Retrospective: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
From Mark R. Leeper@21:1/5 to All on Mon Oct 3 23:11:39 2016
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)
(a film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper)
Prior to 1950, science fiction was a rarity in film. There was
pulpish science fiction such as in the serials and DR. CYCLOPS.
And there was THINGS TO COME (1936), which in spite of some very
imaginative visuals was a little talky and didactic. Then in the
ten years from 1950 to 1959 science fiction had a modest
blossoming. Once the silver screen discovered there could be fun
science fiction the film genre went in several different
directions. The decade was capped with 20th Century Fox's JOURNEY
TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. In some ways this was an answer to Walt
Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954). Both films were based
on novels by Jules Verne and both starred James Mason. The earlier
film had Mason be a rather insular and brooding character without a
whole lot of personal appeal. In the later film Mason would not be
somber and brooding but cantankerous and vocal. His Lindenbrook is
irascible and outspoken. And in spite of his childish ways, he
holds viewer interest more by his actions rather than his mystery
as Mason's Nemo did. 20,000 LEAGUES was claustrophobic while
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH tells its story on a much wider
It is 1880 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the local university's
geology professor, Oliver Lindenbrook (played by James Mason), has
just been knighted. Part of his class's congratulatory prize is a
piece of volcanic rock, purchased by Alec McKuen (Pat Boone).
Lindenbrook finds the rock mysteriously heavy for what should be a
light piece of lava. Lindenbrook guesses that there is actually
inside the rock something much heavier than what the outside shell
is made of. He determines to slowly melt off the surrounding lava
but a furnace explosion saves him the time and effort. Inside he
finds a plum bob with a message on it. The message was written by
geologist Arne Saknussemm and tells how to reach the center of the
Earth. And thus the adventure begins.
The screenplay by Walther Reisch and Charles Bracket and directed
by Henry Levin is never less than entertaining. Though certain
changes were made from the story, but then there are precedents in
editions of the book. Verne's characters' names vary greatly from
one edition and translation to another. The professor was called
Lidenbrock or Hardwigg in different editions. In this film he is
Lindenbrook. The nephew (in the book the young character is the
professor's nephew) was called Alec for the film (in the book he is
Harry, Henry, or Axel). For some love interest the film introduced
two female characters. Carla Goetabaug is played by Arlene Dahl and
goes on the expedition, much to Oliver Lindenbrook's annoyance.
Also, Jenny, Lindenbrook's niece, loves Alec and stays topide and
worries. She seems almost extraneous to the plot but is played by
Diane Baker at the height of Baker's attractiveness.
The production values are top-notch here, making this a beautiful
film to watch. This was, I believe, the last feature film actually
filmed in Carlsbad Caverns. That is not entirely coincidence. The
film crew apparently did some damage shooting there and the people
who maintain the caverns have never again given permission to film
there. The only actively bad visual effect is the obvious model
work of the sacrificial dish rising in the volcanic chimney. Leo
Tover filmed the movie spectacularly, considering some of the tight
spaces he had to film in. Most of the special effects were quite
nicely composed. For the dimetrodons, live lizards were used with
fins glued on. That is a cruel technique that is now outlawed. But
it was never used so effectively as it was in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER
OF THE EARTH. One clever shot is a point of view shot from inside a
The score written for the film is one of Bernard Herrmann's finest.
Pat Boone was a popular singer and four songs were written for him,
though luckily the producers thought better of the idea and Boone
was limited to two songs--the two based on poems by Robert Burns so
they had some claim to authenticity. Two songs ended on the cutting
room floor though confusingly they do show up in the credits. The
songs "The Faithful Heart" and "Twice as Tall" were written by
popular lyricist Sammy Cahn, known for "Three Coins in the
Fountain" and "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow." Until
relatively recently Pat Boone's two missing songs were not
available to the public (as far as I am aware). But the CD of the
soundtrack includes them. Bits of their melodies show up in
1959 was a year of lackluster films from Fox. But Fox found JOURNEY
TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was a notable exception. They made some
effort in the following years to have a science fiction adventure
for the summer. In 1960 it was a remake of THE LOST WORLD for Irwin
Allen. But Fox's best summer science fiction adventure film was
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH until it was displaced by STAR
There were some problems I Found in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE
EARTH I think CASABLANCA is a great film and most people I talk to
seem to agree. But the truth is that there is a lot in that film
that makes little sense. There was no such thing historically as
"Letters of Transit" and certainly nothing that the Gestapo would
accept. And absolutely nothing that the Germans were not allowed to
even question. Later in the film when the letters are actually used
they seem to be barely examined. Some films just seem to click and
you accept them even with their problems. And as for Rick and Louis
walking off into the fog at the end, where do you find fog in the
Moroccan desert? Still we just accept it because it is a good film.
That is how I feel about JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.
I find what is wrong with the film forgivable. But I would not feel
right about just ignoring the many problems I saw watching the film
recently. This is effectively an appendix to that essay listing
problems with the writing of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.
