Proclaimed “the mightiest picture of them all”, Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is arguably the rarest anomaly, where marketing hyperbole and the actual film under consideration run parallel courses in artistic distinction. For Walt had poured most every ounce of his studio’s creative genius, and, at $5 million negative cost (not counting the other $4 million needed to make up the general release prints and ad campaigns to sell the picture), nearly every last dollar to produce it. Among its many other merits, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would be the most expensive movie ever produced in America until that time, even surpassing the cost overruns on Gone With The Wind (1939). The decision to make 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a lavishly appointed live action feature was largely predicated on preliminary sketch and storyboard work done by Production Designer Harper Goff in 1952. Walt had sent Goff off to do some basic research on one of his favorite Jules Verne novels, believing the book would ideally lend itself to his next animated feature. Goff, however, could only envision Verne’s 1870 episodic literary classic one way.
To say, Walt was intrigued by the prospect of making 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as his first American-made live-action feature in an understatement. Almost immediately concurring with Goff, and immensely impressed by his storyboarded concepts, Walt announced in the trades the Disney Studio’s foray into live-action with this spectacularly complex adaptation. It takes a lot to shock Hollywood; but Walt’s chutzpah in venturing toward ‘legitimate movie art’ created minor tremors within the industry who, until then, had not considered him a ‘real film maker’ and therefore no threat as their competition. There were two aspects about the creation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Walt immediately measured as necessity for it to succeed; first, a clever screenplay to develop Verne’s episodic vignettes into a multifaceted and intriguing bit of cinematic storytelling; and second, an all-star roster of big name talent to helm and sell the picture. Walt’s most unusual bit of casting was arguably, behind the scenes: director, Richard Fleischer – the son of rival cartoon creator, Max Fleischer. In their early years, the elder Fleischer and Walt had been heated rivals, a disquieting animosity between the creators of Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop. However, the younger Fleischer’s acceptance to helm 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea met with Max’s approval, who informed his son, “You must do this,” adding “Give Walt a message from me. Tell him he’s getting the best director in the world!”
To some extent, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea could not have come at a worse time for Walt. It behooves one to reconsider that unlike other studios in Hollywood, pumping out approximately 52 pictures each per annum, the Disney Company was always dependent on the success of a single animated feature to propel them onto their next project. In the early years, Walt had managed to sustain his company by making cartoon shorts in the interim, and later, military training movies, investing virtually everything he had (including his own life insurance policy) to will Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) off the drawing boards. That gamble paid off handsomely. But from then on, Walt’s key investments became his animated feature films, borrowing money from Bank of America against the prospect of even greater returns; the box office failure of his two subsequent ventures – Fantasia and Pinocchio (both released in 1940) all but bankrupting his company. Walt’s last mega hit prior to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was Cinderella (1950). Now, nearly two years later, Walt was in a mad scramble against time to recoup his investments on Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953); neither proving to recapture and bottle the magic of Cinderella at the box office.
And Walt was also sinking even deeper into the red with cost overruns on his most daring project to date: the creation of his California dream park – Disneyland. Ostensibly, he had neither the time nor the money to make 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And yet, the project was green lit, moving rapidly through the various stages of pre-production; Fleischer bringing in screenwriter, Earl Felton to make sense of Verne’s rather meandering narrative. “I was frankly appalled by the book,” Fleischer would later recall, “There was no story. Just a series of unrelated events. So, I worked with Earl who came up with a brilliant idea – to treat the entire movie as a prison break. Aronnax, Ned and Conseil are Nemo’s prisoners aboard the Nautilus and the whole point of the picture is that they’re trying to escape.” Meanwhile, Walt convinced four of the biggest names in showbiz to partake in his daring adventure. James Mason had only recently come to the attention of North American audiences, thanks to a string of hit that included The Desert Fox (1951) and A Star is Born (1954). But he was a huge box office draw in the U.K. In the U.S., Kirk Douglas had built a steady list of credentials with breakout performances in Young Man With A Horn (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Walt also handpicked noted theatrical actor, Paul Lukas, who had won an Oscar for his performance in Watch on the Rhine (1943) and Peter Lorre, a beloved character actor with a memorable screen presence, appearing in dozens of movies throughout the 1940s.
