Saturday, November 29, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

I hadn't meant to go on a Jules Verne kick, but David starting spotting ads for the DVD release of Brendan Fraser's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Ads with T-Rexes in them.

Because I am physically incapable of watching any sort of remake or adaptation without seeing the earlier versions first, I had Netflix send us the 1959 version (it's in color, unlike the still above, by the way) starring James Mason and Pat Boone. In a few years, David probably won't put up with those kinds of shenanigans, but for now he's willing to watch what I order as long as the dinosaurs are there. And he's enough of a geek that he enjoys watching various versions as much as I do.

I've never read the Verne novel, so I didn't know what to expect story-wise. I guess I was hoping for something like At the Earth's Core or a subterranean version of The Lost World, but Journey is a lot more subdued than those two.

Not that it's a quiet or boring movie by any means. It's just that the excitement comes from its sense of mystery and the drama between characters more than it does from giant monster attacks. I am absolutely okay with that; it's just not what I expected.

The movie opens with Edinburgh's celebrating the recent knighthood of one of its citizens, Professor Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason). Lindenbrook is a geologist, so as a congratulatory gift, one of his students (Pat Boone) gives him a piece of volcanic rock he picked up in a curio shop. The rock is heavier than it should be, so Lindenbrook starts testing on it and finds hidden inside another, denser kind of rock. What's strange is that the interior rock is only found in Iceland, while the volcanic rock comes from the Mediterranean. Chipping away at the exterior shell, Lindenbrook discovers markings on the Icelandic rock and eventually cleans it up enough to see that it's really a stone plumb-bob.

The markings are actually writing, so Lindenbrook deciphers it and learns that it was written by a scientist named Arni Saknussem who disappeared a while back while searching for Atlantis. Lindenbrook deduces that that Saknussem discovered another world beneath ours and managed to get the plumb-bob message out before he died. If that sounds overly goofy, it's because I'm forgetting some details. It's all believable in the context of the film.

Lindenbrook transcribes the text on the plumb-bob and learns that it reveals the entrance to the world below. He sends it to Professor Göteborg, another famous scientist who lives in Sweden, for verification. When he doesn't hear back from Göteborg, Lindenbrook writes again. This time he gets a response, but not from Göteborg. The University in Stockholm writes to let Lindenbrook know that Göteborg has disappeared. Lindenbrook estimates the date of Göteborg's disappearance as being approximately when the first letter would have arrived. It's a lot of set-up, but it goes by quickly and it's made enjoyable by Mason's suaveness and the sheer, boyish charm of Pat Boone.

Boone's Alec McKuen is a good guy, but he's not as irritatingly fresh-faced and squeaky clean as I'm imagined a Pat Boone character would be. He's in love with Lindenbrook's niece Jenny (played by Diane Baker, who apparently guest-starred in every single TV show made in the 1960s and now plays House's mom) and a lot of the first act is about their relationship and whether or not unwealthy Alec will ever be in a position to propose to her. This is a 1950s movie about the 1800s, so obviously their relationship is pretty chaste, but there's some hand-knee action that shows that Alec isn't above trying to cop a nineteenth century feel. Also, Alec is the first one to start shedding clothes when things get bad below ground, and there's a hilarious scene towards the end with Naked Alec, some nuns, and a sheep.

Act One is fun, but Act Two gets awesome when Lindenbrook and Alec rush off to Iceland to try to beat Göteborg to Saknussem's secret entrance. There's murder and betrayal as Göteborg and one of Arni Saknussem's descendants each try to find the underworld before Lindenbrook and Alec. During all the intrigue, Lindenbrook and Alec meet a local farmer named Hans who joins their expedition, but doesn't speak English. That necessitates their including a translator in their party, so they also bring along a woman played by Arlene Dahl.

