is dead. He learns that she's blind. She says he should complete his tunnel, so he takes four volunteers down. They fire up the radium drill and motor ahead. The temperatures rise to dangerous levels, but he presses on. Eventually, they break through, meeting the American-side tunnelers. Everyone shakes hands. The Prime Minister makes a patriotic speech. The President makes a patriotic speech. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
TT is a very terrestrial sci-fi, but fun for a look at how 1933 thought the world would look 20 or 30 years later -- not much different, just a bit more streamlined. As another of the triple-language films, it is a fun study in how a story can vary when told three times.

Cultural Connection
Underpinning the story in TT is quiet desperation. Linking the two great english-speaking nations is heralded as ensuring peace. This certainly implies that there was some unseen threat. Of course, in 1935, there were a few. Hitler had assumed power and made Germany Nazi instead of Weimar. Mussolini had turned Italy into a fascist state. Russia was still communist. At one point in the film, the Prime Minister talks of "an Eastern Federation" which has been seeking an opportunity to crush the freedom-loving anglo-saxon nations. The foreshadows of WWII can be heard in the wings.

Based on the Book -- Bernhard Kellermann wrote "Der Tunnel" in 1913. It was a big hit. Kellermann imagined a world of progress in which World War One had not occurred (as, indeed, it had not yet when he wrote his novel). Yet, Kellermann wrote presciently about the largesse of the 20s, financial collapse and even worker revolts. A feature of the book that did not factor into any of the three movies, was the obsolescence of technologies. In his book, by the time the tunnel was completed, it was no longer important. Airplanes could fly across the Atlantic in far less time. This was the fantasy in FP1, after all. Instead, TT ends triumphant that a united UK and USA would ensure peace.

Franco-German Version -- The French and German versions were like FP1 in that the exact same scenes were shot, on the exact same sets, but using a different cast, speaking a different language. It helped to have the same director (Curtis Bernhardt) for both. It was his basic screenplay for both. The French and German versions sometimes reused the same footage too. Long shots, landscapes and some crowd shots where no particular language was discernible. The English version uses no footage from the two French and German films. There was much less of an attempt to make the sets look futuristic. It's pretty much a story set in 1933.

Semi-Serious Tunnel -- The idea for an English Channel tunnel goes back to Napoleon, though his aim was not world peace, so much. The British had been very leery of any channel tunnel ever since. The idea was seriously floated again in the 1880s, but encountered hostile pushback from the public. Novelists wrote about the French invading via some new tunnel. A transatlantic tunnel was mused over and dreamt about, but never seriously considered. A high speed rail link might make the 5,000 mile crossing in 10 hours, assuming one could perfect a 500 mph train. After WWII, airliners were doing just about that. Jet airliners were.

Radium Drill -- A cool bit of special effects is the Radium Drill. It's a bit of magic, and never really explained, but it looks cool in operation. It is also interesting how, in such an imagined modern future, so much labor was still imagined to be performed by sweaty shirtless men with their bare hands.

Car of the Future -- For automotive history fans, TT gives a few good clips of the Tatra 77, both as Ruth's car and as Mostyn's car. This was Czech design by Hans Ledwinka, whose work closely paralleled that of Ferdinand Porsche's (eventual) Volkswagen. The T 77 was a big car, with a rear-mounted air-cooled V8. It was the Beetle's much bigger cousin. In the early 30s, streamlining was all the rage. The T 77 was über-Moderne in 1933, and it had an über-cool central tail fin! So it was the easy choice to be TT's car-of-the-future.

Bottom line? TT is not too bad for an industrial-construction sci-fi. No rockets, saucers, aliens or monster, though. The big tunnel sets are pretty good, and the restrained attempts at "modern" are fun. The soap opera love triangle stuff gets a little tiresome, but it was probably important back then. Sci-fi alone could probably not have made money.


Randall Landers said...

This one ran recently on TCM, and I was very pleased at how though dated that the movie seemed pretty solid. Richard Dix did a really nice job of a man whose obsession with this colossal achievement leads to the death of his son and the blindness of his wife. Do not miss this one, folks. It's not space opera, but it's got all the elements (sweaty, shirtless guys notwithstanding).

Anonymous said...

I saw the English version movie when I was a young child, not long after WW II. I've been looking for it for about ten years. Tried ever so hard at the time the Chunnel was opened. Zilch! Tonight, being very bored, I decided to try again. Bingo! Success on the first try.