While the triumvirate of Mason, Douglas and Lorre clicked almost immediately in their camaraderie on the set, Paul Lukas proved very difficult, even aloof – at one point, threatening lawsuits and taking umbrage to virtually any and all directorial advice Fleischer proposed. “I think what it was, was he was getting older,” Fleischer would later reminisce, “…and struggling in his ability to remember his lines. Here was a man who had been a great actor on the stage, who suddenly realized he no longer possessed a capacity for lengthy memorization. He felt exposed. It upset him. But rather than admit this, he took it out on the rest of us, blaming the screenwriter per say for writing lengthy speeches.” Fleischer would also recall his brief run-ins with Kirk Douglas. “Kirk’s a very external actor and sometimes has to be reined in. But his ideas are always to the betterment of the movie.” On 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Douglas would be called upon to sing, a skill sorely uncultivated. Nevertheless, he embraced the opportunity to try, taking guitar lessons from Harper Goff to authenticate his performance. When Walt screened the rushed of Douglas salty rendition of ‘A Whale of a Tale’ he immediately announced, to Kirk’s bewildered surprise, a 45rpm single would be released to help promote the film.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a monumental undertaking for Walt; the construction of Stage 3 on the back lot, complete with an 18 foot tank of water, expressly built for the production’s climactic – squid attack – full scale and without the benefit of any post-production animated special effects. The Disney backlot would also play host to a series of interior sets, virtually all the Victorian splendor of Capt. Nemo’s Nautilus, including a pipe organ, purchased for a mere $50 at a garage sale and later embellished by Harper Goff. The production grew so vast in scale, Walt eventually extended himself to renting space on the backlots of both 2oth Century-Fox (for the miniature underwater sequences), and Universal International (for the San Franciscan preamble to this rollicking adventure). Walt also hired celebrated matte artist, Peter Ellenshaw to extend the scope of the visuals with some highly detailed artwork painted on glass, later photographed in perfect register with the live action elements. Embracing Fox’s patented Cinemascope widescreen process, with prints struck by Technicolor, 20,000 Leagues would become an early beneficiary of this new technology; also, enduring all of its shortcomings. Fleischer would have to shoot the entire movie with only one focal lens; a formidable challenge, requiring multiple, time-consuming setups.
The last bit of inspiration Walt had was to send a second unit to Jamaica to shoot the exhilarating sequence where harpooner, Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) and Conseil (Peter Lorre) are nearly ambushed by cannibals. Employing the locals to partake in this sequence, the production would also utilize the crystal clear waters off Nassau, New Providence in the Bahamas to lens 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’s underwater sequences. As the stars themselves were not required to scuba dive (a term not yet coined), the execution of these elaborate sequences beneath the ocean waves necessitated the creation of a new kind of aqualung, cleverly concealed beneath Harper Goff’s designs for the wetsuits worn by the divers. Divers, Fred Zendar and Al Hansen led a team of 33 men (11 in front of the camera and 22 behind it) to the ocean floor; the cumbersome water-tight diving costumes weighing in at 150 lbs., each ‘actor’ accompanied by two rescue men in the event anything went wrong. At least on one occasion, something did, when the diver/cameraman shooting the ‘shark attack’ sequence swam too close to an actor, puncturing the air supply to his aqualung with the sharp edge of the camera; the rescuers narrowly averting catastrophe by bringing the wounded man up to the surface. Later, back at the studio, the Disney artisans would restage close-ups of the stars presumably ‘underwater’ using a ‘dry for wet’ technique photographed against a process screen with ingenious lighting effects in the foreground.
To say that the underwater sequences in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were a marvel for their time is an understatement. Nothing like them had been tried before and new techniques had to be devised almost hourly to meet the daily rigors of the sea. Delays were inevitable; the constantly shifting weather patterns in the tropics forcing Fleischer’s second unit to repeatedly stall and, at once point, take refuge from a hellish tropical storm, since the only light source beneath the water was, in fact, the sunlight filtering down from on high. When it was discovered any rigorous movement on the ocean floor stirred the silt to such an extent it created a murky and impenetrable fog, Al Hansen came up with the idea of laying heavy hemp carpets beneath the actors’ feet. Nevertheless, the effects produced from these underwater sequences added an uncanny realism.
Back at Disney Inc. Walt was facing a challenge even more devastating. The ‘squid sequence’ initially conceived against a vibrant red sunset, was proving an unqualified disaster. The heavy rubber design of the first squid was unwieldy, its bulky tentacles supported by obvious wires dangling overhead that no amount of editing could conceal. The whole sequence, meant to be the pivotal high water mark of the picture, was instead lumbering along like a wounded leviathan, destined to sink the movie. The final cost for the squid attack on the Nautilus would top out at just under $500,000.00, Special Effects Director, Robert Mattey’s complete redesign of the squid itself, elongating its tentacles, this time made of a lightweight and more maneuverable rubber and plastic, rigged with spring devices operated by twenty-eight men in the rafters. The decision was also made to shoot the entire confrontation during a violent storm at sea, second unit director, James Curtis ‘Kip’ Havens employing thirty wind machines, fire hoses and dump tanks to drench the set from floor to ceiling. Outside, Stage 3 the overspray from this deluge managed to create foot-deep puddles.
