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What I Found 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

What I Found 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Andrew Gilbertson

Note: The title above is completely inaccurate, of course- designed to grab attention and identify the subject of the blog, but also perpetuating an unfortunate myth. As I recently read in another author’s blog, 20,000 leagues beneath the surface of the sea would go straight through the Earth and out the other side. Rather, the title of the novel- and the 1954 Disney film being discussed here- refers to distance traveled while ‘under the sea’; in much the same way ‘500 miles on the interstate’ would indicate the amount of horizontal travel accumulated while in the described setting.

Jules Verne - Getty Images
Jules Verne – Getty Images

There’s just something about James Mason and Jules Verne. The former seems born to bring the latter’s works to spectacular life. Journey to the Center of the Earth. Mysterious Island. And of course, the inestimable 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Disney’s live action adaptation of 20,000 Leagues- only their fifth live-action motion picture, and the only sci-fi picture ever personally produced by Walt Disney- is a film near and dear to my heart. As a childhood favorite, it (along with Diseny’s TRON) preceded Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Narnia, Middle Earth, Superhero comics, Japanese daikaiju, and all of my other current manias. This film fired my imagination and drove it toward the fantastic long before any of the mainstays that I frequently consume today. It was foundational; tilling the fertile ground in which seeds of sci-fi and fantasy fandom would soon be planted.

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I’ve just had the good fortune of returning from Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr Film Institute, where I was privileged to celebrate the 8th Anniversary of the day I met my wife by fulfilling a lifelong dream- viewing 20,000 Leagues on the big screen. (In my list of films I want to see in the theater before I die, this was one of two in the very top tier; as husband, Father, man-who’s-met-Robert-Picardo-and-been-in-the-same-room-with-Anthony-Daniels, and now theatrical-viewer-of-20,000-Leagues-Under-the-Sea, I only have to find a way to watch Star Trek: The Motion Picture theatrically within the next year-and-a-half, and I’ll be able to make a good case for being possibly the first 30-year-old in history to have already fulfilled all of his lifelong ambitions!)

Having watched the film again, I was struck by a number of impressions, from the narrative to the nitpicky, which never really factored into my childhood viewing of the film. I daresay that the film looks somewhat different through adult eyes.

One thing does not look any different with age- this film is gorgeous. This film is awash in fantastic cinematography- from the undersea vistas (particularly striking is an early image of the Nautilus in the jagged-maw of an undersea cave) to the above-the-waves imagery of New Guinea (actually Jamaica). Model shots above and below the water lend a remarkable reality to the stylish and iconic Nautilus, and the whole affair is capped off with the wonderfully Jules-Verne-ish and too briefly glimpsed- steampunk wonder that is the Vulcania base. (I mean- are those steampunk satellite dishes??? Why is there not a whole MOVIE about this place?)

The Nautilus design is inspired, and nearly every shot of her is breathtaking. While the look of the water (which famously doesn’t scale) gives the game away occasionally that a miniature model is being used on the surface, even this sometimes-diminutive-looking Nautilus is always fully convincing as a true submersible craft, actually prowling just beneath the waves of the real ocean, ready to ram an unsuspecting warship.

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Last but not least, the fantastic undulations of the giant squid and subsequent squall-battle, and even the animated lightning that drives off the cannibals, have an undeniable and striking visual appeal that makes the film a treat to watch from start to finish, even in some of its slower-paced stretches.

To round out the gushing, mention must be made of the cephalopod on the room. When I was a kid, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was all about one thing: The Giant Squid. (Funnily enough, I only made it that far half the time, as I often stopped watching some time before New Guinea, bored by all the shipboard scenes.) But the squid remained one of my two favorite scenes*- a cultural fascination that has extended into a real-life fixation on the elusive (as well as ‘somewhat smaller and less-aggressive’) real-life beasts.

I don’t think I was the only one so-affected either; the movement and appearance of the creature, the way it’s shot, the epic fight scene that follows… they’ve become classics, icons of both Disney filmography and underwater fiction in general. The giant squid sequence is seared into the cultural psyche the same way that Darth Vader’s revelation of lineage or James Bond’s tuxedoed one-liners are. In fact, if I’m seeing through the 80s solarization effect correctly, I’m pretty sure that Ralph Hinkley/Hanley (it’s a long story) fought pretty much the same guy (clearly inspired-by) on The Greatest American Hero.

