20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA: The Fish That Got Away is Always the Biggest One

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) – Adapted from the novel by Jules Verne; Directed by Richard Fleischer – Starring Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre, and Paul Lukas.

Much like his later film, Fantastic Voyage, Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA exists to be looked at more than it is to be experienced. Unlike Voyage, however, 20,000 LEAGUES manages to be a much more enjoyable film, thanks largely to the four principal actors, better sets, and a finer big action finish.

It’s kind of stunning when you realize that 20,000 LEAGUES was made over a decade before Voyage given how much better it looks. (Good on Walt for spending the cash.) Honestly, I didn’t check to see when the film was made until after it got going and I’m pretty stunned it was made in ’54. That is, I was pretty sure it had been made in the ’50s, but watching it had me wondering if it wasn’t made a decade or so later. Pop it into the DVD player and you’ll find that 20,000 LEAGUES is still a beautiful movie to watch, even if it is a bit too blue-obsessed. (Would it have killed them to have added a little color to the film’s palette?)

I still wouldn’t say 20,000 LEAGUES is a great movie, because it takes a bit too long to get going and then once Ned (Douglas), Professor Aronnax (Lukas), and Conseil (Lorre) get taken aboard Nemo’s (Mason) ship, the film just sort of happens for a bit without really going anywhere. There’s no driving sense of what the mission is or what the point is – there’s just some random set pieces strung together that are kinda entertaining on their own but don’t really serve a larger purpose.

Clearly, one of the appeals is supposed to, “Hey, look at all these underwater scenes we can film,” and that’s great and all, but watching anonymous people in deep-sea diving suits gets a bit boring – even if a shark shows up. None of the actions scenes before the big squid scene are really all that good (but neither are they really all that bad), and the film relies on the charisma of Kirk Douglas and James Mason for its success.

BTW, any movie that stars two of the greatest voices in movie history – James Mason and Peter Lorre – is going to get serious bonus points. Maybe not as many points as, I don’t know, Kate Beckinsale in a catsuit, but quite a few nonetheless because even if a scene has terrible dialogue, you still get to listen to Mason and Lorre enunciate.

James Mason is outstanding as Captain Nemo, but the film keeps him at a distance. The story as presented is caught between the main character (Professor Aronnax) and the main star (Kirk Douglas), but neither of them are as interesting as Nemo (or as good an actor as Mason). A film can have great success keeping the most interesting character at a distance, but while Aronnax is interested in figuring Nemo out, Ned Land is more interested in getting away than getting to know him.

If I was remaking this movie, I’d put Conceil (played here by Peter Lorre) at the center, since he’s caught between Aronnax and Ned and resides in the liminal space between the two positions. Conceil is fiercely loyal to the Professor (or, as Lorre intones beautifully, the ProFESSSSor) but as Aronnax becomes further drawn to Nemo, Conceil allies himself with Ned’s desire to get the crap off the Nautilus.

Full props to designer Harper Goff for the Nautilus, which looks like a steampunk spaceship more than a submersible. The ship manages to be both cool and functional, exotic and ordinary, wondrous and workmanlike. It’s a terrific design and every time the Nautilus is on the screen in a wide shot you see how alien it looks, and every time its on the screen in a close-up you see how real it is.

The big action scene near the end of the film sees a wounded Nautilus attacked by a giant squid. It’s an awesome scene but it just comes out of nowhere as yet another set piece. Back at the start of the movie, the ProFESSSSor is drawn into a government expedition to find a sea monster that’s been attacking ships in the Pacific. The sea monster turns out to be the Nautilus, of course, but then we get a real sea monster later in the movie that approximates (but not replicates) the images of the sea monster everyone was so worried about.

How about building to that? It wouldn’t have taken much effort to have a giant squid lurking in the background or have the Nautilus see evidence of some giant deep sea creature whose wrecked their sea farm. Instead, it’s played like:

1. Is there a sea monster?
2. No, there’s a Nautilus.
3. Wait an hour.
4. Hey, look, a sea monster!

It’s a shame because the sequence is fantastically rendered and would have been even better with some proper build-up. The sequence illustrates two important attributes of our characters. The first is that it gives a clear sign why the crew of the Nautilus is so loyal to Nemo, who joins in the defense of the ship, physically attacking the giant squid at close range. The second is that Ned Land is fiercely loyal to other seamen, even when it’s Nemo, who’s planning on having him put to death for insubordination. Also, Ned likes to kill big things that live in the sea. A harpooner by trade, Ned chucks a harpoon into the squid, getting it to leave the Nautilus alone, and then dives into the drink to drag Nemo back to safety.

There’s one more action sequence at the end that sees the military show up to claim Nemo’s home base of Volcania, but it might as well be stock footage of army men firing guns and an explosion in the distance. You need the sequence to give closure to the film, but it can’t compare to the squid attack so it’s a bit of a blah finish to an otherwise enjoyable film.