20000 Leagues Under The Sea

Year: 1954

Production: Walt Disney

Director: Richard Fleischer

Starring: James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre

Screenwriter: Earl Felton

Based on Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (1870) by Jules Verne

127 minutes; B/W


This early Walt Disney live-action film was one of his best and most lavish. Fleischer has since returned to sf themes with Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Soylent Green (1973), but not so successfully. Nemo is an anarchist scientist who hates war; he uses his submarine, the Nautilus (here nuclear powered), to sink warships. The script is rather lame, though James Mason gives a stirring performance as the obsessed Nemo, who fights a lone battle against the world before being betrayed by 3 shipwreck survivors (including a displeasing harpoonist played hammily by Kirk Douglas) whom he has taken on board. He expires in style, at the center of a self-made holocaust that envelops both his private island and the Nautilus before, significantly, forming a mushroom-shaped cloud. The special effects are good (and won an Oscar), especially notable being Bob Mattey's mechanically operated giant squid; the Nautilus itself with its ornate Victoriana is beautifully designed by Harper Goff.

There had been 3 previous film version of Verne's novel: a mysterious 1905 Biograph production (18 mins) that does not appear in Biograph records, a French one made by Georges Melies in 1907 (18 mins) and a US one, with fine underwater photography, written/directed by Stuart Paton in 1916 (113 mins).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

This is one of Disney's best action films. Fleischer (ironically enough the son of Disney's only major competitor in the animation field in the 30s, Max Fleischer) direcis Fenton's straightforward script with obvious enjoyment.

Mason gives a wonderfully measured performance as the cultured yet fanatical Nemo (called Dakkar in the Verne novel) who uses his "submersible", the Nautilus, to sink the warships of all nations in a frenzied attempt to end warfare on Earth, giving the film a topical edge which climaxes in the mushroom cloud that hangs over Nemo's island base when it is destroyed in the finale. Such concerns, however, were clearly secondary to Fleischer (who also made Fantastic Voyage [1966] and the awkward Soylent Green [1973]). He treats the story as an adventure, pure and simple, in which Nemo's principles take second place to the much-praised fight with a giant squid. The result is an energetically mounted movie that has become the model for all subsequent treatments of Nemo's emperor of the ocean floor. Douglas is suitably vulgar as the rough diamond of a harpoonist who, in company with Lukas' humanitarian scientist and Lorre's nicely comic valet, is rescued by Nemo. All three become Nemo's reluctant passengers whose continued attempts to escape form the basis of the film's plot.

The film, which won Oscars for its special effects and art direction, more significantly was the first to be distributed by the Disney company's newly established distribution arm, Buena Vista.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

Related Links:
Classic Science Fiction Reviews at scifi.com


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