Saturday, 19 April 2014

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a major hit for Irwin Allen (who produced and directed as well as co-writing the screenplay) in 1961. The success of the movie inspired Allen to follow it up in 1964 with the television series of the same name.

Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) is an eccentric scientific genius who has somehow persuaded Congress to let him build a highly advanced nuclear submarine, the Seaview. Nuclear submarines were a topical subject at the time, just a few years after the USS Nautilus’s famous voyage under the North Pole.

The Seaview has a number of civilian passengers on its maiden voyage, including a congressman who considers the Seaview to be a waste of money. Also aboard, for some obscure reason, is psychiatrist Dr Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine). Dr Hiller is not the only woman aboard the submarine. Admiral Nelson has brought along his secretary, Lieutenant Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden) who presence has predictably caused major disciplinary problems.

Apart from its other advanced features the Seaview boasts the world’s only underwater aquarium, which allows Commodore Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) to indulge his hobby, the study of sharks and other denizens of the deep. Emery also happens to be one of the world’s leading physicists, a circumstance that will soon turn out to be rather fortunate. When we first meet him he’s taking one of his sharks for a walk.

The Seaview is a research submarine rather than an actual warship although it’s rather heavily armed for a research vessel with an array of missiles (with atomic warheads of course) and torpedoes. You just never know when you’re going to need a nuclear missile.

The Seaview has just repeated the Nautilus’s feat and surfaced at the North Pole when an alarming discovery is made - the Van Allen Radiation Belt which surrounds the Earth has caught fire. The sky is on fire! This delightful piece of scientific silliness sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

One thing that is refreshing is that this movie does not follow the very tedious practice, so common in 1950s sci-fi, of blaming every disaster on humans.

An emergency session of the United Nations predictably achieves nothing but a lot of pointless talk. It’s going to be up to Admiral Nelson and the Seaview to save the world.

Admiral Nelson and Commodore Emery believe they have a plan that can do just that. It’s obvious what has to be done. If you have a fire raging out of control what do you do? You nuke it of course. So they have to nuke the Van Allen belt - the atomic explosion will blow the whole belt out into space. All they need to do now is to contact the President of the United States to get the go-ahead (they have very wisely decided to ignore the UN completely). It’s obvious that Admiral Nelson intends to proceed with his plan whether he gets official approval or not. This is one of those science fiction movies that casts scientists very much in the hero mould, with politicians being seen as largely irrelevant.

While the Seaview is involved in a race against time to reach the only location from which the missile can be fired Admiral Nelson finds himself faced with other obstacles. The most serious is that the scientific consensus is against him. The majority of the world’s scientists disagree with his plan. The UN is against him as well. They have ordered the destruction  of the Seaview. Fortunately Admiral Nelson knows only too well that the scientific consensus can be wrong. 

Another obstacle is the psychiatrist, Dr Miller. Dr Miller believes that thinking for yourself and having the courage of your convictions are sure signs of a paranoid personality. 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea really owes more to Jules Verne than to the average submarine movie. It is in some ways an updated version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This turned out to be a rather clever idea.

The Seaview will be familiar to fans of the television series. Irwin Allen very wisely kept the miniatures and some of the sets from the movie and was able to re-use them in the TV series. It’s still a very cool looking submarine.

The relationship between Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane (played by Robert Sterling in the movie) is a lot more combative than in the TV series. Although we’re told that Admiral Nelson is like a father to Crane they clash repeatedly, usually over some high-handed action by the admiral who tends to regard the Seaview as his own personal property and infringes on the captain’s area of responsibility in a manner that is inevitably going to cause tension. The Admiral Nelson of the movie is a rather more arrogant character that the Admiral Nelson played by Richard Basehart on TV. Walter Pidgeon is fairly convincing as a visionary scientist with perhaps just a bit too much self-confidence.

Robert Sterling is a little dull as Captain Crane. Joan Fontaine seems somewhat out of place in this movie. Having a psychiatrist let loose on a submarine proves to be as disastrous one one would expect it to be. Barbara Eden is there purely to provide some glamour, which she does. By 1961 Peter Lorre’s health was failing but he still has his moments. On the whole I prefer the cast in the TV series but that may of course be due to my greater familiarity with the TV version.

The special effects are pretty well done with the burning sky being quite impressive. Of course it wouldn’t be a submarine adventure movie without a giant killer octopus, and this movie boasts not one but two such creatures. It has to be admitted that the first giant killer octopus in this movie is one of the more disappointing examples of the breed, looking obviously fake. The second example is a great improvement, being clearly a real octopus in a tank with a model of the Seaview.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones but offers a reasonably good anamorphic transfer.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a pure adventure film that (quite rightly) has no interest whatsoever in scientific veracity. As a submarine adventure movie it’s second only to the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in entertainment value. Highly recommended.


Laurie Brown said...

I saw this film in the theater even though I was only 7 at the time; I can remember my mother laughing at the octopus scenes. I watched the series for a long time, too, although eventually I got bored; there are only so many unique emergencies you can have in a submarine. Yeah, the scientific errors...

So before Barbara Eden was a genie with an Admiral Nelson in the show she was a secretary to an Admiral Nelson.. guess there is reincarnation, at least in Hollywood.

Randall Landers said...

Not one of my favorites. The idea that melting icebergs would shower DOWN huge chunks of ice to endanger a submarine was among the most ridiculous things I'd seen in a movie this grandiose. Acting was really bad (except Lorre whose performance I actually enjoyed). Robert Sterling just annoyed the hell out of me the whole time, too. :)