A delirious fusion of live-action and animation very loosely based on Jules Verne’s 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, this glorious fantasy is a heady kaleidoscope of boys’ own adventure, wild invention, political satire and knockabout action, with occasional moments of whimsy and a huge amount of humour.
Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War and sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island. However Czech film director, Karel Zeman, often called the ‘Czech Melies‘, uses Verne as a jumping off point for madcap escapades as a group of schoolboys makes a bid for freedom from an oppressive and corrupt regime.
Brave, bright eyed, loyal and combative, they steal an airship and fly to a remote island, and in their absence are tried in their absence and sentenced to hang.
Zeman’s energy and imagination are boundless and we’re treated to a multitude of Heath Robinson-style devices and flying contraptions, as well as Mission Impossible-style face masks, sharks, shotgun-toting boot-makers, dancing ducks, and pirates.
Among the fights, physical humour and acrobatic antics, a woman castaway becomes allies with boys and together they run rings around the men trying to subdue them.
In the middle of the madness, and lifted from The Mysterious Island, there’s a brief meeting with Verne’s most memorable creation, Captain Nemo, who’s portrayed as a tech-loving Methuselah, while his submarine, the Nautilus, is handily labelled ‘Nautilus’.
Ideas tumble over each other at dizzying speed in a bewildering mix of illustrative styles, musical interludes, and stock footage.
Much of Zeman’s style may seem familiar to you and that’s likely due to his influencing not only his countryman, the famed animator Jan Svankmajer, but also to the filmmakers Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, Ray Harryhausen, and Wes Anderson.
More specifically, The Stolen Airship, with it’s love of steampunk tech, a fairground rumpus, zeppelin, an incompetent bowler-hatted spy, and with a corrupt official and his glamorous wife bearing more than passing resemblance to Baron Bomburst and his wife, it seems to have been a considerable influence on the Cubby Broccoli’s 1968 family musical fantasy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Although lacking the manic musical energy of Dick van Dyke and the peerless songs of the Sherman Brothers, it’s easy to imagine many of the props and costumes were bought wholesale from the producers of The Stolen Airship and repurposed for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
And I suspect the screenwriter of that film, Road Dahl, would have enjoyed this occasionally macabre and surreal tale with its shades of Kafka. And Zeman’s merry mocking of social conventions and keen eye for the absurdities of life also takes aim at pomposity, greed and stupidity.
His film is undeniably underpinned by the thrill of freedom, and is unmistakably political in its ruthlessly condemnatory of the military, which along with the corrupt bureaucracy and a surveillance society, are ridiculed throughout.
And there’s also a great deal of courage in Zeman’s needling of authority as this was made in the period immediately before The Prague Spring, the period of political liberalisation and mass protest in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic which ended abruptly at gunpoint on 21 August 1968, when the USSR invaded the country to suppress the reforms.
Absurdly charming, and occasionally just a little bit saucy, I watched it in its native Czech language without subtitles and so lost some of the nuance and detail.
What I received in perfect clarity was Zeman’s breathless collision of invention, cynicism and optimism. An absolute delight throughout, The Stolen Airship beat The Beatles’ psychedelic animation Yellow Submarine, to the punch by a year, and I loved every extraordinary minute of it. Please watch.