Saturday, March 12, 2016

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Well it’s been a little while since my last movie post and I felt like writing a new one. My obsession with silent movies continues on unabated and the other night I took in the 1916 production of “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea”.

I need to confess that my familiarity with Jules Verne’s works stem entirely from watching filmed adaptations and I’ve never cracked open any of the novels. This production is largely based upon the book of the same name but also incorporates material from “The Mysterious Island” as well as original ideas from the movie’s writer/director Stuart Paton.

The film opens with a request from the US Government to the noted French scientist Professor Aronnax to voyage on the USS Abraham Lincoln and investigate sightings of a mystifying sea creature. The professor accepts, bringing along his daughter as a companion. The beast is encountered and the crew tries their best to harpoon it, but their missiles fail to breech it’s hide. Instead of capturing it, the ship is rammed and sunk. The two French passengers are rescued, along with one of the sailors by a crew that emerge from the creature itself. They are shocked to learn that the object is not an animal but an undersea vessel; the Nautilus. It is commanded by the enigmatic Captain Nemo and after a brief period of house arrest, the new passengers agree not to attempt escape and become guests,

Meanwhile, in the US, a group of men commandeer an observation balloon and are carried away by a storm over the ocean. The violence of the weather eventually causes the basket to separate from the bladder and the men fall into the sea. This happens near an uncharted island where the fellows wash ashore. The atoll is uninhabited, save for a young woman that the intertitles describe as “a child of nature”.

The Nautilus is nearby the island and Nemo becomes aware of the castaways plight. Though he is not willing to rescue them, he does have his crew float a chest of provisions towards the isle. The men find this and believe it to be a fortuitous bounty from a shipwreck. The chest includes clothing, canned goods, tools, guns and ammunition.

Secretly the wild girl spies upon the strangers, but is eventually found by the kind hearted Lieutenant Bond. He attempts simple communication and convinces her to give up her animal skins for a shirt and trousers. She also feels the first pangs of love. One of the men is less gentle and attempts to rape the girl, but his actions are thwarted by Bond and the remaining men, which results in his being banished by the group.

Aboard the Nautilus, Nemo has entertained his guests by allowing them to view the undersea floor with his “magic window”, a large glass viewing station on the bow of the submarine. He further astonishes them by organizing a hunt on the ocean floor using suits and weapons of the Captain’s own design to allow them to wander the sea bed and fire upon sharks.

We next cut to an old, wealthy and retired British officer, Charles Denver, who is experiencing nightmares. In these horrid dreams he is raping an Indian princess during a native uprising. His solution to these reveries is to set sail on his yacht, to a locale lodged in his memory. This geographic point is the island where he abandoned his victim’s toddler daughter after sailing from India.

The yacht catches the attention of the crew of the Nautilus and the captain sends men out to discover the identity of it’s owner.

The yacht crew goes ashore, finding the exiled scoundrel. He successfully arranges for them to kidnap the girl and leave the others behind. Bond sees them rowing to the yacht, so he dives in and swims to the vessel to effect her rescue.

The crew of the sub report back to Nemo the name he has been waiting years to hear; Charles Denver. This was the villain who falsely accused him of revolt, who raped his wife and murdered she and their daughter. This was his purpose in creating the Nautilus, to exact his revenge against this devil.

Ultimately he does just that, destroying Denver and his ship but not before picking up two survivors, a man and a woman. Once aboard Captain Nemo, who was once known as Prince Daaker, learns that his little girl is still alive. It proves too much for him and his heart fails, but not before directing the rescue of the others on the island and giving his blessing for the union between his daughter and Lt. Bond. With his passing, the Captain’s final orders are carried out with his burial in the ocean depths and the scuttling of his great machine.

It’s hard for me to imagine the degree to which this movie must have astonished the 1916 audiences. Beyond the huge production itself, the film features some of the first examples of underwater photography the be presented on the screen and large sections of time are spent looking a nautical denizens swimming in their natural habitat. A hundred years later this is so familiar to me that it actually made things drag a bit. The other big effect was the octopus and it was pretty lame in my opinion, although in it’s time it must have been quite a breathtaking wonder.

The movie was an early production of what became Universal Studios, long before they were considered a major player. Filming “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” was outrageously expensive and though no figure was cited, it was too costly to even have a reasonable expectation of making a profit. In fact it was so big a bomb that Hollywood refrained from attempting to adapt any Verne until the late 1920’s.

From my seat though, it was quite a success. Well worth my time and yours.



  1. Underwater diving in hard hat diving equipment a century ago was the equivalent of spacewalks in he 1960's. So little was known about the undersea world back then that anything seemed possible, even today scientists discover new species of fish, bacteria, life forms etc. some have compared the oceans as mysterious as outer space.

    Thank you for bringing this silent movie to our attention.

  2. I seem to remember an old Famous Monsters issue with some stills from this version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and maybe the cover too.