Even more perilous, cost overruns on this single sequence now threatened to shut down the production, and, quite possibly, the studio. As he could always be counted upon, Walt took a rough assembly of this footage to Bank of America to plead his case for a loan to finish the picture. Using his formidable talents as a showman, also his backlog of successes for which Bank of America had frequently helped tie up the purse strings and had never – as yet – lost a penny on their investment, the bankers were elated by what they say, cutting Walt a $1 million dollar check to wrap up his movie. For Roy Disney, Walt’s brother in charge of the company’s finances, securing a loan of this magnitude was yet another reprieve in Walt’s on-going struggle to balance his ever-ambitious desires to add prestige to his studio with the necessities of maintaining its payroll.
Everything about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is impressive; beginning with composer, Paul J. Smith’s bombastic main title music, denoting a twinge of sadness in its epic groundswell of disparate chords; set against a gold lame curtain and flickering titles designed by Albert Whitlock. From here, we momentarily digress to a leather-bound copy of Jules Verne’s novel, suddenly opening to the first pages of text; Walt’s favorite way to begin any literary adaptation; the text dissolving into a scene of the Nautilus ominously glowing on the surface of the sea and plowing into a long ship traveling in its midst, sinking the vessel to the bottom of the ocean. Another dissolve and we are in San Francisco, circa 1868 (actually shot on a redressed ‘western’ set on the Universal backlot). Rumors of a sea monster are being professed in the public square by ‘Old Billy’ (J.M. Kerrigan), the peg-legged sole survivor of the latest attack. In short order, we are introduced to harpooner, Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), slightly inebriated and accompanied by a pair of harlots he has picked up in town for a good time. Making light of Old Billy’s claim, Ned inadvertently sparks a brawl in the square, arrested along with the others and taken to jail. In the meantime, Professor Pierre M. Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre) arrive at the shipping offices, only to be turned away from their proposed trip to Japan yet again. It seems the rumors of the monster have struck fear into hearts of every Captain worth his salt on the open seas. There are no ships leaving port – save one – promoted by U.S. government official, John Howard (Carleton Young).
Having read Aronnax’s misquoted references to the monster in the local papers, Howard suggests an expedition of a few months; after that, Aronnax and Conseil may make their crossing to Japan as originally intended. Faced with no alternatives, Aronnax accepts. For several weeks their ship, captained by Farragut (Ted de Corsia), finds no evidence of a sea monster, much to Ned’s chagrin. Ned has, in fact, been hired on a retainer to harpoon the beast and bring it back for evaluation and study. But he will only be paid if the expedition succeeds. Life aboard the schooner is congenial enough, what with Ned entertaining his fellow sailors with ‘A Whale of a Tale’ and engaging in fruitful discussions with Aronnax and Conseil, the latter prone to bouts of sea-sickness. Then, as Farragut is about to call off the expedition, they discover a merchant ship on the horizon suddenly bursting into flames. Making speed to the wreck Farragut and his crew find no survivors. The Nautilus resurfaces from a distance and charges at them. In the violent confrontation that follows, Farragut’s ship is wounded but not sunk; Aronnax and Ned are cast into the sea by the impact and Conseil dives in after them to save his traveling companion’s life.
Unable to turn back to save this trio, Farragut gives them up for dead. A short while later, Aronnax and Conseil discover the Nautilus floating nearby, its’ gritty steal hull emerging from a dense fog. They climb aboard the submersible ship. Ned arrives in a lifeboat salvaged from the wreck and together, these three explore the bowels of the vessel; discovering its vast assortment of Victorian luxuries below deck. Alas, the Nautilus appears to have been abandoned. Aronnax and Conseil witness a burial beneath the sea; Captain Nemo (James Mason) and his crew lay to rest the body of one of their own. But Aronnax, Conseil and Ned are found out and taken hostage by Nemo and his crew. Cruelly, Nemo returns Ned and Conseil to the deck of the Nautilus, a fate that will surely result in their drowning once the submarine slips beneath the ocean waters. However, having read Aronnax’s research, he offers the Professor a chance to remain with him below deck; Aronnax instead choosing to die with his friends. As fate would have it, Nemo is fascinated by Aronnax’s sacrifice and, after a test of his endurance above the waterline, orders his crew to take all three men below deck. Dining on pickled octopus and other sea-plucked delicacies farmed from the ocean floor, Nemo attempts to explain his philosophy to the new arrivals.