Peter Ronson as Hans is the coolest character in the movie. I love that he speaks Icelandic the entire movie, but never comes across as anything less than intelligent and capable. It would've been so easy to make him a comic figure suitable only for lugging around heavy packs, but Hans is an indispensable member of the team and everyone acknowledges it the entire way through. He's made even cooler by his love for his pet duck Gertrude whom he brings along on the expedition.

Arlene Dahl's character is also wonderful. She's smart, capable, and never tries to use her gender as a crutch to get her out of something. Lindenbrook needs convincing that she can carry her own weight, but she more than proves herself. She's also, incidentally, heart-breakingly beautiful.

The only thing I didn't like about the movie were the special effects on the dinosaurs. Putting fake back-sails on live reptiles and calling them dimetrodons is cheesy. Not that cheesy can't be fun and cool. I appreciate it, for example, in schlock like the 1960 version of The Lost World where the whole movie is cheesy. But the rest of 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth doesn't give off that vibe. It's awesome in all other ways and it needs awesome dinosaurs too.

That factor alone makes Journey ripe for a remake or five. I can't imagine any of the subsequent versions in my Netflix queue matching this one in terms of cast (Greg Evigan is no James Mason) or set (the 1959 underworld looks fantastic), but as long as they're updating the dinosaurs, it would be cool to see them try to keep the mystery and drama of the plot intact. I'm not counting on it though. The '80s version is next on my list and it's modified the story to fit a couple of kids, their nanny, and Emo Phillips. As Verne would say, "Le sigh."

Four out of five pet ducks.


Menshevik said...

Actually, the 1959 movie rather "sexed up" the story compared to the original novel, but then Jules Verne was a 19th-century author writing for the children of 19th-century parents and there is usually precious little romance in of his books. In the novel, there is just a little romance between Axel and the professor's goddaughter, but Arlene Dahl's character (Professor Göteborg's widow), Arne Saknussemm's descendant and even Gertrude were additions made by the screenwriters.

Oh yes, the novel also does not start in Edinburgh either, but in Hamburg, the Professor's name is Otto Lidenbrock, Axel is his nephew, and Axel's sweetheart, Lidenbrock's goddaughter from the Vierlande (a rural area near Hamburg known for producing fruit and vegetables), is only known as Grauben. Lidenbrock, professor of geology and mineralogy at the Johanneum, is also a rather different character from Lindenbrook, perhaps an early example of the Mad Scientist and certainly to some extent a caricature of a German academic as seen by a Frenchman who was heavily influenced by reading the strange tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann. James Mason's character is worldly and suave compared to the dry and irascible Lidenbrock of the novel (in the first chapter it is mentioned that his lectures are well-visited because people hope to witness his famous fits).

Michael May said...

Ooh! Thank you so much for that information. I knew that there had to be differences between the two versions, but it was going to be a long while before I got around to reading the book. Now I'll have a clearer vision of Verne's original as I watch the other movie versions.

Thanks again!

Menshevik said...

You're welcome!

For the movie it definitely made sense to add a romantic subplot as well as the intrigue with Saknussemm's descendant. In the novel, as in many of Jules Verne's Extraordinary Voyages it's mainly about the journey and informing the (young) readers about as many geographic and scientific facts as can be stuffed between the covers (in this case from geology and paleontology, with a little cryptology at the start when they still had to decypher Arne Saknussem's coded message). Of course at that point, dinosaurs and evolution were much more "new" at the time the novel (only Verne's second) was written.

It was published in 1864, five years after "On the Origin of Species" and seven years before "The Descent of Man", although Verne must have been aware of pre-Darwinian evolutionary theories such as that of his compatriot Lamarck). In 1864 featuring living dinosaurs and mammoths may have been excitement enough, but by 1959 you needed a little more "oomph".

One thing that may have led to the creation of Gertrude by the way was that in the novel Hans is a collector of eiderdown, a profession which meant he had to do a lot of climbing to reach eider ducks' nests on top of cliffs, which predestined him to become Lidenbrock's and Axel's mountaineering guide...


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