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American Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

20000leagues1916Since its inception, cinema has been the art form with the closest ties to ongoing technological innovation, the limitations of which are constantly being pressed by the extraordinary creativity and imagination of the minds behind the movies. The most obvious early example of this marriage between artistic vision and technical ingenuity can be found in French filmmaker Georges Méliès. Méliès directed hundreds of films during his 18-year career, which began in 1896, but he is best known today for his 1902 adaptation of a Jules Verne novel, Le voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), as a fanciful special-effects extravaganza. Five years later, he adapted another Verne work, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and, just as unable to film under the sea as he had been unable to shoot on the moon, he employed the same abstract and surreal aesthetic.

Although the effects in Méliès films consist largely of camera tricks and an elaborate collection of painted backdrops and imaginative props, the visual magic of the movies grew in sophistication as the movies themselves did. Some of this simply consisted of better trickery and superior integration of fake elements with real ones, but probably the most significant improvements involved the camera: where it could go and what it could do. One such advance was the Williamson tube, a watertight device rigged with mirrors which, for the first time, allowed scenes to be filmed underwater.

In 1914, John Ernest Williamson, developer of the tube, and his brother George, mounted an expedition to the Bahamas, where sunlight reached to a depth of 150 feet, and shot a short picture which they cleverly called Thirty Leagues Under the Sea. The experiment was a smashing success, and the obvious next step was to take the invention to Hollywood and sell them on a full-scale production of the most famous undersea adventure in literature. This they did, and in 1916, the Williamson brothers were back in the Bahamas with director Stuart Paton and a full cast and crew to bring Jules Verne’s book to life in a way never before possible.

I use the word “book” loosely, as the adaptation is actually of two Verne novels: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island, its sequel. This movie version arranges the two stories to happen concurrently, adds a female character to each, and gives Captain Nemo a back-story. The plot of 20,000 Leagues is fairly well known, and not changed a great deal here (merely shortened considerably). The plot of Mysterious Island is read and adapted far less.

In the 1860s, a famous scientist is asked to join an expedition in search of a monstrous sea creature. When the creature attacks his ship, he is thrown overboard along with the expedition’s harpooner (and, in the movie, his daughter). Floating helpless in the water, they are picked up by the “creature,” which turns out to be a super-advanced submarine captained by a mysterious and driven man. Captain Nemo keeps them on board as his prisoners, but allows them to take part in his amazing adventures as he traverses the world’s oceans. Oddly enough, the scientist’s daughter (although I expected a romantic attachment between her and the harpooner), has no effect or presence in the story whatsoever. She is simply there, and is given neither dialogue nor anything to do.

Meanwhile, a group of Union soldiers escape their Confederate captors by hijacking a hot-air balloon. However, rather than carrying them back across enemy lines, the balloon flies out to sea and deposits them near an uncharted island. Eventually the men discover that the island’s lone inhabitant is a dark-skinned girl who seems to have been there for quite some time. Unbeknown to them, the island is one of Captain Nemo’s land bases, but he takes pity on them and secretly sends them supplies and aid.

Eventually, we learn via flashback that Nemo was once an Indian prince who was betrayed by a British guest. His guest, who desired Nemo’s wife, falsely accused him of fomenting a rebellion. When Nemo is arrested, a rebellion actually begins, and he escapes in the chaos. Returning home, he finds his wife dead and his daughter gone. By the next morning, the authorities have laid waste to Nemo’s kingdom, and he dedicates his life to seeking revenge against the cause of his downfall.

Of course, the girl on the mysterious island is Nemo’s daughter, who has fallen in love with one of the Yankees. In a bizarre turn, the man Nemo is looking for, haunted by the ghost of Nemo’s wife, returns to the island in search of the daughter. After a tense chase and a brief battle, he is killed. Nemo and his daughter are reunited (he tells his story on his deathbed, although by now we have pieced it together well enough), and everyone else ends happily.

The story has its shortcomings (and they are obvious), but it is passable and even highly entertaining in its way. It presumably exists to showcase the underwater photography, which is beautiful and incredible to watch, even now. One can only imagine its effect on audiences 90+ years ago. Furthermore, the underwater scenes do not wear out their welcome, as they might be expected to considering their novelty at the time. There are plenty of them, but they do not overwhelm the rest of the film or become dull from overuse. Just as much attention is paid to the film’s other aspects, in fact.

A full-sized “Nautilus” (which seems to be unable to dive, as an obvious model is used to film it underwater) was constructed, for instance, and many of the island scenes look as though they were filmed on location. Nemo’s extended flashback is staged with an opulence that approaches (but does not rival) Griffith’s Babylon set from Intolerance. The film is so lavish that it is no surprise to learn that its final budget made the expenditures impossible to recover when the film was released, resulting in a moratorium on adaptations of Verne novels for the next decade.

One final note: In a movie that obviously spared no expense in its staging and construction, one scene cannot escape mention. While the submarine is anchored near the island, the prisoners/guests see one of the castaways swim down to the ocean floor and get attacked by an octopus (whose enormous arm seems to operate like a boa constrictor). They alert Nemo and he quickly (ha!) dons his clunky diving suit and drops down to attack the octopus with an axe. Incredible as the whole thing is, the best part is the creature itself, which basically seems to be a black, octopus-shaped balloon with a cartoon face drawn in chalk. Unbelievably, at least according to John Williamson, the audience actually believed the octopus was the real deal.

Williamson cites a contemporary review as saying: “The struggle between the monstrous cephalopod and the pearl diver, ending in the latter’s rescue by the captain, is one of the rarities of the camera. There can be no question of fake or deception. It is all there, and our vision tells us it is all true.” The silly contraption was actually constructed out of canvas, and the tentacles inflated with rubber tubing controlled with bursts of compressed air, all operated by a diver inside the head. Williamson proudly claimed: “To one who did not know its inner secrets, viewing it in action was indeed a hair-raising experience. John Barrymore himself told me that in all his career on the stage and screen he had never been so thrilled, so absolutely frozen – rooted to the spot – as when he watched my octopus scenes.”

I have long believed accounts of early film audiences running from the screen in terror when an actor pointed a gun at the camera, or a train approached the lens head-on, to be foolish exaggeration. Accounts like this, however, certainly lend an air of credibility to the reported credulity of the first moviegoers. In any case, outrageously fake octopus or no, there is nothing primitive or artificial about Williamson’s ocean scenes. No doubt everyone can bring to mind a film, perhaps even a favorite, which involves underwater photography. We have John Williamson to thank for cinema first “getting its feet wet;” just one of a thousand technological innovations made by a thousand forward-thinking men and women whose work continues to enrich the films we enjoy today in ways that we don’t even realize.

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~ by Jared on February 10, 2009.

2 Responses to “American Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)”

  1. This looks great! I love early silent films… have you seen Le Avventure Straordinarissime Di Saturnino Farandola, Marcel Perez (1913)? It’s a weird slapstick sort of take on Jules Verne…. kind of.

  2. Thanks for this post! My husband and I just watched the film and wondered where it was shot. We appreciate your providing that information. The film definitely has shortcomings in the story area, and I couldn’t help noticing how much Nemo’s costume made him look like an Indian Santa Claus (kinda distracting). Even so, this film is worth watching because of the underwater photography, and for the flashback scenes in India with Nemo and his wife.

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