American International Pictures’ War Gods of the Deep (also released under the title The City Under the Sea) was based on (or inspired by might be more accurate) Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The City in the Sea. It’s a lost world tale, which happens to be one of my favourite sub-genres.
The great Jacques Tourneur directed this 1965 movie, but all did not go smoothly for him. The producers insisted on the inclusion of an irritating comic relief character in the person of Harold Tuffnell-Jones (played by David Tomlinson). Tuffnell-Jones is accompanied everywhere by his chicken, and by the end of the movie one has grown very tired of both him and his chicken. Both Tourneur and star Vincent Price protested vigorously and bitterly but they were overruled by the producers.
Despite this annoying and unnecessary alteration to the script (penned by Charles Bennett and Louis M. Heyward) this is still a rather wonderful film.
The discovery of a body washed ashore on the Cornish coast in 1903 will lead lawyer Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) to a strange world beneath the sea. A beautiful American girl, Jill Tregillis (Susan Hart), runs an hotel in the 15th century Tregathian Manor. Shortly after the discovery of the body Jill disappears, the only clue being a trail of sea-water and sea-weed left behind by her abductors. Ben finds a secret passageway which leads to a watergate, and (along with Tuffnell-Jones and his chicken) is swept into a maelstrom.
They find themselves in a world beneath the sea. An ancient city was buried beneath the waves, but the inhabitants of the city possessed enough technology to construct powerful pumps to bring air and fresh water to their inundated city. They survived for an unknown length of time, and then died, although they left behind some strange descendants.
In 1803 a band of smugglers led by the local squire, Sir Hugh (Vincent Price), fleeing from the excise men, discovered a grotto far beneath sea level, and discovered the sunken city. A hundred years later these smugglers are still alive. Sir Hugh regards himself as the king of this underwater realm, and of the strange descendants of the city dwellers. Sir High and his men have been in this undersea world for a century, and have not aged a day.
But now the underwater volcano that once provided life-giving heat to the denizens of the city under the sea is becoming more and more active and threatens to destroy both the city and Sir Hugh and his followers.
Vincent Price is in his element here and gives a wonderful performance. He also gets to recite Poe’s poem, and Vincent Price reading Poe is always a treat. Tab Hunter is very good. The best that can be said about David Tomlinson is that he is unable to wreck this movie. Susan Hart does not get very much to do but she’s quite adequate. John le Mesurier is one of several well-known faces in the supporting cast.
This was to be Jacques Tourneur’s last film and his approach is as stylish as ever. The special effects are extremely good and stand up very well today, as do the sets and the underwater city. This movie looks much more expensive than it is. There’s some very effective underwater photography. Stephen Dade’s cinematography is both lush and atmospheric. There’s also some amusing technobabble. Plus it has guys in rubber suits, always a plus, and some rather cool vintage diving suits.
Does it have any of the authentic flavour of Poe? Well, perhaps just a little.
War Gods of the Deep was released on DVD in MGM’s Midnite Movies range, in an excellent anamorphic transfer which does full justice to this fine movie. It was released individually and as part of a double feature. The individual release is still available and at the very modest price is outstanding value for money.
This is a delightfully entertaining tale of adventure with a slight gothic tinge (and to modern viewers a definite hint of steampunk). Highly recommended.