This epic sci-fi melodrama feature is absolutely terrific fun due in no small part to its gleeful abandoning pretty much all of Jules Verne’s novel on which it’s based.
Discarding fidelity for crazed creative ambition, it hits the creative sweet spot between the high-minded social consciousness and outrageous spectacle of Fritz Lang’s German expressionist classic, Metropolis, and the all-out gung ho whizz bang of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon adventure serial.
Verne is often referred to as the ‘Father of science fiction’, and 1875’s The Mysterious Island, is a semi-sequel to his 1871 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It’s notable for featuring Verne’s most celebrated creation, the mercurial billionaire genius inventor and subaquatic explorer, Captain Nemo.
Verne’s novel is set during the US Civil War (1861-1865) sees a group of Union prisoners escape by hot air balloon to the titular Pacific Ocean island, where an elderly and dying Nemo secretly assists their survival and only reveals his presence at the end of the story, and discloses himself to be Dakkar, an Indian Prince deposed by the British Empire.
There’s an absence of Verne in terms of character or story, but a filmmaker’s love of their source material is never a guarantee of fidelity. Yet the author’s spirit is in every frame of this tremendous movie bursts with Verne’s spirit of adventure, love of exploration, and sublime imagination. Plus it’s wrapped up with a moving and respectful finale.
Plus we have land and underwater battles, a giant squid, an army of humanoid fish people with costumes inspired by Melies, and – I kid you not – a drunken orgy. Verne was a writer who hunted down every opportunity to avoid including women in his stories, and would presumably be aghast at the very thought. Great fun for the rest of us, though.
We’re treated to twice the usual number of submarines and other wondrous technology, plus there’s a volcano, a giant squid and rapacious European powers seeking to overthrow Lionel Barrymore’s Count Andre Dakkar, a generic European aristocrat, rather than the Indian Prince of the novel. The name of Nemo is never mentioned.
However we can sense Verne’s influence extending beyond this film, with Nemo/Dakkar cast as a proto-Dr Who, an irascible older scientist accompanied on his futuristic vessel by two younger and attractive companions to provide across some across-the-class-barricades romance.
You’ll forgive me for occasionally confusing the daughter Sonia here, for the granddaughter Susan in Dr Who. And yes, though the terrific Jacqueline Gadsden’s Susan spends a lot of time waiting to be rescued, is also sexually confident, violently combative, loyal, daring and scientifically trained.
The island itself is not isolated in the Pacific but just offshore the fictional European kingdom of Hetvia, and the story swaps the US Civil War for an attempted European coup. There are no balloonists, dog, castaways or pirates, and no sign of the former slave Neb, or indeed any non-white characters.
Dakkar is a scientist inventor and an egalitarian hero in this version, while the villainous black-caped Baron Falon and his army of henchmen resemble Cossack horsemen, whose invasion of Dakkar’s island home seems designed to invoke the 1917 Russian revolution and the threat of Communism. It also speaks against over-reaching power of European monarchy and in favour of the equality of all ‘men’. That is, it seems designed to play to the political prejudices of its audience in the New World by demonising the Old World.
Produced on a grand scale which suggests this was intended as a Hollywood response to Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis, the filmmakers commit to their barking vision in quite magnificent style. We’re encouraged to gasp in awe at the glorious Art Deco design, extensive use of miniatures, large crowds of extras posing as workmen, futuristic control consoles and prodigious industrial machinery.
Plus they give us giant underwater lizards interacting with live action humans long before Ray Harryhausen did it in the stop-motion classic One Million Years BC. And the giant octopus is wonderful. Various sizes of submarines and parts of submarines are used, with the smaller scale models possessing a lovely Gerry Anderson charm, and clearly inspired the look and feel of 1936’s Flash Gordon. Watching this you realise Gordon‘s rocket ships were really re-tooled flying submarines.
It’s not all a hymn to modernity and the machine age though, with the story drawing on imagery of European legend as a beautiful maiden is used as a Siren to draw an enormous sea beast to its doom.
And we’re given actual hymns, with sweaty chest-baring workmen praising god in song as a prelude to a submarine launch, a surprisingly moving scene in itself despite it being presumably included as a calculated appeal to a US Christian audience.
Writer and director Lucien Hubbard previously produced 1927’s Oscar winner, Wings, and he fills his 90 minute running time with all manner of great stuff, such as platoons of horse guards, sunken triremes, a duel to the death and a race to repair a sub before the crew asphyxiates.
Hubbard provides us with some very impressive underwater photography where he can, and the rest of the time he uses theatrical tricks, such as making the diving-suited actors mimicking the effect of walking in water, much as later films would have actors mimic the effect of zero gravity.
And the use of sound in this this hybrid production reminds us there was no clear divide between ‘Silent’ films, and Talkies’. Many of Barrymore’s scenes’ using synchronised sound for his dialogue, and inter-title cards used elsewhere.
Plus it’s as noisy as hell. The constant score is accompanied by wonderful and frequent array of industrial noise hisses and clanks, plus hoofbeats, gunfire, animal noises, sung prayers and general alarum.
Despite the name this tremendous entertainment bears almost no relation to the novel, but it captures something of the spirit of Verne, while speaking to the versatility of his ideas and the great flexibility of his greatest creation, Captain Nemo.