Weekend Film Recommendation: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I haven’t done a family film in awhile, so let me return this week to the same well from which I drew my recommendation of Treasure Island last summer, namely Disney’s live-action post-war film canon. Kids and adults can both enjoy the dramatic, well-mounted adaptation of Jules Verne’s steampunk classic: 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The story opens with sailing vessels being destroyed in the South Seas by a mysterious underwater creature. Is it a kraken, a dragon or something else? At the behest of the U.S. government, a Parisian professor (Paul Lukas), his faithful assistant (Peter Lorre) and a free-spirited sailor (Kirk Douglas) join a military expedition to either find the monster or prove it doesn’t exist. In a fatal confrontation, their ship encounters disaster, which brings them face to face with Captain Nemo (James Mason), his devoted crew, and his extraordinary “submarine boat”.

Mason, as the tortured, destructive yet also sympathetic Nemo is in top form, adding weight to proceedings that might otherwise have been comic bookish. Lukas, as the brilliant scientist who is both Nemo’s prisoner and his nagging conscience, is an effective foil for Mason. Lorre isn’t given a huge amount to do, but he makes the most of it by being more vulnerable and afraid that the other central players, thereby giving the audience someone with whom to identify.

The special effects were trend setting at the time and still hold up pretty well today, as does the knockout set design on the submarine. It’s particularly hard to forget Nemo playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on the organ as the Nautilus glides through the ocean deep. Also adding to the striking look of the film is Peter Ellenshaw, who as in Treasure Island does magnificent matte work (the crowded shipyard at the beginning and the Island of Volcania at the end are flawless).

The film has two weaknesses. The first is Kirk Douglas’ endless mugging and preening. I don’t know if Director Richard Fleischer couldn’t control his star’s legendary desire for attention or gave him bad direction, but it gets old pretty quickly. The second is that like many films of the period (e.g., King Solomon’s Mines), this one includes “nature photography” moments that would have dazzled audiences at the time but are pretty slow stuff for a generation that has the web, television and a thousand episodes of Jacques Costeau at its fingertips.

But neither of those flaws stops this from being outstanding family entertainment with exciting action scenes, a strong story, eye-catching visuals and moments of real emotion. It’s great fun for you and the kids on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I close this recommendation with a must-view clips for film-buffs. The truly spectacular fight with the giant squid in the film version released to theaters was not the first one that was shot. Here is the inferior original, the “Sunset Squid Sequence”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

  1. That was one of my favorite films as a kid. They would occasionally show it on the Disney Channel, and my dad rented it a few times for me.

  2. I rented it on a hunch and it was an excellent choice! Don’t forget Verne’s prescience about the atom bomb.

  3. Alas, Verne’s version doesn’t have The Bomb–Nautilus runs “all by electricity” and gos down in a maelstrom.
    But, a handsome movie that holds up well–Douglas’s mugging isn’t too bad, apart from the obligatory song-and-cute-seal sequences. And Mason’s a fine, tortured piece of work. For my money, this is the most successful film based on any of Verne’s novels and I’ve watched it several times, with my daughter…who has gone on at 10 years old to reading Verne!

    BTW, another decent Disney live-action piece: Greyfriars Bobby. A sucker punch for dog lovers, and for anyone who appeciates Edinburgh or those postwar British character actors .

  4. Disney did a TV show about making the film. I saw the TV show before the movie, which made it a bit less scary as they showed who they “did” the squid. But still, an enjoyable hour or so.

  5. for a moment i had this confused with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a TV show of the mid-60s.

  6. I’m embarrassed to say that it wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the 20,000 leagues was *horizontal* distance.

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