[July 30, 1961] 20,000 Leagues in a Balloon (Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island)

by Gideon Marcus

Jules Verne, the father of scientific adventure, has probably inspired more movie spectacles than any other writer.  Verne’s characters have conquered all areas of the globe, from the center of the Earth, to the heights of the clouds, to the bottom of the ocean. 

Perhaps the most famous of Verne’s protagonists is Captain Nemo, skipper of the magnificent submarine, the Nautilus.  In 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, adapted to film in 1953, Nemo led a one-man crusade against war, sinking the world’s warships in the cause of pacifism.

My daughter and I just came back from the premiere of Mysterious Island, the latest translation of a Verne novel.  It is a sequel of sorts to 20,000 Leagues, though this is not immediately apparent from the beginning.  The initial setting is the siege of Richmond at the end of the American Civil War.  Four Yankee prisoners make a daring escape in a balloon along with an initially wary, but ultimately game, Confederate prisoner.  The film begins with no indication of where it’s going other than the title (and the mention of Nemo in the cast list – an unfortunate spoiler).

This first act sets the pace for most of the movie – fast and exciting.  It continues for a good twenty minutes before the balloon crash-lands onto the movie’s namesake, a volcanic spot of land in the South Pacific.  In this span, we get a good feel for the characters, all of whom are interesting and likable.  We have Captain Harding, a brusque, efficient sort who has little trouble commanding authority.  Neb is his aide-de-camp and good friend, a Negro soldier who’s clearly served with Harding a long time.  Young Herbert is another of Harding’s men, an ashamed coward who wishes he could be a better man (and gets the opportunity!).  The captured Rebel, Sergeant Branson, is an amiable sort.  After some initial mistrust, he falls in line with Harding.  The last of the adventurers is Gideon Spillet, a cynical and jaunty war reporter.  It is, perhaps, no surprise that the middle-aged journalist named Gideon is my favorite character…

Once upon the island, the band discovers a host of extraordinary features.  The volcano is ominously active.  Many of the flora and fauna of the island are unnaturally large.  Yet, despite these dangers, the castaways seem to have a guardian angel, always providing aid at the brink of catastrophe.

The oversized critters are beautifully brought to life by the master of stop-motion effects, Ray Harryhausen.  We’ve seen his work before in films like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and this may well be his most impressive outing.  Not only does he do a wonderful job of rendering a giant crab, a Diatryma, and a swarm of outsized bees, but their interactions with living actors are convincing. 

Not long after my daughter lamented the lack of women in the movie, two were thoughtfully provided.  The shipwrecked duo are the Lady Mary Fairchild, and her niece, Elena.  I greatly appreciated that the newcomers were treated, as characters, with dignity.  They quickly become members of the team, the noble Mary proving to be quite resourceful, indeed. 

Island maintains its tempo and excitement for a good 75 of its 101 minutes, prematurely climaxing with the introduction of the party’s benefactor, Captain Nemo.  The final act, depicting Nemo’s plan to leave the island in a captured brigands’ vessel (the Nautilus having been crippled in the last movie), is somewhat inconsistent and expositional.  We lose a bit of the character interaction that made Island so entertaining. 

Nevertheless, there’s no question that Island, despite its simple, linear plot and its uneven ending, is a delight.  It’s a lovely film with a fine cast, yet another success in the long line of Vernian films.  Perhaps what I enjoyed the most about the movie, aside from the diverse cast, was its lack of an opponent.  So many films involve some degree of treachery or antagonism, an enemy to overcome or a traitorous party member.  I find that rather tedious.  In Island, all of the cast are basically good, and they work together to master their situation.  The setting, itself, provides enough drama to hold interest.

Moreover, the only animals we see killed and eaten are ones that attacked the party.  No goats or Gertrudes lose their lives in this film.

3.5 stars.

by Lorelei Marcus

Today we watched Mysterious Island, which was a pretty good movie, I would say.  Like most of the Verne movies we’ve watched, it has an exciting setup.  The special effects were amazing, as to be expected from Ray Harryhausen.  I loved seeing all of the creatures they’d come up with and seeing them turned into giant forms. The stop motion was meshed so well with the actual footage, it was hard to tell what was real and what wasn’t!  I can’t pick a favorite creature — they were all so good.

The acting was also very good, and there was a lot of attention to detail on the actors.  I particularly liked the strong relationship between the Captain and Neb.  I’m not surprised that neither of them got involved with the castaway women as they had each other. 

My favorite thing is seeing people surviving and rebuilding, and this movie really scratched that itch. They came up with a lot of creative ways to create modern implements in the wild, from the goat pen to the shell bowls.

Overall the pacing was very good, until around the end where it slowed down a bit, but otherwise it was a fun movie.  It’s hard to describe a plot because there wasn’t much of one. They escaped from prison, they found an island, they built on the island, they escaped the island, The End.  Despite this though, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie.  The sets were all very beautiful, and it was edited very well.

I think I would give this movie a 3.5 out of 5.  It was very good, but kind of lost me at the end. Still, I highly recommend you go see it yourself, if not for the story, then for the amazing special effects.

This is the young traveler, signing off.

9 thoughts on “[July 30, 1961] 20,000 Leagues in a Balloon (Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island)”

  1. Not one of Verne’s better novels, really (though who can be sure; mostly have poor translations of fragmentary texts for most of his work). Still, it is nice to see Hollywood realize that Man against Nature can be the basis of a decent film.

    I wonder if the film is helped along by a lack of star power (or maybe they just spent the whole budget on special effects). The only names I really recognize are Joan Greenwood, who was in the delightful Kind Hearts and Coronets (and the only thing I’ve ever seen her in), and Herbert Lom. I’m not sure I quite see Lom as Nemo, but he has some very big shoes to fill, following James Mason in the role. Of course, Verne’s Nemo is an Indian prince. Maybe one day he’ll actually be played by an Indian actor.

  2. This is another fun romp, with the usual extraordinary work from Harryhausen.  Not quite up there with “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” or with other Victorian science fiction flicks like “The Time Machine” or “Master of the World.”  I’d put it at about the same level as “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and above “Atlantis: The Lost Continent.”

    I particularly like the scene with the giant bee sealing folks into one of the cells of the hive.

  3. I have read the book, but not yet gone out to see the film. May do so now after seeing this review.  Though I never really enjoy alterations to book plots when it comes to film adaptations, I do appreciate that the female characters added were not there just to be women; that they added something to the film.

    When I read the book, I pictured it working well as a television series. But a movie may do well too. I’ll go see it and find out for myself. Thanks for the reviews!

  4. Thank you both for the fine reviews of a fine film. The good woman characters, and restraint of hunting, sound excellent pluses. Perhaps it was all the better it didn’t compete with a very strong book.

    The photos are good, too.

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