Treating Jules Verne’s 1875 novel The Mysterious Island as a leaping off point, this black and white sci-fi adventure serial of 1951 is a throwback to two decades earlier and the days when Larry Buster Crabbe took to the skies as Flash Gordon.
Yes it’s preposterous and silly, yet it’s also daftly enjoyable, due in large part to its enthusiastic and impressively straight-faced cast, as well as for possessing none of Verne’s reluctance to embrace cosmic romance.
Verne’s book is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and is notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.
Set during the US Civil War, the book sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where Captain Nemo assists their survival.
This fifteen chapter movie serial from Columbia Pictures is subtitled ‘Captain Harding’s Fabulous Adventures’, with the upright engineering officer and leader of the balloonists is played with no-nonsense square-jawed heroism by Richard Crane.
It all begins faithfully enough, and spending a lot time at the Civil War allows for plenty of opportunity to hook in any Western fans who may be watching by mistake.
Anyway, five intrepid men and a dog escape in a balloon from a stockade, and when a storm carries them to an island they have to – check notes – foil an alien invasion.
As Verne’s novel is a bit of a slog, I can’t help but think had the author known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction‘ built this kind of excitement into his story, it might be more widely read today. Sadly Verne never did and the world had to wait until HG Wells‘ arrived for Martians to invade.
The alien invaders of this story however, are from Mercury, a nod perhaps to Orson Welles‘ Mercury Theatre, whose 1938 radio play of HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ became infamous for terrifying those who listened to it. Well, perhaps not. There isn’t the budget here for that kind of meta-behaviour.
Referred to as ‘a girl’ who has ‘the appearance of one from another planet’, Karen Randle manages to maintain her dignity as the comely alien scientist, Rulu, whose mission is to extract a super explosive element in order to conquer the Earth, using a laser gun and a mind-controlling wand.
Caught between the Volcano People and Mercurians, err, Mercutions? Mercuroorians? Ohh, whatever. Caught between the Volcano People and aliens, the balloonists are assisted in saving the world by Leonard Penn as the suave and avuncular Captain Nemo, who appears early but doesn’t have much to do.
African American actor Bernard Hamilton, plays Neb. He’s billed last, is often stood apart from the others or excluded from the frame entirely, and is generally the last man in line as the balloonists queue up to escape from yet another threat.
There’s a huge amount of what looks suspiciously like stock footage used at the beginning, and the costumes and props have been recycled from a production with a more generous budget than this. Which I’m guessing is any other production.
The emphasis is on action with many enthusiastic fistfights and shoot-outs. Director, Spencer Gordon Bennet, a name who you may feel compelled to partially invoke at the serial’s weaker moments, seems happy enough to always accept the first take of any shot, and the editor is seemingly under strict to always, but always, cut to the chase. Plus there’s a lot of running about the Southern California countryside, later to be a favourite location of TV’s sci-fi series Star Trek.
The story rockets breathlessly along as if it’s scared it might lose your attention at any moment, consequently the balloonists aren’t able to do any of the building and farming work which occupies much of their time in the novel.
On the plus side the writers know their audience and the myths and fears of the US are played upon by dressing the pirates as English merchant seamen, a decision which has echoes of the Revolutionary War, and the technologically advanced alien invaders point to 1950’s anti-Soviet paranoia.
I have a strong nostalgic liking for this kind of nonsense, especially as no-one involved in this is under illusion as to the value of what they’re making. Cast and crew are all aware they’re making a disposable action adventure for kids of all ages, but everyone gets stuck in like the pros they are, and their love of the game is just about enough to overcome myriad shortcomings and jolly the audience along with them for the ride.