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But while my childhood focus may have been on the effects, and my adult eyes can still appreciate the lush cinematography that this undeniable visual masterpiece has to offer… I started noticing a few other things, as well.

For instance, adult eyes pick up the almost childlike (or even dream) logic that the film proceeds with in relation to geography. Things proceed from one setpiece to the next illogically… yet in a manner that feels right, emotionally and tonally. Let me tell you a whale of a tale or two…

-When the trio from the Abraham Lincoln first encounter the Nautilus, it is in the middle of the ocean. The Nautilus is surfaced, allowing the Professor to enter from above the waves… yet the Nautilus, only appearing to be a few decks in height, has the bottom of her hull less than twenty feet off the ocean floor. This would seem to imply a total ocean depth not much greater than the submarine itself; less than fifty feet. That seems absurdly shallow for open waters. Even if such an unlikely occurrence was possible in the middle of the Pacific (and perhaps in the south seas it is; I’m no marine cartographer)- or the ship was close to land, unseen in the fog- these seem to be a dangerously-narrow waters to maneuver the submarine into.

Yet, the funeral introduction and the sight of the party on the ocean floor (bearing Christian iconography, interestingly enough, which will come up again later…), is the perfect tone to set, with mystery and wonder. This setup requires a ship near to both surface and sea-floor… and thus it is accepted largely without question in the narrative.

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-The encounter off of New Guinea is bizarre, to say the least. The Nautilus runs aground on a reef, seemingly a few-hundred feet offshore. (And what a spectacular shoreline it is…!) After some adventures, and run-around with the natives, a warship arrives and begins shooting at the Nautilus. After taking several hits, the Nautilus backs off of the reef and sinks as the warship zooms overhead. And sinks. And keeps sinking.

Eventually (and seemingly without any horizontal motion whatsoever), the ship is restored. Nemo says that there are limits beyond which man and his puny efforts cannot survive- and the submarine just exceeded them by 5,000 feet. Then, as the ship begins to move forward, a giant squid rises even further from the depths (presumably beyond the ship’s depth-limits).

An argument could be made for more time passing and/or forward movement elapsed than we’re definitively shown (allowing for night to fall and the legendarily-mercurial tropical storms to sweep in), certianly. But even if the squid encounter takes place somewhat later than it seems to, all of that sinking- to depths below which the Nautilus is rated- seems to happen directly in a straight vertical line from where the last scene ended, just off the coast of New Guinea. Unless that region is riddled with ocean-floor fissures that I’m unaware of, such extreme depths (5,000 feet plus the deepest we ever see the ship go otherwise) seem absurd for several hundred feet off the edge of land. Just as the mid-ocean seemed ridiculously shallow in our previous example, this seems ridiculously deep (even if one is being generous and saying they were just at the edge of a continental shelf).

Yet, once again, a dark, somber tone and crisis seem like the appropriate follow-up to Ned Land’s incarceration and the loss of Nemo’s trust… as well as the rough damage incurred in the warship’s shelling. Tonally, the plunge complements the dark, second-act-low-point feeling of this turn in the plot.

-Lastly, the end of the film deserves some scrutiny. Fleeing from the explosion of Vulcania, (implied by FX and earlier statements about power to be a nuclear explosion), the Nautilus is run into a reef, holding it fast- but with the topside held conveniently above the waterline. (The puncture of the lower hull does begin to flood the ship.) The heroes make a point that they must escape before the explosion- implying that the Nautilus will be destroyed as well. Finally, the heroes reach a lifeboat and row away, getting a good fifty feet from the submarine when the entire island explodes. The Nautilus then upends and sinks beneath the waves.

