I enjoy this film so much it’s almost embarrassing how much I could write about it. I’ll restrain myself. The basic premise introducing the film can be lifted from the Wikipedia article on Jules Verne’s source book:
“In the year 1866, ships of several nations spot a mysterious sea monster, which some suggest to be a giant narwhal. The United States government assembles an expedition in New York City to find and destroy the monster. Professor Pierre Aronnax, a French marine biologist and narrator of the story, who happens to be in New York at the time, receives a last-minute invitation to join the expedition which he accepts. Canadian whaler and master harpoonist Ned Land and Aronnax’s faithful servant Conseil are also brought aboard.”
The three protagonists Aronnax, Conseil, and Land (Paul Lukas, Peter Lorre, and Kirk Douglas) soon discover it isn’t a “monster” attacking ships, but rather a bleeding-edge submarine named the Nautilus, commanded by Captain Nemo (James Mason) and a crew of loyal sailors. The three are captured by Nemo and held captive on the Nautilus, where they witness Nemo’s exploits and bloodthirsty drive.
Here I abandon critique of Verne’s works, themes, technological writing, and larger themes of the film to say:
This is an awesome sci-fi adventure that is told to incredible effect.
The story – is great. The pace of the adventure never gets dull, and the beauty of the film’s colors – from the opening credits through the last bit of salty sea air – are deeply satisfying.
The characters of the film are balanced, well-rounded, and wonderful – and likely could be dissected in a long treatise discussing the inner workings of id, ego, and super-ego (Ned Land is definitely Id!). Lukas and Lorre are perfectly adequate in their roles of urbane European scientist and his faithful (and amusingly cowardly) right-hand man. Kirk Douglas is charming, energetic, strapping, handsome, and perfectly-cast as the enthusiastic and heroic harpoonist. He’s necessary to the story and he also provides comic relief. If you aren’t smiling while he sings his jig at the beginning of the story, or feeling genuine affection during his scenes with the tamed seal Esmerelda, check to see if you have a pulse!
But James Mason as the intimidating Nemo delivers a performance I thirst for every moment he’s onscreen. Almost every line – including corny ones like those in the “sea dinner” scene: delivered with panache. Perhaps my favorite is one of his first lines in the film where he rejoinders, “I’m not what you’d call a civilized man” – with his super-posh accent, before hanging out in an awesome smoking jacket with a cravat and cigar, and maybe playing a Bach fugue or two on a massive pipe organ!
Nemo is the antagonist in the film, but of course we relate to his plight. Much like Long John Silver from Treasure Island, he is one of those “bad guys” who completely engages me – and breaks my heart. Every time!
There is also some subtext and innuendo between Douglas and Lorre that is a lot of fun (whether it’s subconscious or intentional, who can say?). And of course: the giant squid action scene, even with the old special effects, is killer!
Fans of Disney adventures, pre-sixties sci-fi and adventure films, fans of Mason, Douglas, or Lorre – you won’t regret watching this great film!