Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has captivated and intrigued filmmakers for decades, from George Melies’ silent short film in 1907 to the 1997 made-for-television movie starring Ben Cross. The most well-known cinematic adaptation is the 1954 Walt Disney action/adventure classic starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas. I distinctly remember watching this version as a child at a friend’s house and being absolutely terrified by the giant squid battle that occurs at the film’s exciting climax. The film has fascinated me ever since.
It is 1868 and tall tales circulate about a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean, disrupting shipping lanes and creating fear and apprehension among sailors. Not so with Ned Land (Douglas), a brash harpooner with an interest in sea monsters. His introduction tells us all we need to know about the man as he walks through town with two beautiful women on each arm and scoffs at two men warning others about the sea monster. Ned gets into a fight with them and is dragged off to jail by the police.
Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are trying to get to the Orient but their plans are scuttled by the threat of the sea monster until a representative from the United States government offers them transportation if they join an expedition hoping to find it and prove or disprove its existence. Intrigued, he agrees and Ned tags along, eager for adventure.
They search for three months and find nothing. As luck would have it, one night they encounter a ship wreck with no survivors, which fuels rumors of the sea monster among the crew. Sure enough, the “monster” surfaces, evades their cannon fire and proceeds to cripple the ship with ruthless efficiency. Ned, Aronnax and Conseil are thrown overboard and left to fend for themselves.
They happen upon the “sea monster,” which is actually a man-made iron-riveted submarine known as the Nautilus. They board it and find the ship deserted so they go exploring. The interior is a fascinating mix of dirty iron and rivets with Victorian opulence that has inspired countless Steampunk books and films. The sub’s crew returns after performing an underwater funeral service for one of their own and intercept our heroes before they can escape. They meet Captain Nemo (Mason), the cultured and quite mad captain of the vessel. The rest of the film plays out Aronnax, Conseil and Ned’s attempts to derail Nemo’s plans as neither guests nor prisoners.
Not surprisingly, the underwater sequences are among the highlights of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, like when the sub crew take Ned, Aronnax and Conseil out for a “hunting” expedition and the bottom of the ocean floor comes to life with all kinds of creatures big and small, adding to the wonder of this sequence. Aronnax sums it up best: “A strange twilight world opened up before me and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.” Nemo and his men farm the bottom of the ocean for their food. This sequence takes on a quasi-documentary feel as we observe Nemo and his men at work, living off the land.
The centerpiece of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the legendary giant squid attack. After having narrowly survived an attack by a warship that saw the Nautilus take on water and nearly sink to uncharted depths, they are attacked by a giant squid. It’s all hands on deck – literally – as Nemo, his crew and Ned fight the sea creature during a violent storm at night. It is a harrowing sequence that director Richard Fleischer expertly squeezes every ounce of tension out of with white knuckle intensity.
James Mason plays Nemo as an erudite man that believes what he’s doing is right as most men of his kind do. He is as comfortable walking around his sub in a smoking jacket and cigar as he is in a deep diving suit harvesting the sea floor. He’s more than a mad genius but also an accomplished musician, playing the organ while the Nautilus travels silently along the ocean floor, which creates an ominous atmosphere. He doesn’t care for the chaos on land, full of people wanting to control one another, while he only feels truly safe on the ocean floor. There’s certainly a method to his madness as he uses the Nautilus to sink a ship with components that will be used for war and whose crew employ slaves to obtain it. As the film continues, Mason deftly shows Nemo gradually coming apart at the seams, consumed by his own desire for vengeance.
Kirk Douglas is well cast as Ned, the rascally rogue full of charm. He doesn’t have any set plan in life, content to go where the wind blows, much to Aronnax’s chagrin who tries to develop a plan to stop Nemo. Ned is a wild card, an unpredictable force of nature that confounds the professor and infuriates Nemo. Douglas delivers one of his trademark physical performances full of energy and passion.
Paul Lukas does a superb job of showing Aronnax’s initial admiration of Nemo, which turns to disgust when he sees first-hand what the man is capable of – murdering an entire boatload of sailors – and yet also feels compassion for the man after hearing about his tragic past. Lukas plays the professor as a conflicted man that believes he can reach Nemo but in the process becomes infected by the man’s mania.
Harper Goff was a designer that had worked as a sketch artist for Warner Bros. in the 1930s. By the late 1940s, he had become a freelancer, creating illustrations for various magazines. In 1952, he met Walt Disney while in London, England and he recruited the artist to help design a family park that would be called Disneyland. Not too long afterwards, Disney asked Goff to go to the marine lab at the California Institute of Technology to see footage of marine life that Dr. McGinnity had shot with the notion that it might be integrated into an undersea film for the True-Adventure series.
