Film Review: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
In 1954, Richard Fleischer released 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, based on the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. Starring Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, Robert J. Wilke, Ted de Corsia, Carleton Young, J. M. Kerrigan, Percy Helton, Ted Cooper, and Fred Graham, the film grossed $28.2 million at the box office. The second highest grossing film of 1954, it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Film Editing and won the awards for Best Art Direction – Color and Best Special Effects. The American Film Institute also nominated it for its lists of Top 100 Films and Top 100 Thrills.
In the late 1860s, rumors of a sea monster attacking ships persist, causing fear among sailors and disrupting shipping lanes. As such, the US government invites Professor Aronnax and his assistant Conseil to join an expedition proving or disproving the monster’s existence. However, after months of searching, they spot the monster which turns out to be a man-made submerging boat captained by a man named Nemo.
The fifth live action film put out by Disney and the best known adaptation of the book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a really good film in its retelling of the story of a man who believes himself to be above the concepts of good and evil and has rejected life on land, preferring the vastness of the ocean. While it’s not completely true to the book, instead making Nemo a European who is bitter about the torture of his family in the Rura Penthe prison camp, it still does very well in fitting in this different backstory in with the overall themes of the original story. As such, the film wonderfully shows the struggle that Nemo has when it comes to his scientific discoveries and how he ultimately does want to share them with the world, but cynically believes that the world would only use those discoveries to wage war.
It’s that cynicism that really makes Nemo as a character. All of his actions are driven by it and his belief that sinking ships carrying tools of war is him avenging those who have been needlessly killed, just like his wife and child. Interestingly, his desire to separate himself from the bulk of humanity and spend his life either on Vulcania or under the seas only fueled his cynical beliefs and it’s shown that he’s actually growing more insane because of it. That madness can really be seen when he’s ramming the Nautilus into a ship full of explosives and Mason is able to show the fire in Nemo’s eyes that looks like he’s dancing on the edge of a razor. It’s also pretty notable that he finds no value in treasure of any sort, seeing as he’s collected quite a bit from the depths, but only uses it for ballast.
On the other hand, there’s Ned who seems to be the everyman hero and an evident foil to Nemo. While Captain Nemo is calculatingly cold and shows little, if any, care for anyone other than his crew, Ned is passionately warm and shows that he actually does care, going so far as to saving Nemo from the giant squid. There’s also how Ned just wants to get back to land while Nemo doesn’t want to be anywhere near it. However, Ned is also very brash and is ultimately the one to put a damper on everything as he sends messages containing the location of Vulcania in hopes of finding rescue. But not only do the bottles end up in the hands of Nemo’s enemies, they attack just as he decides to relent and share his discoveries. It’s quite fascinating to think of Ned as the both the catalyst for Nemo having a change of heart as well as the undoing of said change.
The special effects seen in the film are really good as well. For one, there’s the electricity that emulates from the Nautilus when Nemo turns on the defenses. It looks very well done, even by today’s standards. However, the biggest effect of the film, the giant squid, continues to hold up as well. The filmmakers did a wonderful job of making the battle scene not only very intense, but very memorable. Having the battle take place during a storm helped too.
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