Tuesday, 15 October 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

A fine action adventure film that brings Jules Verne's classic sci-fi tale to vivid life

Director: Richard Fleischer
Producer: Walt Disney
Screenplay: Earl Felton
Story: Based on Jules Verne’s novel
Music: Paul Smith
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Editing: Elmo Williams
Studio: Walt Disney Productions
Distributor: Buena Vista Distribution
Running time 127 minutes
Budget: $5.000.000
Box office: $28,200,000


Kirk Douglas: Ned Land
James Mason: Captain Nemo
Paul Lukas: Professor Pierre Aronnax
Peter Lorre: Conseil \
Robert J. Wilke: Nautilus's First Mate
Ted de Corsia: Captain Farragut
Carleton Young: John Howard
J. M. Kerrigan: Billy
Percy Helton: Coach driver
Ted Cooper: Abraham Lincoln's First Mate
Fred Graham: Casey

The Disney film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the first foray into the science fiction film genre by Walt Disney Productions and is the best-known adaptation of the book of the same name by Jules Verne.


(Warning! This post contains spoilers.)

How often are we confronted by images and reports of death and destruction around the world due largely to the activities of political, tribal or sectarian groups and organisations, as well as countries and individuals motivated by personal greed, ideology. fanaticism and the need to gain and wield power and control over others? More often than not we see the results of such base and criminal human instincts and desires in the form of millions of our fellow human beings lying dead or dying from the ravages of war and disease; being uprooted from their homes and forced to seek refuge in other lands; having to wonder where their next meal is coming from and futilely seeking work in order to sustain themselves and scratch out some kind of basic human dignity. And so the world sits idly by and allows this to happen, deaf to the pleas of the many who cannot make themselves heard above the din of the gunshots and explosions of militaristic savages; the blustering, cacophonous arguments and counter-arguments of posturing, face-saving political leaders; and the mentally unstable ranting of dogmatic religious and political ideologues.

As onlookers to this human travesty, it is no wonder that we can feel so utterly helpless in the face of forces that seem to be way beyond our control. If only we as individuals had the power to right the wrongs, to redress the inequalities, to strike a blow once and for all for human freedom and liberty, to wipe from the face of the earth those who would cause millions upon millions of people to live in fear for their lives………..

In the film we are about to consider, 20.000 Leagues Under The Sea, one man did indeed move beyond the realm of “If only…” to actually realizing that understandable but seemingly fanciful wish to exercise the kind of power that would bring the world to its senses. But by being able to bring the world to its knees in the face of such unimaginable power, what would be the cost to the one exercising that kind of power and ultimately to the rest of the world?


The film, 20.000 leagues Under The Sea opens with a cover of Jules Verne’s work and the opening words to the first chapter of his book. The film’s origins and Verne’s legacy is established for us.

We then move to a shot of a ship powered by both sail and steam; an example of a fusion of “old” and “new” technologies in an era that was moving from wind / sail power to steam power, the engine of the industrial revolution. Suddenly, like a shark moving in for the kill, a mysterious sea vessel heads toward the ship. This vessel is almost other-worldly with its luminescent green light and incredible swiftness as it stealthily slices its way towards its sitting duck prey. The technology exemplified by the 19th century vessel is in an instant rendered into a debris field of floating bits of flotsam and jetsam.

It is 1868, and rumours abound of a sea monster attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean causing apprehension and fear among sea-farers, as well as wreaking havoc upon vital shipping lanes.

The United States government calls upon Professor Pierre M. Aronnax and his assistant, Conseil to join an expedition in order to “confirm or deny certain rumours.” Initially, Aronnax was to embark on an expedition to the orient but this plan fell through.

Months pass when finally, what appears to be the "monster" is spotted. The ship opens fire with its cannons, but to no avail as the “monster” rams the ship. Ned, a brash and cocky harpooner, and Aronnax are thrown overboard, while the loyal and trusty Conseil jumps in after Aronnax.