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Firstly, if this was a nuclear explosion, I’m fairly certain the trio would be dead at that range- if not from the explosion itself, from radiation within a few days. Secondarily, if the explosion sank the Nautilus (presumably jarring it loose from the reef), then the question becomes how being fifty feet further from the source allowed the lifeboat to be wholly unscathed. The shockwave of a nuclear blast (or even a conventional explosive of that magnitude, I’d imagine) could well displace and fatally damage a submarine- but should have also swamped the longboat with the force of a hurricane.

On the other hand, if the submarine wasn’t sunk by the explosion, so that the shockwave/explosion didn’t harm the longboat or sub… then what was the big deal about getting clear before the explosion- and what sank the Nautilus?

My wife suggested the water taken on by the reef, combined with the wave breaking over the open hatch up top… but if so, lacking a shockwave or other motive power, what pushed the submarine free of the reef- which was holding it up out of the water- for it to be able to sink? Perhaps the water-surge lifted it off and flooded it? But even then, how come this giant wave that could displace the weight of the Nautilus didn’t even rock the longboat?

No matter what, the logistics don’t add up, and the cause of the Nautilus’ dramatic sinking when it was easily propped up is unclear at best… but emotionally, to punctuate the film and Nemo’s death, it fits the mood and drama of the moment.

In all three examples, the mechanisms that move each story point from one place to the next (not to mention the physics!) don’t really bear up under scrutiny… but they flow together in such a natural-seeming, emotionally-conducive way, tonally transitioning in a seamless manner, that one typically doesn’t question it… in much the same manner that dreams turn one person or location into another, yet never raise a question about being the same person or place that you were involved with a moment before.

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And that’s not the only thing unique about the storytelling in this film.

This retro style of narrative is a loose storyline of travelogue-vignettes- such as Hollywood (as evidenced by the recent Voyage of the Dawn Treader adaptation) doesn’t think people will watch any longer. While that fits the source material, I have heard some critics note that the film diverged from the novel in a primary way- that this was the first adaptation of the film to really be about Ned Land.

Certainly, Kirk Douglas’ influence- such as the dual paramours given him at the start of the film to help protect his public image as a ladies’ man- and long swaths of the second and third acts seem to reinforce this notion… but I don’t think it’s true. Rather, this film employs a structure that is seldom seen today, I think… it doesn’t really feature a true protagonist.

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In much the way that insightful (but unfortunately crass and profane) reviewer Harry Plinkett critically notes of the Star Wars prequels, this film does not feature an audience identification character. Professor Aronnax narrates the film- but many scenes in a row omit him entirely, focused instead on Nemo, Ned, or Conseil. And making the case for any of those as a primary audience identification character meets with the same objection; no one character has a full through-line in the film. Rather, the movie switches viewpoints, following each of the characters as its primary focus for a time.

Indeed, following the sinking of the warship, an astute viewer can spot the handoff; it has followed Aronnax as Nemo takes him ashore to Rura Penthe, and through the sinking of the ship. He stays behind and learns of Nemo’s tragic past- gaining (alongside the audience) some sympathy for the man’s tortured soul. When Aronnax returns to his cabin, Conseil is there, criticizing Nemo’s actions… and Aronnax, having gained a window into the demons that haunt the captain, defends Nemo. Conseil replies with concern and sarcasm, suggesting that perhaps Aronnax (and the audience) have been drawn too deep into sympathy with a man who is still, in essence, a mass-murderer. The camera the follows him as he goes off to speak with Ned Land, who agrees with him that Nemo is dangerous and a killer, and the two plot on how to escape.

The film has deftly switched from the Pro-Nemo characters to the Anti-Nemo characters, all-the-while presenting each as the ‘right’ side unhesitatingly. The conversation between Arronax and Conseil serves as a bridge for a seamless shift in perspective, transitioning along a gradient during the course of the conversation and keeping the audience-identification sliding along with it.

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Just like the Star Wars prequels, the film has no one clear audience identification character. (Though unlike those films and their failure to present a point of identification, 20,000 Leagues engages the audience with each of the characters, thanks to the strength and empathy of their characterizations and dialogue, as well as the charisma of the leads.)

