20,000 Leagues Under The Sea 1916

Director: Stuart Paton
"Tomorrow, I shall show you scenes even more wonderful.... I shall take you for a hunting trip on the very floor of the ocean."
Ahoy, landlubbers! Seafaring spectacle awaits you, as a full-size recreation of Captain Nemo's ship the Nautilus and ground-breaking underwater photography add authenticity to this early adaptation of Jules Verne's stories of the undersea adventurer.

1886: marine scientist Professor Aronnax and his daughter join Ned Land and the crew of the Abraham Lincoln in search of a mysterious sea monster that has been terrorising the oceans. The 'monster' is in reality the Nautilus, a submarine belonging to the vengeful Captain Nemo. The Nautilus sinks the Lincoln, though Nemo shows mercy and rescues the survivors. Aronnax, his daughter, Ned Land and two other crewmen are imprisoned indefinitely aboard the Nautilus.

Meanwhile, a crew of five Union Army scouts led by Lieutenant Bond are cast adrift in a hot air balloon. They come to ground at Mysterious Island, where Bond discovers the island's lone inhabitant, a leopardskin-clad feral girl (a "child of nature"). Bond gives her some soldier's clothing and persuades her to join his men.

Nemo's crewmen disembark at Mysterious Island
The Nautilus also arrives at the island. Though keeping the ship's presence a secret, Nemo's crew rescue a stranded member of Bond's party and later provide supplies for the castaway soldiers. His compassion aroused, Nemo offers his five captives the freedom of the vessel. He and Aronnax venture out of the Nautilus in diving suits to explore the ocean floor and encounter a group of deadly sharks.

In the mean time, Charles Denver, a retired colonial trader, has brought his yacht and crew to Mysterious Island. The guilt-ridden Denver is searching for his illegitimate child, who he had taken and abandoned here after her mother, Princess Daaker, committed suicide. 

After Nemo saves one of Bond's men from the clutches of a giant octopus, the three groups' fates converge. The feral girl tells Bond the story of how she was abandoned on the island while still a child ... later, one of Bond's soldiers, obsessed with the feral girl, abducts her, intending to escape on Denver's yacht. Nemo meanwhile discovers that the yacht's owner is the man he has been seeking revenge on for many years. Bond manages to rescue the girl before Nemo's torpedo strike sinks the yacht. Bond and the girl are taken aboard the Nautilus for Nemo to offer final revelations about Denver and about his own vendetta against humanity...

Watching 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea today somehow brings to mind the films of James Cameron, and not just his maritime epics The Abyss and Titanic. Both Cameron and the current film's director Stuart Paton share an obsessive fascination with technology (on both sides of the camera) and a reliance on spectacle to propel the story, not to mention a wanton disregard for expenditure. 

The fourth screen adaptation of Jules Verne's story, after versions by Biograph in 1905, Georges Melies in 1907 and Eclair studios in 1913, came to the screen via the breakthroughs in marine photography made by brothers George and John Ernest Williamson. The Williamsons had gone to the Bahamas in 1914 and shot their own film, Thirty Leagues Under The Sea, to demonstrate the capabilities of the 'Williamson tube' underwater camera. Universal sought a way to exploit their innovations commercially and found an ideal vehicle in Verne's novel.

Or, more accurately, 'novels', as Paton's screenplay also mixes in generous helpings of Verne's other Nemo adventure Mysterious Island. It finally abandons both, for an epilogue set in India that is almost entirely Paton's invention. In its defense, Paton's film is one of the few to correctly portray Nemo as the Indian Sultan of the 1870 text. (Incidentally, Verne originally wrote Nemo as a Polish nobleman waging war against Russian oppressors, but his nationality was changed to appease his sensitive publishers at a time when France and Russia were closely allied.)

Captain Nemo (Allan Holubar) surveys the oceans
In light of this, it's disappointing to see that Alan Holubar is a white actor playing Nemo in white beard and blackface make-up (which also makes it hard to spot that he was only 27 years old at the time). The equally white Jane Gail (Alice in the King Baggot version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) is equally unbelievable as both the "child of nature" and Princess Daaker, and in the former role is given to prancing around the undergrowth like an excitable wood nymph. None of the cast, it has to be said, are particularly persuasive. Nemo is far less ruthless than his literary counterpart, while the novel's narrator Aronnax is reduced to the role of passive observer. The rest of the cast seem to gamely go through the motions as the perfunctory storyline moves them from place to place.

But such criticism is almost beside the point: this film is all about spectacle. When 20,000 Leagues was premiered in Chicago in August 1916, Universal had sunk (literally) almost $500,000 into the production. Filming took place over two years in California and Leonia, New Jersey, with extensive location shoots in the Bahamas where the clear water provided sunlight for the Williamsons' cameras. Also expensive was the full-size (80 feet long or more) and fully mobile mock-up of the Nautilus built for offshore scenes. A miniature Nautilus was used for underwater filming, which looked a good deal more convincing than the giant octopus that almost gets the better of Noble Johnson.

Universal, never the most affluent studio, were alarmed by the balance sheets and refused to consider binging any more Jules Verne to the screen. Until Disney broke the trend with their all-star version of 20,000 Leagues thirty-eight years later, their decision would seem to have been a wise one. Hollywood's next attempt at Verne was MGM's Mysterious Island starring Lionel Barrymore in 1929, which was a financial and critical disaster.

End Credits:
Allan Holubar (Captain Nemo), Jane Gail (A Child of Nature/Princess Daaker), Dan Hanlon (Professor Arronax), Edna Pendleton (Arronax's daughter), Curtis Benton (Ned Land), Matt Moore (Lt. Bond), Howard Crampton (Cyrus Harding), Wallace Clark (Pencroft), Martin Murphy (Herbert Brown), Leviticus Jones (Neb), William Welch (Charles Denver), Lois Alexander (Princess Daaker's Daughter), Joseph W. Girard (Major Cameron), Noble Johnson.
Screenplay: Stuart Paton, Photography: Eugene Gaudio, Asst. Photographers: Friend Baker, Milton Loryea, Art Director: Frank D. Ormston, Asst. Director: Martin Murphy, Technical Directors: H.H. Barter and James Milburn, Underwater Photography Process by Williamson Submarine Film Corp., Based on the novels '20,000 Leagues Under The Sea' and 'Mysterious Island' by Jules Verne.
Universal, USA
Running time 101 mins

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea' (Image Entertainment)

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