The three men drift in the ocean away from the stricken, burning and helpless warship. They eventually stumble upon a deserted, strange-looking metal vessel, which they conclude is a man-made submerged boat and is in fact the dreaded "monster" that they have been 

The submarine crew return to the vessel after conducting an undersea funeral and capture the three intruders. They are soon introduced to Captain Nemo, master of the Nautilus. Nemo intends to dispose of Ned and Conseil, but acknowledges Aronnax for his work and research and offers him the chance to stay. When it becomes obvious that Aronnax would rather die with his two companions, Nemo relents and permits Ned and Conseil to stay on board the submarine.

Later at the penal colony island of Rura Penthe, where Nemo and many of his crew were once prisoners, they observe current prisoners loading a munitions ship with a “cargo of death.” Nitrates and phosphates are taken from the island to be used for munitions. Nemo uses the Nautilus to ram the ship, destroying its cargo and killing the crew.

Nemo, although in a state of anguish over his actions, rationalizes his decision as having been taken in order to save thousands of people from death in war. Personal vengeance has also played a part as this "hated nation" had tortured his wife and son to death in an attempt to force him to reveal the secrets of his work.

Meanwhile, Ned has uncovered the coordinates of Nemo's secret island base, Vulcania, and comes up with the idea of placing messages in sealed bottles, which he will cast into the ocean in the hope that somebody will find them and free him from his predicament.

A while later, just off the coast of New Guinea, the Nautilus becomes stranded on a reef. Ned is allowed to go ashore with Conseil to collect specimens, but he is more intent on locating ways and means of escaping. While on a path to possible freedom, Ned finds himself confronted with a number of human skulls on stakes. This is an island of cannibals! Ned hurriedly rushes back to re-join Conseil and both men are pursued back to the Nautilus by the cannibals. The cannibals board the Nautilus but are repelled from the ship by electrical discharges on its hull. For his disobedience,
Ned is confined to the submarine's brig by a furious Nemo. 

As the Nautilus evades a hostile approaching warship, it falls into the clutches of a giant squid. An electric discharge fails to repel the monster, so Nemo orders the submarine to surface so that he and his men can try to dislodge the squid. While doing battle with the giant marine creature, Nemo is caught in one of its tentacles, but Ned jumps to Nemo's rescue and saves his life. This experience seems to have produced a change of heart in Nemo who now declares that he wants to make peace with the surface world.

Nearing Vulcania, the Nautilus finds itself surrounded by warships while marines are converging on his hideout. After going ashore, Nemo plants a bomb in his hideout, but receives a mortal gunshot wound to the back as he was returning to the Nautilus.

Nemo is eventually able to navigate the submarine away from Vulcania, and declares that he will be "taking the Nautilus down for the last time". His crew are also determined to accompany their captain in this last voyage of the Nautilus.

Nemo instructs The Nautilus's crew go to their cabins while Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned are confined to their cabins. Ned, however breaks free from his confinement and manages to resurface the Nautilus, causing it to strike a reef and to begin flooding. Nemo’s last image in this life is of his beloved ocean world through the Nautilus’s viewing window.

As Aronnax attempts to retrieve his journal containing an account of the voyage, he is knocked unconscious by Ned who carries him out and away from danger. Vulcania is destroyed in an explosion and the Nautilus slips out of sight beneath the waves. We are left with Nemo's last words to Aronnax:

"There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God's good time."

From left to right: James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, and Paul Lukas.

Points Of Interest

Film Facts

20.000 Leagues Under The Sea won two Academy Awards;
  • Best Art Direction – Color 
  • Best Special Effects 

The film was also nominated for one more;
  • Best Film Editing 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was filmed at various locations in Bahamas and Jamaica.

The names that Verne used in his story have some interesting allusions and origins. Take Captain Nemo's name for instance. Here we have an allusion to Homer's Greek epic poem Odyssey, in which Odysseus during one of his wanderings meets the cyclops, Polyphemus who asks Odysseus his name. Odysseus tells him that his name is "Utis" (“No-man" or "No-body"). In Latin this translates as "Nemo" ("No-man" or "No-body"). Nemo like Odysseus is fated to wander the seas in exile and to suffer torment.

