Seasons greetings from the Watch Upon A Star fam! I celebrated the evenings leading up to Christmas with this 1954 cinematic feat. Don’t worry, we definitely watched Ron Howard’s Grinch, The Polar Express, The Santa Clause, and White Christmas along with some others, but when it came to the watch list, 20,000 was up next. I’ll admit, I wasn’t exactly feeling holly jolly about snuggling down with an old Sci Fi flick, it’s not usually my jam, but, my maiden voyage with this film did not disappoint.
You won’t usually find a film summary here. You can go find that with a simple google search. But in the case of this film, if you’re like me and hadn’t seen it before, you really need the context. So without giving too much away, here’s the meat and potatoes:
The film is based on Jules Verne’s 1872 novel. Set in the 1860’s, sea villagers are shaken when several warships are destroyed and sunk, believing the only culprit to be a sea monster, the likes of which have yet to be discovered. Professor Aronaxx, his attendant Conseil, and wily harpoonist Ned Land set out in search of the sea monster. When their own ship is destroyed by the monster, the three men find the beast to be much more complex. The unlikely trio are taken aboard the beast. On board the Nautilus, a nuclear powered submarine, Captain Nemo takes them on a ride some 20,000 leagues under the sea. For the 1950’s, this film was a big deal. It was one of the first films to be filmed in Cinemascope (which I will define simply as new film technology since frankly, I’ve read about it and don’t entirely understand it!). Production included multiple scale models of the Nautilus, a huge soundstage built just for the film to house a giant indoor water tank, and a mechanical two-ton squid that took 28 men to operate.
I tell you all of this for a reason. With only a few live-action films before it, there is a definite shift in quality and scale from Treasure Island and Robin Hood to 20,000 Leagues. This film is different. All three are tales but 20,000 Leagues is more of an epic. In production and content, it carries more weight. What you get with the innovative sea-scapes and victorian submarine mansion aesthetic is something I haven’t noticed too much of in my journey down the list so far… and that’s fodder for contemplation. Things that provoke thoughts beyond just enjoyment at watching a film. The viewer can wonder at more cerebral things, like how the sea could be an untapped renewable resource, or how man be good and evil at the same time. And when is murder justified? For scale, scenery, and subject matter, this film jumps to number 1 on my Very Unofficial Live-Action Film ranking.
And then of course there was the question that plagued me throughout the entire film: How is that submarine so huge on the inside!? Is that an ORGAN? How many rooms are in this thing!? Look, I’m kind of a submarine expert? I did spend one night on a military submarine with my Girl Scout troupe when I was 9 so. It was… narrow. I wasn’t permitted in the captain’s quarters but I don’t remember any velvet upholstered sofa’s either. Just saying.