Goff had been a fan of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea since he was a child. While developing a storyboard for the McGinnity footage, he visualized a sequence for the film involving two divers on the ocean floor and made a series of sketches. Disney saw the sketches and told Goff that he also loved Verne’s classic novel and had contemplated making a film version. Unfortunately, MGM owned the rights at the time and Disney didn’t want to buy them. Later, he and Goff found out that the studio had sold the rights and this, along with Goff’s impressive storyboards, changed Disney’s mind and he acquired the rights.
Originally, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was envisioned as a full-length animated film with Goff placed in charge of production development. His first job was to design Captain Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus. As per the source material, he had to design a vessel that looked like a sea monster and could be strong enough to ram ships at high speed and not take on too much damage itself. Disney didn’t like Goff’s initial design and felt that it should look sleek and futuristic. Goff argued that the Nautilus “was built hastily and roughly at Nemo’s secret base. The only available material was the rough iron that was salvaged from wrecks.” Goff eventually won the argument.
By late fall of 1952, Disney decided to abandon the animated format in favor of live-action because it would be cheaper and not take as long to make. In addition, his other live-action films were modestly budgeted and performed well at the box office. For 20,000 Leagues, a 60 x 125-foot indoor tank was built for $300,000. Many of the water effects scenes were shot there, like the famous giant squid battle.
To write the screenplay, Disney hired Earl Felton and Richard Fleischer, a duo that had success on a few B-movies over at RKO, but it was the Disney-esque comedy The Happy Time (1952), starring one of his contract actors Bobby Driscoll, that convinced Disney they were right for the job. The first challenge was creating a story out of a novel whose American translation didn’t have one, “only a series of incidents,” Fleischer said. The first thing he and Felton did was flesh out Nemo’s background and his philosophy on life, which would then drive the story. They obviously couldn’t include everything from the novel and picked what they felt was the most memorable incidents – the cannibal attack, the giant squid battle and so on. Disney reviewed their work and added moments of levity, like the pet seal, to alleviate the often dark and violent tone.
When it came to the casting of the pivotal role of Captain Nemo, Disney approached acclaimed actor James Mason who actually turned the studio down a couple of times because he was afraid it would be a children’s film with Nemo “being played down to a juvenile level.” He read the script and thought it quite good. He also felt that director Fleischer would provide an “adult point of view,” and decided to do it even if he wasn’t sure how to play the part. He found himself drawn to Nemo’s “cause and individuality…He wanted to build the world according to his own specifications, rather than the specifications of the current powers. This, I thought, would be interesting to deal with.”
In spite of having a newly built indoor tank, Disney felt, for reasons of realism, that the diving sequences should be shot on location with only one sequence completely filmed in the indoor tank. Fleischer and Goff scouted for a good underwater location in the Bahama Islands with its clear water and superior reefs. They found such a location and the production, consisting of 20 tons of equipment and a crew of 54 people, were transported there at considerable cost. Principal photography began on January 11, 1954.
After eight weeks of location filming, the main unit returned to Burbank, California for four months of principal lot photography. For the giant squid attack sequence, sculptor Chris Mueller (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and mechanical effects expert Robert A. Mattey (King Kong) created the creature with the former designing its body and the latter bringing it to life. The sequence was originally shot at sunset and after a week of filming, Fleischer stopped because the footage looked too artificial with the effects of the squid being visible and the deck of the Nautilus looking like an obvious set. Second unit director James C. Havens took over and decided to shoot the sequenced in a rainstorm, which would solve their problems and be more exciting. It also cost Disney $200,000 and a six-week delay in shooting.
While Douglas and Mason were well-behaved on set (they both had a reputation for being mercurial performers), Paul Lukas clashed with Fleischer. Initially, they got along fine but according to the director, the actor “was going through some kind of crisis” and had trouble remembering his lines. He was good friends with co-star Peter Lorre but by the time principal photography had ended on June 19, 1954, they were no longer talking to each other. Lukas even threatened to sue Disney, Douglas and Fleischer!
In the past, Disney had his films released through RKO who had taken a large cut of their grosses at the box office. With 20,000 Leagues, he created Buena Vista, distribution subsidiary that would lower the costs and give total control to the promotion of his films. A preview was shown on December 9th to several hundred exhibitors in New York City. Everyone loved it, sensing it would be a hit. Two weeks later, it opened in 60 theaters across the United States to generally positive reviews and performing well at the box office but was also Disney’s most expensive film at that time - $9 million!
Ostensibly, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a rousing action/adventure film. It also acts a warning of the dangers of man’s inclination for war and the futility of such pursuits. “There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new, better life – all this will someday come to pass in God’s good time,” are Nemo’s sage words that he utters towards the end of the film and then again at the very end, resonating even more powerfully after everything that has happened.
Frazier, Joel and Harry Hawthorne. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” Cinefantastique. May 1984.