20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Dir. Richard Fleischer. Starring Paul Lukas, James Mason, Kirk Douglas

Tomorrowland, one of the many attractions at many Disney theme parks, opened first at Disneyland in 1955. In 1954, Tomorrowland was very much in view in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney film based on the Jules Verne novel. It is the only sci-fi picture that Walt Disney produced, and (NSFW) it is eccentric, to say the least.

For what seems on the surface to be an exciting ’50s B-movie, the casting is remarkably shiny. Two expats born in Hungary – Paul Lukas and Peter Lorre – play the scientific duo of Professor Aronnax and Conseil. Lukas, who won Best Actor for 1943 at Humphrey “Casablanca” Bogart’s expense, is accented, amiable, and a little naive when we first encounter him. He is a renowned marine biologist, although the term may not have been invented yet. Peter Lorre is rather more out of type; he is not snide and sniveling, like Ugarte in Casablanca, nor is he the child murderer of M. He is matter-of-fact, blunt, and protective. He does not like it when Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) smooths his close-cut hair in the wrong direction. He is chubby.

The other half of the top billing, Kirk Douglas and James Mason, provide a strange sort of credibility to the film’s slightly Manichaean halves. Kirk Douglas is beefcake here, as he always seems to be. He played Beefcake Jesus, for goodness’ sake. In this movie, he plays the ironically named Ned Land. Ned is a brash harpooner, as if anyone who throws a metal phallus for a living could be anything but. He makes friends with a sea lion and sings a song with the refrain, “I swear by my tattoo.” He has an earring he appears to have shoplifted from Party City. Remember that time Douglas hit on Anne Hathaway at the Oscars? Ned Land is nonagenarian Kirk Douglas’ spirit animal. Meanwhile, James Mason’s Captain Nemo is the very French English version of Captain Ahab. Instead of being possessed of a fiery temper and a desire to strike the sun, Nemo Mason is at a simmer seemingly all the time, except when we actually watch him use the Nautilus from the bridge in a magnificent shot. Is it joy on his face? Horror? Relief? It’s difficult to say. The beard is a nice touch. So is the pipe organ he has on his submarine. No sane people listen to organ music, much less play it. That’s why there will be a significant organ presence at my wedding.

The film is in color. 1954 is only fifteen years after 1939 (I mean, duh, but when was the last time you thought about the invasion of Poland and Dien Bien Phu being just a decade and a half apart?), when The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind turned the tide in favor of color. 1954’s top grossing movies were White Christmas, 20,000 Leagues, and Rear Window. Magnificent Obsession and A Star Is Born were both released that year as well; all of them, especially White Christmas and Magnificent Obsession, use their color palettes to the point of self-parody. Meanwhile, On the Waterfront, Sabrina, and Dial M for Murder were released in black and white. 1954 is a banner year in film for the use of color; it seems to me that its increased prevalence, as well as its box office clout, created an aura of austerity and starkness in black and white films that people simply wouldn’t have read into them ten years before.

Anyway, it is serendipitous that 20,000 Leagues was not conceived of even five years earlier, and it is likewise serendipitous that Disney decided to embrace the cost of a color picture where the dappled blue light seems to reflect on everything. (It’s also serendipitous that 20,000 Leagues wasn’t filmed in 2014, because then it would have been in orange and blue, and that wouldn’t have been any better.) It would have been a waste of film; no one looks out on the ocean and thinks, “Gee, look at that crystal gray expanse.”

The film also opens in 1868. San Francisco is still the Wild West – the second scene of the film is a brawl that breaks out on a whim. I’m reminded of the scene in Around the World in Eighty Days (the novel) in which Phileas Fogg and Passepartout witness a similar San Francisco brawl and ask what all the hullabaloo is about. “They’re electing a justice of the peace!” is the answer. (It’s hard not to be nostalgic for those days when Americans were perceived as a nation of little brothers beating each other up for no reason at all, instead of single fist which insists on being the international Scut Farcus.) The American warship that meets an untimely end at the hands of the Nautilus prominently features a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. It’s good to remember that it’s 1868, four years after the H.L. Hunley was lost in Charleston Harbor, because the Nautilus is as much an emblem of the way of the future as Tomorrowland.