A man of whom great wrongs have been perpetrated, Nemo is now dedicated to the destruction of all manmade implements of war. His flawed altruism, creating a perfect world beneath the sea, is tantamount to the murder of hundreds of innocent sailors. Ned can clearly see the error in Nemo’s mantra. But Aronnax, too consumed by the logistics and science behind Nemo’s mad obsession, elects to side with the Captain of the Nautilus instead; causing a rift in their already tenuous friendship. Nemo allows Aronnax unprecedented access to the inner workings of his ship, revealing its source of power – nuclear fission. In Jules Verne’s original novel, the Nautilus is powered by electricity. In updating the source to nuclear energy, Walt Disney marked his Nautilus as relevant to the, then, contemporary fascination with splitting the atom. Interesting too, was the Disney imagineers’ creation of nuclear fission, seen reflected as spinning color wheels hidden behind a series of inverted clear plastic salad bowls. The success of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would inadvertently lead to the U.S. christening its first nuclear-powered submarine the Nautilus, launched in 1959.
Nemo does not value Ned or Conseil, but keeps them to appease Aronnax. Nemo then takes the Nautilus to a penal colony on Rura Penthe where he reveals his past as a prisoner there. It is from this prison colony that the Nautilus crew is primarily made up; Nemo now illustrating his point by ramming a slave ship bound for the colony, destroying its cargo and murdering its crew. Unable to see the wisdom in this, Nemo next challenges Arronax by suggesting his actions have saved thousands from death in war. He also discloses this ‘hated nation’ tortured his wife and son to death in their attempt to force his hand to reveal the secrets of his work to them. Aronnax is sympathetic. But Ned is as defiant as ever and determined still to expose Nemo’s crimes to the world; quietly discovering the coordinates to Nemo’s secret base on the isle of Vulcania, and thereafter tossing messages in bottles into the sea when no one is looking, in the hopes someone from the outside world will come to their rescue.
The Nautilus becomes stranded on a coral reef off the coast of New Guinea. Ned is genuinely surprised when Nemo affords him and Conseil the opportunity to go ashore, ostensibly to collect specimens, as earlier Nemo had been outraged when Ned went in search of sunken treasure beneath the sea. Alas, it is an ominous precursor neither Ned nor Conseil heed, Nemo hoping the pair will be hunted down and killed off by the local cannibals. After several peaceful hours of exploring the island, Ned incurs the wrath of the cannibals; he and Conseil narrowly making it to the Nautilus, but forcing Nemo to apply mild electrocution to its hull to drive the savages back. Nemo feigns being furious with Ned for not obeying his orders. Ned is confined to the brig, befriending Nemo’s pet seal, Esme in his spare time. As a warship approaches, the Nautilus descends to a depth where it cannot be attacked, alas, disturbing the lair of a giant squid. Immune to the Nautilus’ electrical charges, the squid takes hold of the submarine and Nemo elects to bring it to the surface, confronting the squid with his men and harpoons. The battle won, the squid destroyed, Nemo, in his own near-death experience, now has a change of heart; desiring to make peace and share his discoveries to make the world a better place for all.
The Nautilus sails for Nemo’s hidden base at Vulcania. Alas, having deciphered Ned’s bottled messages beforehand, warships are waiting there for an ambush. Ned tries to explain his motives. But Aronnax is furious, realizing Ned’s betrayal has placed Nemo in an impossible position. He will destroy all of his research rather than share it with a world cruelly opposed to his altruism. Instructing his crew to detonate bombs all over the island, in the resultant mayhem, Nemo is mortally wounded by gunfire from the warship. As he is carried back to the Nautilus, Nemo instructs his crew to confine Aronnax, Conseil and Ned to their quarters. The Nautilus is heading to the bottom of the sea for the last time where it will moor at its final resting place, killing all on board. But as the crew side with their captain and prepare to die, Ned breaks free from his cabin and manages to resurface the Nautilus. It strikes a coral reef and begins to take on water; Ned rescuing Aronnax and Conseil from the flooding deluge. Aronnax is unable to retrieve his journal containing a detailed account of their voyage. But as the Nautilus disappears beneath the surface of the water, Nemo’s final words echo from beyond, “There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God's good time.”
