• 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
    (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
    lizard's mouth.

    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
    Herrmann's score.

    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
    became impassable?

    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
    feet wet?

    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.

    Mark R. Leeper
    Copyright 2016 Mark R. Leeper

    --- SoupGate-Win32 v1.05
    * Origin: fsxNet Usenet Gateway (21:1/5)