Indeed, each of the performers is on fine form, from Peter Lorre’s (perhaps-atypical) comic bumbling (especially the hair-straightening bits with Ned) to James Mason’s charismatic, tortured leader and Kirk Douglas’ buoyant, happy-go-lucky Ned. The only performer who is not especially magnetic is Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax… but in some ways, he plays a necessary ‘straight man’ to the larger personalities of the cast around him. He is chosen as our narrator to provide a sense of grounding; he may not exactly be the identification character, but he is a personality that the audience can find commonality with- a rational touchstone in a colorful and strange world.

Despite Ned Land’s carefree persona and Douglas’ obvious intended appeal, I found myself considering him to be the antagonist of the piece. Indeed, it boils my blood to see review after review of the film refer to him as the ‘hero’ of the movie. He’s a lout and a scoundrel, greedy and duplicitous, ungiven to compassion or forethought… pig-headed and obstinate. In many ways, it is his continued rebellion that drives the conflict of the film, and his actions that lead directly to the death of Nemo, the destruction of the Nautilus and her crew, and the loss of the technological secrets that Nemo had nearly been persuaded to share. Ned ‘ruins everything,’ in a large way, bringing our fantastic voyage to a tragic close and leading to the death of a flawed, dangerous, driven man… in whom we have nonetheless been made to empathize.

But then, is that the point? Does Ned end this dangerous fantasy just as Conseil intimates to the Professor- because we (like him) have been drawn in too far; have begun to countenance a murderer as a hero because of the wonders that he can shows us, and the sympathy that we’ve found for his loss? Nemo has killed hundreds of innocents- in the self-proclaimed cause of saving thousands more- and yet, for leading to his death and ending both his fantastic craft and all the promise of his technology, I end up resenting Ned Land. Is that because he is a fool who lacks vision, depriving the (fictional) world of so much promise and wonder? Or have I become enthralled, so caught up in the spectacle and imagination that I fail to truly see the character of my tour guide, and Ned is actually saving me from myself; from the position that I might have held- countenancing evil- had I been allowed to remain in the madman’s thrall much longer?

It is doubly difficult because- while I agree or identify with no character one-hundred percent of the time- I find Nemo to be right more often than any other. Certainly, in his life fueled by hate, his bitter endorsement of vengeance, and his willingness to kill any number of innocent sailors on his (sadly futile, and most-certainly-so by methods such as these!) quest to end all warfare, he has flaws enough to give even the most accepting man pause. But in his views of man- the inherent propensity to violence and selfishness, the danger posed by delivering deadly (implied to be nuclear) power into mankind’s hands, and even his innate lack of good- Nemo is right.

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Indeed, Nemo’s conversation with the Professor near the end of the film, following the giant squid attack, is especially revealing. Aronnax starts strong, challenging Nemo’s assertion that life-saving heroics are ‘cheap’- but from there, Nemo is generally the one making sense. Certainly, the Professor may have a valid point in his assertion that Nemo is having a crisis of conscience; that Ned Land’s selflessness challenged Nemo’s life built on hate and vengeance, because if a man is capable of such altruism, then all Nemo’s foundational beliefs about man may come crashing down like a house of cards.

Aronnax may be right- in that this may indeed be what’s going through Nemo’s mind. But he’s terribly, terribly wrong in his assertion that this should be so.

In this- what I found to be the most fascinating scene of the film- Nemo eviscerates the commonly held adage of the modern world, that mankind cannot be inherently corrupt or evil because men do good deeds. “What [Ned] would do one day, he would gladly undo the next,” Nemo argues. The Professor is being swayed by the sentiment of this one moment, he says- the ‘crude extremes’ of individual good deeds over bad. “You oversimplify matters. The world is more complex than that, and good must not be measured on a scale as small as Mr. Land’s brash heroics.”

Viewers of Doctor Who may remember 2005’s Boom Town, and its discussion of killers. “You let one of them go- but that’s nothing new. Every now and then a little victim’s spared; because she smiled, ’cause he’s got freckles. ‘Cause they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while—on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction—you happen to be kind.” A bad man can take a good action; and viewed through the myopic lens of just that one action, an observer might label him a good man. Yet he might have killed the day before, and be ready to kill the next day as well. (Or be capable of any number of less-extreme wrongs, for that matter.) Isolated good actions do not make good men, any more than the ‘right twice a day’ hands of a stopped clock indicate a reliable timepiece.