Sixty-one years after its debut, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remains a thoroughly impressive achievement – and not just for the Disney Studios. Without question, it is a towering monument to Walt’s impeccable attention to detail, his belief in investing on a project when no one else seemed to think it could remain commercially viable, given its monumental expenditures. The picture is buoyed by some truly ground-breaking special effects; the ingenuity of Walt’s imagineers coming to bear on an exhilarating production of scope and quality unparalleled for its time. Even more impressive, perhaps: the intervening years have not aged the picture at all. It was always intended as a period piece, changing times and tastes powerless to put its ambitious philosophies out of fashion. Critics in 1954 were virtually unanimous in their praise, although continuing to regard Disney’s foray into live-action picture-making as a “joyful exaggeration” in the science-fiction genre, exclusively marketed at kids. And yet, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is remarkably adult in its central themes and scenarios. Indeed, it is a picture very much made by adults for adults; intensely satisfying in its pacifist’s challenge to the outside world, to settle its differences without provoking perennial conflict amongst nations.
The technological aspects behind the making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, while influential in their own time, are not entirely the reason the picture has endured and maintained its reputation so well these many years later. Rather, it is the superb cast; beginning with James Mason’s immense performance as the ill-fated and self-destructing Capt. Nemo; a man to whom there can be no diplomatic respite above the surface of the ocean. Mason, who could play weak and ineffectual men in the movies like nobody’s business, herein brings a level of caustic and controlling manifest destiny to his multilayered interpretation. His Nemo is neither demigod nor philanthropist, but a wounded figure, marred by a distinct and grotesque sadness. There is an unsettling Hitlerian quality to Mason’s Nemo, disquietingly brought forth with an undercurrent of genuine humanity buried and/or abandoned within his own suffrage. Nemo’s purposes are not entirely predicated on revenge for the wrongs done to him, and yet he illustrates an almost pathological lack of empathy for the loss of life he inflicts in the name of ‘peace’. Mason’s portrait is most alarming because he has internalized Nemo as a man of great intellect, skill and determination; all positive attributes, alas, turned asunder by the character’s powerlessness to reconnect with humanity as anything better than a necessary evil to be eradicated from the earth; or, at the very least, made subservient to his new world order beneath the sea.
It is frankly disappointing Disney Home Video has yet to come around to releasing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Blu-ray. One would have thought a cornerstone in Walt’s grandest adventure movies would have taken precedence over, say, Herbie Goes Bananas (1980). And we can only hope that when 20,000 Leagues does make the leap to 1080p it will surely best this atrociously subpar DVD incarnation; the elements used in this transfer mastered by the same regime responsible for the truly awful, and mercifully defunct ‘Vault Disney’ franchise line. In fact, despite being marketed as a ‘Special Edition’; this 2-disc set contains a second disc of extras sporting the same ‘Vault Disney’ label; so, clearly, the idea to abandon the franchise was made while this transfer was still in the works. The anamorphic-enhanced visuals are terribly dull; pallid colors that in no way replicate vintage Technicolor. Flesh tones have adopted a jaundice yellow tint. The image is overly soft with exceptionally weak contrast levels. Everything falls into a sort of nondescript mid-register of muddy, hazy muck; definitely NOT the way I want to recall a classic. There are minute traces of chroma-bleeding and a lot of digital noise in background detail. Ugh! Disney Inc. could not have given us a more lackluster and uninspired representation if they tried. The 5.1 Dolby Digital is fairly appealing, but one cannot fathom the opening night 6-track Cinemascope stereo; a wan ghost flower herein.
Like all Vault Disney titles, the best thing about this release is the extras: another mother-load, starting with Richard Fleischer’s audio commentary, both comprehensive and interesting. There’s a pair of accompanying short subjects too. But Disc 2 has the real goodies; a nearly hour long ‘making of’, includes new and vintage interviews and a ton of then recently unearthed behind-the-scenes footage. We also get featurettes on Jules Verne, the Humbolt Squid, a tour of the Nautilus, some vintage junkets on ‘monsters’ of the deep, 3 more cartoon shorts, an extensive gallery of stills, trims and storyboard to screen comparisons; plus the original theatrical trailer. There is hours of fascinating history to wade through herein, alas, most of it presented in sub-par 720i. Bottom line: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ought to have made the leap to Disney Blu-ray by now, either as a mainstream catalog release, or (more than likely) another bare-bones Disney Club ‘exclusive’. We’ll see. I won’t be holding my breath. Bottom line: recommended for content rather than quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)