Jules Verne's novel leaned rather heavily on lucky coincidence. He
started with a note falling out of a book where just the right
person could read it. But that is a small coincidence compared to
those in the 1959 adaptation. Walter Reisch's and Charles
Brackett's screenplay seems to consider this a carte blanche and
over and over has fortuitous accidents pushing the story forward.
Consider Arne Saknussemm who, knowing he would not return from his
expedition, scratched his message into a plumb bob. Somehow this
tool made its way back up to the surface from near the center of
the earth. Along the way somehow this tool was lightly coated in
lava so it look much like another rock. It managed not to fall into
the sea surrounding the volcano. Then someone found the rock and
sold it individually to a shop in Edinburgh where a student
volcanologist found it. What do you figure are the chances of all
that happening? Later an explosion blows off the lava jacket and
the plumb bob is left shiny and legible once the lava is removed.
Much of the coincidence driving the story is bad luck that turns
out to be extreme good luck. Consider:
If Lindenbrook and Alec had not been kidnapped and waylaid, they
would never have found Hans to provide the great muscle power
needed for the trip.
The three men stop what they are doing to have a moment of silence
for Goetabaug. That slows them a bit, but it was in this moment
that Lindenbrook notices the smell of potassium cyanide, which
tells them how Goetabaug died.
If Goetabaug had not died, the Lindenbrook expedition would not
have had the equipment it had.
Perhaps the biggest coincidence of all was that there was a path
and Arne Saknussemm was able to find it, saving the Lindenbrook
Expedition a lot of trial and error. I have no idea how Saknussemm
could have not only gone by himself on this trek but when he found
a way he could have proceeded he went back and marked it. How did
he know that a path continued for several days' walk and then
The duck also seem to know the path both when first entering the
cave and later when Count Saknussemm gives them a fraudulent way
marking. It is an unfortunate expedition that gets its best advice
from a duck.
Chased by a boulder, Lindenbrook throw himself to the ground and
immediately finds the three notches he might have missed.
If Alec had not fallen in the darkness, they would not have found
the crystal grotto.
In the flooding grotto Carla grabs for a stalactite to support
herself and it breaks off, but that gives them an escape.
The gunshot wounds Alec but helps Lindenbrook to find and save him.
In spite of my love for this film (and it is a film I have loved
from when I first saw it) when I see it to say I am willing to give
it a pass in spite of the film's stretches of credulity. Here are
problems I have noted (in addition to the coincidences already
As I said, without help Arne Saknussemm must have been able to find
his way to the center of the by trial and error and then go back
and mark the whole path. This seems unlikely. This is a problem
that goes back to the novel. It is unbelievable that Arne
Saknussemm could do everything needed to prepare a way for later
The plumb bob covered with lava, which is then roughly removed, but
the message on the tool is still readable. And it is a long message
that seems unlikely to be written on the surface of a single plumb
Lindenbrook lightly throws off that Alec will lose his acrophobia
after the first million fathoms or so. A million fathoms is about
1136 miles. It is hard to believe he thought they be walking
multiple thousands of miles.
On top of the mountain Alec throws down the jacket for his
accordion and apparently just carelessly leaves it there. That is
not a very good way to treat Jenny's gift.
Lindenbrook is delighted to find a room full of exploration
equipment. We are never told how four people with light knapsacks
carry all that gear *and* sufficient food.
How useful are charts of underground springs? After all, they were
made on the surface.
Lindenbrook seems to have some intuition about which direction,
left or right, the path should be going. How can he any such
knowledge? Why is there even a rule of which way to go at a fork?
In the crystal grotto I can see that minerals could form a barrier,
but it is unlikely they could form a vertical wall holding back
When the crystal wall breaks, how does Alec avoid even getting his
Lindenbrook says that the last echo of the gunshot will give the
direction of the gunshot. That seems unlikely even if it were the
first echo. It is not even clear which is the last of the many
echoes they hear.
When the electric coils are turned off, the rooms seem to get
lighter, not darker.
The band eats the mushrooms they find without even knowing if they
are safe or poisonous. Don't try this at home, kiddies.
It is hard to judge the size of the dimetrodons, but in our pre-
history at the longest they were about twelve feet and they seemed
Apparently at the very center of the earth there is a sea to one
side and not the other. And you can tell you are there because
there is "a field of force that snatches gold away." The physics
makes no sense at all. (Also in this scene Jenny seems to have some
sort of psychic link to the explorers.)
After traveling across the sea they find land almost exactly where
Arne Saknussemm came ashore. And it just happens to be where
Atlantis was located.
It is unclear how the sacrificial dish got over to the chimney and
drags the crew over to the chimney and up without injuring or
burning anybody. At the top of the column they are lightly tossed
into the sea (except for Alec thrown into a tree) all without
anyone being harmed.
In spite of it all, this is a film that clicks for me. It may well
be second to KING KONG (1933) as the film I have seen the greatest
number of times.