Monday, 6 September 2010

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)

Country: USA

Jule's Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth

As anyone who follows my errant scribbling will know I love 1950’s science-fiction films. Be they invasion narratives such as Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), giant bug films such as Them! (1954) or Tarantula (1955) or displaced prehistoric monsters such as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The charm of these low budget films lie in their relationship to the creation of visual and special effects, and in their hysterical attitudes to politics, authority, and scientific endeavour. The special effects are not seamless and always betray the fact they have been created by human beings. I think this essential humanity, the fact that we can see on screen the culmination of an artistic process (be it convincing or otherwise) is one of the most endearing aspects. Although modern day CGI is programmed and created by human beings, it lacks the sense of warmth and humanity that is all part of the cinematic process. I find that CGI is a barrier to me completely suspending my belief and stepping fully into whatever fictional universe has been created. In this regard I believe modern day special effects have actually suffered something of a regression. One of the most enjoyable and convincing is 20th Century Fox’s 1959 production of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. A film which draws one effortlessly into the fabric of its narrative in a way which trash like Avatar (2009) simply does not.

The first thing to say is that the screenplay by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett affects a much lighter tone than the source material. Those brought up on the film adaptations of Verne’s work might be surprised to discover his novels are very serious in tone, and almost completely lacking in humour. The success of Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954 - which also featured James Mason) was crucial in this tonal alteration, and 20th Century Fox chose to maintain this jovial atmosphere for their own ambitious production. In this regard those of a more literary persuasion would probably damn this film on those grounds, but I’m inclined to praise the film for the very same reason - the filmmakers are doing something different with the novel, which is the whole point of adaptation. Naturally some of the jocular moments do fall flat, and the ongoing inclusion of Hans Beiker’s (Peter Ronson) duck companion Gertrude is bound to divide audiences. I grew rather fond of Gertrude and the relationship between duck and owner is one of the strongest in the film.

The film opens in Edinburgh amid the news that gifted geologist and brilliant academic Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) has been knighted. Mason is excellent as Lindenbrook, he holds the film together with a towering performance which brings to life both the charm of the scientist and the ruthlessness with which he pursues his goal. Lindenbrook is also something of a rebel, a non-conformist element at Edinburgh University wearily tolerated for his brilliance but want to depart on a flight of fancy. One such flight sees him travel to Iceland along with his protégé and soon to be son in law Alec McKuen (Pat Boone) on the trail of the Icelandic scientist Arne Saknuseem who vanished some years before on an expedition to the centre of the earth. The party expands with the arrival of brawny Icelandic farmer Hans and feisty widow Carla Goteborg (Arlene Dhal) and soon the intrepid explorers are descending via a volcano into the very bowels of the earth. Little knowing that their steps will be dogged by Count Saknuseem (Thayer David) as he attempts to take control of this undiscovered realm.

The opulent cinemascope presentation and beautifully lit cinematography by Lee Tover brings to life an underground world rich in imagery and design. The visual effects artists and production designers have a field day and create a number of memorable locations. The sense of descent is always maintained as the explorers encounter weird crystalline formations and giant stalactites. Along the way they encounter a cave of salt, a field of giant mushrooms, the ruins of Atlantis, an underground ocean, and a bunch of hungry prehistoric lizards. A giant chameleon adds further value to a frame jam packed with spectacle. Along the way we get some singing (I admit this did irritate me) and the jovial atmosphere does at times unbalance proceedings, but the total belief in James Mason’s central performance enabled me to forgive such unfortunate oversights. The films unshakeable belief in the knowledge of the scientist is unusual for the time, but fits nicely within an historical period rendered accurately by costume and class division. The dodgy Scottish accents are a shame, and so are the supporting cast, who without exception, are totally wiped aside by the charisma of Mason. Verne’s text has remained a durable narrative with adaptations appearing in 1908, 1977, 1988 and 2008, but for me the definitive screen version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth is this thoroughly enjoyable 1959 version.

© Shaun Anderson - 2010


  1. I haven't seen that movie for years but I do remember thoroughly enjoying it.

  2. My favorite movie from my childhood. It was on television today and I watched it again!


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