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Captain Nemo and the Mysterious Island (1973)

Jules Verne’s second adventure novel to feature his greatest creation, Captain Nemo, is brought to somber if reasonably faithful life in this low budget Spanish production, which swaps the action packed thrills, larger than life monsters and wild imagination of previous adaptations, for the pleasure of Omar Sharif‘s company and plenty of political commentary.

Also known as La isla misteriosa y el capitán Nemo, or simply, L’Île mystérieuse, this production is either a TV movie or a TV mini-series, depending on where it was broadcast, and relies heavily on the undimmed star wattage of it’s sole name actor, Egyptian superstar Omar Sharif.

But it’s fair to say his decline at the box office had already begun from his sixties heyday of 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, and 1968’s Funny Girl, and his best efforts are hampered by a director more comfortable and interested with ideas than with pushing Sharif‘s performance or creating dynamic action sequences.

Verne’s US Civil War adventure about escaping Union POW’s being swept to a pacific island where they experience various perils as they establish a US colony and and meet Captain Nemo survives mostly intact. Yes, the extensive colonisation of the island is skipped, but the five principal characters are all there, including the African American, Nab, rechristened from Neb in other versions. He’s not given much character or agency but at least he isn’t relegated to a domestic role as in the source novel.

The POW’s escape from the stockade takes the form of a pitched battle and is excitingly staged on an impressive scale, but is sadly not indicative of what follows. The underwater photography is fine if far from groundbreaking, and the special effects are typical 1970’s TV quality.

Unlike the novel, Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus appear very early on to hook in sci-fi fans and the casual viewer with its star turn. Though a younger and more robust Nemo than fans of the book may expect, Sharif is a dignified and fittingly regal presence and never looks less than magnificent. And of course he has the charisma to carry off the role of Nemo, even in this staid production.

Nemo initially seems dressed in Flash Gordon’s wedding outfit, but later appears more conservatively in a turban and Nehru jacket, reflecting Nemo’s true identity as Dakkar, a deposed Prince of India.

I can’t be sure if Nemo’s real identity is explained or is just alluded to by his attire, but at least this version is giving Nemo’s Indian heritage its due, rather than whitewashing the character as some other versions will later do. Yes, I’m looking at you, Michael Caine. And you, Patrick Stewart.

Nemo uses his science to save a young boy from death. Harbert Brown is played by Rafael Bardem Jr. but I can’t find any biographical information for him. Though given this show’s director is the son of Rafael Bardem, a noted Spanish film actor whose career stretched from the 1940s through the 1960s. I suspect he is some relation.

Juan Antonio Bardem co-directs with Henri Colpi, and the former was imprisoned by Spanish fascist leader General Franco for making anti-fascist films. In case you were wondering, Juan Antonio is the father of director Miguel Bardem and uncle of actor Oscar-winner and James Bond 007 villain, Javier Bardem.

Nemo and his crew wear head scarves and flowing robes which may be a nod to Sharif’s turn in David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, but it also certainly represents North Africa to the show’s Spanish audience, thus adding a layer of historical local conflict.

This version leans into the idea of the watchful Nemo not being an altogether benign presence, and allows this show to lean into the politics of Spain, then under the regime of dictator General Franco, who died in 1975.

Nemo employs electronic weaponised surveillance devices to spy on the shipwrecked POW’s, and this is reminiscent of 1967’s British avant-garde sci-fi TV series, The Prisoner, an idea also used in the 1995’s Canadian adaption of The Mysterious Island.

And this island surveillance of the shipwrecked also draws on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, whose central character, the powerful magician Prospero, spies and manipulates the behaviour of the castaways on his desert island. Later versions lean more heavily into Nemo-as-Prospero. I’m still looking at you, Patrick Stewart.

The costume department doesn’t shirk from styling the pirates in bandanas and Breton shirts, and when the action picks up the sound editor gets to be loudly expressive. It’s just a shame this decent bit of work is undermined in a lack of interest in or development of the characters.

The design of the Nautilus exterior errs towards the work of Gerry Anderson of Thunderbirds fame, which would no bad thing if the quality achieved were anything near even his weakest moments. And there’s an absence of the novel’s sojourn to a nearby island.

However there’s good location work at sea with a raft and a canoe, and Verne’s volcano is intact until it isn’t and erupts. It’s a spectacular if all too brief moment, and I assume it’s stock footage, albeit of a superior quality. That said my viewing copy was a poor transfer to digital and the colours were certainly more muted than I suspect were intended.

I’ll point out here I watched the original Spanish-language version of this without subtitles, any very basic grasp of Spanish means any exposition, nuance or sophisticated humour was pretty much lost on me, assuming it’s in there to begin with.

This sits nicely alongside BBC’s sci-fi series, Blake’s 7 by way of Mike Hodges’ 1980 adaptation of Flash Gordon, in that exterior locations exploit the possibilities of local quarries, there’s plenty of stagey composition in the single camera set-ups, and the cast are all acting in capital letters. Only I enjoyed both those shows more than this middling-at-best take on Verne’s masterpiece of speculative fiction.

This is a generally dour and ponderous adaptation, not helped by the mournful and haunting soundtrack. As ever, Verne’s dog and chimp are employed to provide the meagre laughs.

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