Director: Cy Endfield
Writer: John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, and Crane Wilbur; based on Mysterious Island (1875) by Jules Verne
Cinematographer: Wilkie Cooper
Producer: Charles H. Schneer
It’s been years now since I first read Mysterious Island. I had been taking Khan Academy trigonometry classes at the time and was fascinated by Vernes' use of these ideas in order to solve problems, such as how long a bridge needs to be by knowing the angle compared to the height of a particular object. I’ve long forgotten the formula but its endless use of science was unlike anything I’ve ever read. For as much as we think Vernes wrote fantastic works of science fiction, large portions of his stories come to a crawl as he dives deep into the details. What we think of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is far more based on the movie which rightfully - though perhaps radically - abandons the scientific jargon in favor of action.
Mysterious Island does the same, though to a more extreme degree in that rather than a story focusing on the gastronomy of sea creatures, it follows a group of civil war soldiers who escape a confederate prison via hot air balloon, later crash landing on an abandoned, though exotic island.
They’re led by Captain Cyrus Smith (Michael Craig), Herbert Brown (Michael Callan), and Neb Nugent (Dan Jackson), along with news reporter Gideon Spillitt (Gary Merrill) and Confederate soldier Sergeant Pencroft (Percy Herbert) who’s not all that excited to have to take orders from a Union officer.
They soon discover the place is filled with massive animals - oysters the size of small pools, but also giant crabs that almost kill Neb but also provide them with the greatest meal of their lives. Two women arrive by shore, Elena Fairchild (Beth Rogan) and her mother Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood); the name being far from subtle and the film leans far into making her a sex object. Combined with her flawless makeup, Elena’s so hyper-sexualized that, again, for a story meant to show what could be the actual struggles against a fantastical world, it feels just awkward and creepy.
When a band of pirates land on the island, the party’s saved by the elusive Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) who’s been hiding out in his infamous Nautilus boat, hidden within a cavern. The soldiers resent his pacifism, especially in that he had actively destroyed war ships and the men aboard in his effort to prevent further war. While the film doesn’t go into the same philosophical debates, it provides enough of a taste between the fascinating dynamic between those fighting a war that has a righteous purpose and the immorality of trying to stop it.
When a giant volcano erupts and looks to destroy the entire island, Captain Nemo and the party devise a plan to fill their hot air balloon inside the sunken pirate ship via a bamboo pipe pump hooked to the Nautilus. While filling the sunken pirate ship, they encounter a giant hermit crab but the mission proves successful. The volcano then pops and while Nemo triggers the machine, the cavern collapses, killing him and destroying his boat. The balloon inflates in time and the party sails off.
Somewhere amidst all this, Nemo explains that the giant animals were a product of genetic experimentation completed in an effort to solve world hunger. That is, wars are often a product of economics and the need to preserve particular systems (i.e., slavery) or to take over another territory. It’s another issue the book does a far better job explaining, but to even see this included is impressive; especially given the year released. It’s at least a flirtatiously socialist film.
It leaves you thinking of Jurassic Park (1990; 1993) and the way in which Crichton and Spielberg leaned into scientific speculation while combined with an engaging story could be far more effective. Mysterious Island is worth checking out for the effects, but beyond those, it drifts much too far toward the story’s surface. It’s a move in dire need of a remake; finding that fine balance between the fascinating science and the amazing world Verne created. In the right hands, such a film could secure the rare accomplishment of both a better remake and adaptation.
BELOW: A movie where you can feel Spielberg's brain light up while watching it as a kid
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