Saturday, 13 August 2011

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959)

The 50s was the decade that saw Hollywood go crazy for Jules Verne. It’s not that difficult to understand why. If you’re committed to the idea that the best way to combat the threat of television is by making lavish big-budget colour Cinemascope epics then Verne is ideal source material. The really surprising thing is that most of these movies turned out rather well, and 20th Century-Fox’s 1959 Journey to the Centre of the Earth is no exception.

Sir Oliver Lindenborok (James Mason) is a crusty, eccentric but basically good-natured geology professor at Edinburgh University. In 1880 he is presented by a student with what at first seem to be merely a rather interesting volcanic rock. Then he notices that it’s unusually heavy. Could there be something inside? There certainly could. It’s a metal plumb bob, but more intriguing still is that there’s a message on it. In Icelandic. The message, written by a famous Icelandic explorer named Arne Saknussem who vanished a century earlier, is that if you descend into a certain extinct volcano in Iceland you can reach the centre of the Earth.

Being a professor of geology our hero is understandably quite excited by this. He writes to an eminent geologist in Stockholm, a man renowned as an authority on volcanoes. Rather than the reply he was hoping for he receives a message from the university in Stockholm. Professor Göteborg has suddenly disappeared. Lindenbrook realises at once that the treacherous Göteborg has set off for Iceland, hoping to be the first man to reach the centre of the earth and return to tell the tale. Lindenbrook has no intention of allowing himself to be beaten to this prize, and the race is on.

Lindenbrook sets off on his own expedition. He is to be accompanied by his favourite student (soon to be his son-in-law) and by a friendly and immensely strong Icelandic farmer. There a few more surprises in store for him. There is yet another rival in the field, a descendent of the original Saknussem. And Professor Lindenbrook finds himself with a fourth member of his expedition. Carla Göteborg (Arlene Dahl) proves to be a rather distracting presence for the professor although she’s a distraction he comes to be rather fond of. And of course she provides the necessary romantic sub-plot.

There will be many perils to be faced, both human and natural.

Disney had set a very high standard for Verne adaptations with their 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and while Disney’s movie remains the best of them all Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not far behind.

The special effects look 1950s but they also look wonderful, and help to give this film much of its charm. The world below the surface of the Earth is brought to life with some gorgeous colour effects.

It’s a great story but of course it’s scientifically ludicrous in the light of present-day knowledge. This potential problem was avoided by keeping the late 19th century setting, so the idea seems perfectly plausible to the characters.

Bernard Herrmann’s score should also be mentioned. As he did so often Herrmann captures the spirit of the story perfectly with his music.

Pat Boone is perfectly adequate as the professor’s student and prospective son-in-law. Arlene Dahl makes a great love interest who also turns out to be a bold and courageous member of the expedition. After his sensational performance in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea James Mason was the obvious choice to pay Professor Lindenbrook. It’s a less challenging role than Captain Nemo but it gives Mason the opportunity to have an enormous amount of fun. It’s a delightful performance.

Fox did a superb job of restoring this movie for their DVD release. It looks magnificent.

A great combination of spectacle, adventure, romance and sheer fun. Highly recommended.


Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

One of my favourite science-fiction/adventure films of the 1950's. You didn't mention the best performance in the film, which belongs to Gertrude the Duck!

iain said...

I loved this as a kid, saw it a number of times; didn't see it again for years and then, as an adult, I realised that the magnificent monitor lizards (with the silly spines stuck on their backs to suggest they are dimetrodons) are genuinely speared and obviously experience considerable pain, not to mention the wretched salamander lizard in the finale which is doused in burning, smoking 'lava'. The movie is, these days, unpalatable.

Randall Landers said...

My favorite set from this production has to be the mushroom cavern. I would love to see this sort of thing in a modern production, crafted from materials (as opposed to CGI).