“To be of benefit, goodness must be constant, forever building. It must have strength,” Nemo argues.

“I’m afraid what you seek is perfection. You will never find it,” Aronnax counters disappointedly. The Christians in the audience might well be nodding at this point; just so. Human beings lack perfection, just as they do true goodness. They are not incapable of choosing good- but by nature, they are still just as corrupt as Nemo implies. It is true that seeking perfection in humanity is a foolish endeavor; but in order to have the ‘faith in humanity’ that Aronnax dictates ought to be there, true perfection and good must be present. In its lack, there is room only for Nemo’s skepticism, and an awareness of man’s basically-corrupt nature.

Nemo does not seek that perfection, as the professor asserts- merely forms his worldview on the accurate perspective that perfection is absent. Lacking perfection, man lacks goodness; there is nothing worth putting faith in. It is Aronnax, in his philosophies, who is a beaten man… freely admitting that the standards which he claims humanity upholds require a perfection that it lacks.
This unexpected profundity, coupled with Nemo’s invocation of God at the end, add up for another- perhaps unintended- layer of depth to the character. (No pun intended.) Certainly, some of his ‘wisdom’ is manufactured. His accurate predictions about the future of technology result from a film written 86 years after it was set- and even his fears about how mankind would use nuclear power were written during the Cold War. No points for extreme insight there.

And yet, his philosophy comes off- at times- with extreme theological accuracy, painting a picture far more accurate than the typical Disney fare, or the more optimistic views espoused by the professor. Whether or not Nemo was intended to be right by the original screenwriters, a number of his points turn out to be eerily accurate- albeit mixed together with some decidedly unbiblical justifications and endorsements of vengeance, hatred, and the taking of life. Still, when viewed together, these points of clarity heighten the question further than they may have been meant to in 1954.

Who is the more right? Ned, or Nemo? Certainly, the captain has his flaws- but does Land, too? Is the harpoonist saving us- like the professor- from our own involvement when he breaks the spell of the Nautilus and ends our journey? Is the captain of this astounding submarine a madman or visionary? A villain or an antihero? His actions are not laudable, but his beliefs are today perhaps more ambiguous than they might have been viewed in yesteryear- leading us to wonder just who we should be nodding our heads along with in this somewhat-murky morality play… and continuing the question of just who is the true antagonist of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

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And somehow, to adult eyes, seeing opposing viewpoints collide to generate questions of deep theology and moral arguments onscreen- delivered by, let’s face it, the man of early color cinema, James Mason- is somehow just a bit more compelling than the giant squid used to be.

*The other has been, sadly, a bit ruined for me. And, being a cruel man, I intend to pass my misery on to you.

One of my foremost illustrations of awesome scale and perspective is the sinking of the Rura Penthe gunrunner. But the next time you see it, take note- especially in its final closeup (the one in which it explodes). Twin straight-vertical columns of overly-bright bubbles rise from either end of the wreck- hand-animated bubbles to hide the strings on which the model is being lowered.

It’s a nifty little trick, and gives me a fine appreciation of the craft and cleverness involved in making this film… but once I read about them, and then saw them, I have not been able to focus on anything else in that scene- including the impressive scope and overall appearance that once so-awed me. Go on, try not to notice now. Good luck.

About Andrew Gilbertson
“Forged in the fires of internet message board debates on Nitcentral.com, professional video editor Andrew Gilbertson has always been a filmmaker and writer. At last count, he’s edited over 40 short film projects in a roughly 8-year period, all of which are showcased for free at www.nolinecinemas.com- along with short stories, audio dramas, and podcasts. But his primary effort at the present is the Heavens Declare series, a sci-fi novel saga that he hopes to have ready for Grail Quest Books within the next year or so. He currently shares a suburban home with Sarah Gilbertson, the love of his life, and a newly-minted third member of the family, in a town that he’s geekily gleeful about sharing the same name with the hometown of a Doctor Who companion…”

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