Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett
Based on a Novel by: Jules Verne
Starring: James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker, Thayer David, Peter Ronson
Running Time: 129 min
BBFC Certificate: U
Some films, like some music, work best or sometimes only work when watched in certain situations. 'Bad' movies for instance, are only fun when watched with a group of like minded friends and helped by the consumption of alcohol. Horror movies, with few exceptions, need to be watched at night when it's nice and dark and you feel isolated and vulnerable. Comedies are best in a packed cinema or at home with a group of people willing to laugh along at the jokes. These are fairly obvious examples, but another genre (if you can call it that) I'd add to the list are old family-friendly adventure movies. Maybe it's just me, but lightly enjoyable romps made back in the 40s or 50s work so much better when watched on a lazy, preferably rainy Sunday afternoon when you've got nothing better to do. The looser pace and dated elements don't trouble you like they might when watched before bed on a weekday, when the troubles of the day are still on your mind and you need a bit more excitement or food for thought to keep you awake. Journey to the Center of the Earth (the 1959 version) is such a film and I watched it under near perfect circumstances. Last Saturday, my youngest daughter was a bit under the weather, my wife was at work, my dad was looking after my eldest daughter, and it was chucking it down. So I settled down on the sofa that afternoon, put out some toys for the little 'un and took a charming journey through Jules Verne's imagination without a care in the world (other than taking notes for this review).
The title to Journey to the Center of the Earth makes its plot pretty clear, although there are further details I can describe here, many of which were added by the screenwriters Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett to add some more contemporary excitement to the original story.
Respected professor Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (James Mason) is given the gift of an unusual piece of volcanic rock from a student, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone), to celebrate his being knighted. Finding some unusual properties to the rock, he runs some tests on it and discovers it contains a message from an Icelandic scientist named Arne Saknussemm, who went missing on a quest to reach the centre of the Earth. The rock is proof that Saknussemm had discovered something close to it, so Lindenbrook becomes obsessed with picking up where Saknussemm left off. When he treks up to Iceland to do so however, he finds himself in a race for the prize against two other scientists, the Swedish Professor Göteborg (Ivan Triesault) and Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), a descendant of the scientist who wants the glory for himself. When the Count kills off Göteborg, the Swede's wife Carla (Arlene Dahl) joins Lindenbrook, McEwan, a giant local Icelander called Hans (Pétur Ronson), and his pet duck Gertrud, on the titular trip down a rather convenient passage to the city of Atlantis, near the Earth's core.
This is a fine example of the studio system at work during the era. With a fantastic score by Bernard Herrmann, solid, enjoyable performances all round and money spent in all the right places, it's a slickly made, professionally crafted film. As such, it maybe doesn't have as much character as some of the more memorable or groundbreaking classic sci-fi or fantasy films though. For one, the set pieces aren't particularly mind-blowing. Instead of the imaginative and painstakingly animated stop motion creatures audiences saw a year previously in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the monsters here are just real life lizards, painted different colours or with extra flaps glued on (this technique certainly wouldn't be allowed these days). It doesn't work all that badly to be honest, but the creatures are leagues away (sorry, couldn't resist a pun here) from Harryhausen's creations.
There aren't actually that many monster set-pieces in the film either. It's simultaneously a criticism and praise that it takes a long time for the team to begin their descent (almost an hour in) and even longer for any monsters to appear (over an hour and a half in). It's a criticism in that it's rather slow moving by today's standards and not particularly exciting. However, it's praiseworthy in the fact that it remains entertaining despite there being no rush to get moving. It's the sort of old fashioned storytelling you rarely get these days, when time is taken to establish characters and develop the narrative before giving you the fairground attraction elements you're waiting for.
What impressed me most though was the production design. It's a big, long film, with a lot of changes of location (within the caverns at least) and a nice mix of lavish period sets/costumes (with a hint of steampunk) and some weird and wonderful fantastical discoveries as they get closer to the centre of the Earth. A hall full of giant mushrooms and an underground ocean prove most impressive, but there are feasts for the eyes throughout the film and it's all captured in gloriously wide, detailed and colourful cinemascope.
It might seem laughable if it were released in cinemas today with some of its dated effects and values (some of the comments about women wouldn't pass muster – although these are largely quashed by Dahl's strong character), as well as its leisurely pace, but if you have a taste for an old fashioned fantasy adventure, or like me you've got a lazy Saturday/Sunday afternoon to fill, you could do a lot worse than this enjoyable yarn.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is out on 18th September on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. Don't take the images included with this review be an indicator of the picture quality. They're just the publicity stills I had and I can assure you the disc's picture quality is fantastic. It's a detailed, crisp and clean print that's rich with colour. Audio is strong too.
There are a fair few special features included. These are:
- Isolated music and effects track
- Audio Commentary with Actress Diane Baker and Film Historians Steven C. Smith & Nick Redman
- New video interview with critic and author Kim Newman
- Featurette on the film's restoration
- Original theatrical trailer
- PLUS: A booklet featuring an original review of the film from 1959; a poster gallery; and a selection of rare archival imagery
I wasn't a massive fan of the commentary to be honest. Too much time is spent praising various actors (many nothing to do with this film) and less on how the film was made, so I grew tired of it after a while. Kim Newman's piece makes up for it though as he's as enthusiastic and knowledgable as ever. The restoration featurette shows the vast difference between the battered old prints and the Blu-Ray we have now, but isn't particularly interesting beyond that.