The name of the submarine, "Nautilus" is taken from one of the earliest successful submarines, built in 1800 by Robert Fulton, whose submarine was named after the paper nautilus because it had a sail. Prior to writing his novel, Jules Verne studied a model of the newly developed French Navy submarine Plongeur at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, which provided him with inspiration for his own fictional version.

The name of the penal colony island Rura Penthe in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is also the name of a fictional penal colony in Siberia in the 1869 Tolstoy novel War and Peace and the Klingon penal asteroid planet in Star Trek.

The famous giant squid attack sequence was shot twice: originally filmed as taking place at dusk and in a calm sea and again, at night and during a huge gale in order to increase the drama and conceal the mechanical components of the animatronic squid.

The Vision

Jules Verne seemed to have foreseen the atomic submarine powered by “the dynamic power of the universe” of today. In 1954, such a concept would have been very intriguing even for mid-20th century audiences. It was in fact, in 1954 that the world's first operational nuclear-powered submarine, the United States Navy's USS Nautilus (SSN-571) was launched. Some say it was named for Verne's fictional vessel but was also named after another USS Nautilus (SS-168) that served with distinction in World War II. It wasn’t until the advent of specially-purposed submergence vehicles such as bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960 and DSV DeepSea Challenger in 2012 that we began to realize much of Verne’s submarine world vision.

Verne seems to have also foreseen the potential military applications of submarines. Considerer, for instance the danger which German U-boats later posed to the Royal Navy and other ships during the First and Second World Wars of the 20th Century, in the very same waters where Verne predicted it would take place.


When Captain Nemo constructed his Nautilus on Mysterious Island, the iron riveted ship was cutting-edge technology in ship building. No doubt even in the 21st century, the appearance of the Nautilus complete with its rivets, spines, internal workings and overall shape would be appealing for those who are fans of retro technology and steampunk.

As for the appearance of the Nautilus, it exudes a combination of sleek beauty and menace possessing as it does the features of both the shark and alligator, replete with pointed nose, menacing dorsal fin, sleek streamlined shape, distinctive tail and riveted alligator-like outer-skin. With the addition of its protective sawtooth spline, it seems that nothing can withstand its destructive ramming power when it decides to come in for the kill and take a bite out of its prey.



James Mason is well cast as Captain Nemo who he convincingly portrays as a tragic hero so far ahead of his time. On the one hand, he is misunderstood by a cruel and violent world that can only see him as being a monster to be hunted down and killed with harpoons and cannons. On the other hand, the flaws in Nemo’s character, together with the overwhelming and corrupting power of the technology he has developed has contributed to his becoming a kind of vengeful, sadistic and despotic monster.

Our first impression of Nemo is that he is a man who instantly commands respect. After the capture of Ned and his companions, Nemo enters and everyone stops moving and talking. He is a man who has “done with society” and as he states, “I do not obey its laws.” Nemo has the kind of almost megalomaniac personality that allows him to rise above the moral constraints of mere mortals. This obsessed and fanatical character jealously guards the secrets (“secrets that are mine alone”) of his power in the bony embrace of his vengeful hatred toward what he sees as the evils of humanity. It is up to others (and humanity) to prove their worth to him as Professor Aronnax was to find out when Nemo tested his loyalty and “love for fellow man” when given the choice to stay on board while his two companions drowned or join them and share their fate.

Captain Nemo may seem to be, as according to Ned, “cracked” and like a “mad dog,” but he is also a complex character. On the one hand, he is a product of ill-treatment and injustice considering what happened to him and his family within an unjust surface world replete with hunger, fear, fighting and unjust laws. How often in our history have such conditions given rise to sociopathic individuals and movements who have assumed and used power under the guise of combating injustice and inequality only to perpetuate even greater suffering among those who are subject to that power. On the other hand, Nemo’s mind and soul has been corrupted by the power he wields which in turn is fed by “the power of hate (that) can fill the heart as easily as love can.”

Nemo in his delusion can declare, “I am the avenger!” but the personal price he is paying for this is illustrated while he plays the organ prior to attacking the ship and its cargo of death. The organ music seems to reflect the inner anguish of this tragic hero as it echoes throughout the Nautilus: his ship, his world, his being.