The key to the Nautilus is that it runs on nuclear power. The word “nuclear” is never said, of course, but that’s what it is: a seemingly limitless store of power which allows the submarine to move without refueling or coaling. Much is made of this magnificent power that Nemo and his crew – especially Nemo, who is less of a Renaissance man than he is in the novel, but gets by as the world’s first practicing nuclear physicist in the film – have harnessed. Nemo toasts Aronnax’s brilliant work, but tells him that real knowledge of the ocean “begins where you left off.”

Yesterday, a man-made object took pictures of Pluto. In 2013, a man-made object left the solar system. In 1972, two men became the last people to walk on the Moon. And in 1960, two men descended to the deepest point on Earth, in the Mariana Trench. (Does James Cameron count? I think he counts, but it’s weird to count him.) Hundreds of people have gone to space, but only three have ventured to the bottom of our own planet.

Each scientific field has its own gaps: we haven’t cured cancer, reconciled gravity with the three other defining forces, or figured out the scope of the universe. Nor have we accounted for the world’s oceans or the ocean floor, a space three hundred times larger than the world’s land area. People love Planet Earth, but to me, The Blue Planet is far more interesting. There are mysteries to be solved. Is a colossal squid real, or do we just not have any conception of how large a giant squid can grow, because we’re only just now getting footage of the darn things? (I asked my ex-roommate about this once. He majored in biology in college. He said that colossal squids are their own thing. I’ve read several articles about scientists talking about how the colossal squid is its own thing. I remain skeptical.) Nemo’s promise to Aronnax, to show him the marvelous secrets of the ocean, should thrill anyone with an active mind.

With nuclear energy at their disposal, the men of the Nautilus need never take shelter in any man-made harbor. They farm at a sunken island which supplies all of their food (including sea turtles! That always makes me sad.), and they seem only to rise above the surface to reconnoiter their next target. Nemo is engaging in a one-submarine spree of terrorism. Who is he terrorizing? Warmakers, warmongers, and war profiteers: the (living synonyms of) men who wanted him to reveal the secret to nuclear power could not extract it from him, so instead, they tortured his family and killed them. (Like superheroes, terrorists have origin stories.) To Nemo, that which the ocean supports is peaceful and good, and that which the land has made is evil, and he means to purge all the evil he can from his unique oceanic vantage point.

Towards the end, as is the fate of all terrorists, nations kill Nemo. Mortally wounded, he orders the Nautilus to dive. Aronnax, desperate to learn whatever secrets Nemo has kept, makes a final plea.

Aronnax: Captain, you cannot do this. There is more at stake here than our lives. Yours was a dream of the future come true. I beg you to reconsider!

Nemo: Power greater than mine makes that impossible. But there is hope for the future when the world is ready for a new and better life, then all this will someday come to pass, in God’s good time.

In January of 1954, another Nautilus was launched. That was the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, which went under the North Pole. In 1959, the USS George Washington was launched; this was a nuclear submarine with the capability to carry and launch ICBMs. In 1979, the USS Ohio was launched; the Ohio-class submarine is arguably the most sophisticated ballistic missile submarine in the world. In God’s good time, indeed.

To its credit, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea understands its historical context. For every time Kirk Douglas takes off his shirt and waves it around, or every time James Mason sweats while playing the only organ piece anyone knows anymore, Aronnax and Conseil have an argument about whether Nemo ought to be condemned for his willingness to kill or redeemed because he made a dream of the future come true. The trouble with that argument, I guess – and the film recognizes the short-sightedness of it – is that Aronnax and Conseil assume that one half comes without the other.

2 thoughts on “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

  1. Why is this person being so rude to Pipe Organists??? “The only piece people know anymore” and “No sane people listen to organ music, much less play it.” Like seriously I spent my entire life practicing playing the organ and I have to hear this garbage made by an uncultured idiot.

    1. Dear Organist,

      I would strongly recommend looking at the sentence after the one about “no sane people…” and consider the possibility that I may have been joking, since I personally enjoy the pipe organ an awful lot.

      an uncultured idiot

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