Movie Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Release Date: December 23, 1954
Director: Richard Fleischer
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Synopsis:

It’s 1868 in San Francisco, and rumors abound that vessels in the shipping lanes across the Pacific are being disrupted by a monster.  This disappoints marine science expert Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), who are eager to travel to Saigon.  They are invited to join US Navy expedition to investigate the rumors of the monster.  The expedition also included harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

After nearly four months of methodically searching the Pacific, the captain is ready to return to San Francisco, but then they witness a nearby merchant ship get struck by something and explode due to it’s cargo of gunpowder.  Rushing to aid the sinking ship, the naval crew spot the “monster,” which turns and attacks them next.  Aronnax, Lorre, and Land all end up overboard.  They are carried on flotsam to a mysterious submersible vessel which they investigate and it appears to be abandoned. They witness through a window that the crew of submarine are actually carrying out an undersea burial.

The trio are captured by Captain Nemo (James Mason) and the crew of the Nautilus. Initially, Nemo wishes to execute the men but then decides to hold them prisoner, largely because he admires Aronnax’s scientific work and willingness to die with his companions.  Aronnax learns that Nemo and his crew were enslaved at a penal colony where they mined for material used in making munitions.  Now they find peace from the cruelty of human warfare, while destroying munitions ships that would contribute to further war.

Aronnax becomes convinced that if he gets close to Nemo, he can convince Nemo to use his technological knowledge for the betterment of humanity.  Meanwhile, Ned works on a plan for escape.  Conseil, feeling that the Professor has become irrational in his alliance with Nemo, joins Ned on an escape plan.

Nemo imprisons Ned after an escape attempt, but when the Nautilus is attacked by a giant squid, Ned is not only able to break out of his prison but also rescues Nemo.  The Nautilus sails to their base at the island of Vulcania, only to find it has been surrounded by warships (possibly due to Ned sending out the coordinates in bottled messages).  Nemo goes ashore to set off a bomb to destroy all of his scientific work, but is fatally shot while returning to the Nautilus.  The crew agree to go down with the Captain, but Ned manages to escape with Aronnax and Conseil in a skiff, where they watch Vulcania explode from afar.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This may be one of the earliest movies I ever saw, with a screening at our local community club.  I loved it for its adventure and humor, and watched it several other times over the course of my childhood.  I was also a big fan of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction at Walt Disney World when I was a kid.

What Did I Remember?:

I may not have been able to summarize the plot of the film before watching, but several times throughout the film just as something was about to happen I remembered what was coming next.  Obviously key scenes like Kirk Douglas singing “A Whale of a Tail,” the conflict with the “cannibals,” and the attack of the giant squid are impossible to forget.

What Did I Forget?:

Mostly just the first ten minute or so, the boring establishing scenes prior to Kirk Douglas singing.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie is a pure adventure, drawing on the genius of Jules Verne, mixed with the mid-century Disney/Hollywood whimsy.  The humor and charm help mask that this is actually a very dark story with some deep philosophical questions.  I’m sure some people could pick nits with the special effects, but I still find them damned impressive depictions of the undersea world.  Douglas, Lorre, and Mason are all terrific in their iconic roles.  Also, this movie has a awesome sea lion that sings along with Kirk Douglas.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Not unlike King Kong, this movie includes a terribly racist depiction of indigenous people of the South Pacific.   The scene with the “cannibals,” especially when they get electric shocks from the Nautilus while Ned and Conseil laugh at them, is just awful.  I imagine that if this movie were remade today they would probably also work to have the crew of the Nautilus reflect the actual diversity of mid-19th century sailors rather than just be a bunch of white guys

Is It a Classic?:

It’s a whale of a tale and it’s all true, a classic through and through!

Rating: ****1/2

7 thoughts on “Movie Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) #atozchallenge

    1. Douglas is a handsome and charismatic actor. I particularly like the way he plays the scene where he tries to explain why he saved Nemo’s life and he’s basically angry at his own innate humanity.

      Like

    1. I can’t find Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea streaming anywhere. I’m amused to see Peter Lorre is in the cast of this movie as well. I hope he’s not typecast as the “submarine guy.”

      Liked by 1 person

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