With Nemo, we have a man who ardently believes he can use the power he has “to lift mankind from the depths of hell” and raise it to the heights of heaven. However, when he was rescued from the giant squid by Ned he needs to ask him, “You saved my life? Why?” At this point Nemo could have been saved not only physically but also in a sense spiritually, but as Aronnax stated, “It would undo all his faith in Nautilus to admit to human goodness.” Still that one act did produce a change in Nemo.

And so we leave this character puzzling over someone who has the capacity to lead a civilized apparently Christian burial service to honour a dead crew member, while knowing full well that had he been in Ned’s place, he would not have tried to save him.


Lying between the extremes of the Nemo character and the optimistic, kind-hearted man of reason in the form of Professor Arronax, we have Ned Land: the wisecracking, womanizing man of action who is at home in the world of harpoons, winds and currents. Although bearing little resemblance to Verne’s character, the film version reminds us of the carefree spirit that resides in each of us or which we might yearn for. A woman on each arm, a bit of ‘biff’ on the noses of those in authority or those who try to take us for a ride and of course, a “whale of a song”: all very appealing to any man on some level!

Ned is definitely in Nemo and Aronnax’s bourgeois eyes an uncultured slob who uses his knife as you would use a fork and talks with his mouth full of food. But, he knows enough to distinguish between “guests” and “prisoners” and it seems to be obvious which category he and his two companions fall into.

It was this simple sailor, Ned Land, who not only saved Nemo from the monster from the ocean’s depths, but who almost in a sense was poised to save Nemo from another kind of monster-himself!


Although 20.000 leagues under the sea is an excellent adventure movie, it does contain quite a lot of humour. This humour often arises from the antics of Ned and Conseil. Take for instance, Conseil who dismisses Ned's message-in-a-bottle idea with, "That went out with Robinson Crusoe! This is the nineteenth century!" Not to mention seeing Peter Lorre being poked in the backside by a seal’s nose! Both Ned and Conseil manage to bounce off each other with very funny bantering and both make a fine comedy duo.

The presence of the character Conseil is far more than that of providing comedy relief. He serves as a kind of brake to Aronnax’s unbounded and optimistic scientific curiosity with his combined qualities of steadfast loyalty and considered caution. Contrast, for example, Aronnax’s wonder at Nemo’s submarine with Conseil’s warning that it might prove to be an “engine of destruction.” Nor is Conseil’s role merely one of unquestioningly assisting and supporting Aronnax. When he later realises that the professor has gone too far in his determination not to antagonise Nemo, Conseil tells him point blank that he values his own life above that of scientific achievement.


Professor Aronnax is full or wonder and scientific curiosity about the achievements of Captain Nemo. He even manages to convince himself and his companions that he will attempt to learn as much as he can in order to win Nemo’s confidence. What he doesn’t realise is that by seeming to acquiesce to Nemo’s terms and conditions, he is running the risk of becoming a willing defender of and participant or collaborator in Nemo’s world view. When Aronnax declares that the world has use for someone like Nemo, it is Conseil who sarcastically replies with, “Whatever you say, Captain!” In Conseil’s eyes, the professor has become indistinguishable from his captor, Captain Nemo. How often have we heard of captives and prisoners eventually closely identifying with their captors (Stockholm syndrome). How often throughout history have tyrannical and despotic regimes flourished because so many choose to acquiesce and collaborate out of fear or personal gain while instinctively knowing that they are really supporting something that is inimical to human rights, liberty and dignity. How easy it is for us to rationalise the choices we make no matter how detrimental to ourselves and others they may be.

The matter of personal choice is an important one and is alluded to in 20.000 Leagues Under The Sea. We are presented with the optimistic line;

"There is hope for the future, and when the world is ready for a new, better life, all this will come to pass in God’s good time.”

One has to wonder whether the world is in fact ready, even in this 21st. Century. I suppose once each of us (like Ned) are unreservedly prepared to leap into the jaws of danger to save a fellow human being (friend, relative, stranger, enemy) then we might be ready. Once we can instinctively know the answer Nemo’s question, “You saved my life. Why?” if we were ever asked, then we might be ready……

©Chris Christopoulos 2013

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