Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Freshly knighted Scottish geologist Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) more or less stumbles upon the last words (and pointer to an exciting adventure) of the Icelandic geologist Saknussem, who disappeared while trying to find an entrance to the centre of the Earth decades ago.

Despite his seeming unworldliness, Lindenbrook does not take too long to decide that giving fine lectures in Edinburgh is well and good, but finding an entrance to the hollow Earth would be something quite more exciting, so he makes his way to Iceland, accompanied by his insufferable favourite student Alec McKuen (Pat Boone, doing a Scottish accent about as authentic as his music is rough). Please ignore the romantic subplot about Al and Lindenbrook's daughter (Diane Baker).

After some to and fro, Lindenbrook actually finds the entrance to the planet's hollow core, and goes on his adventurous way accompanied by Alec, Carla (Arlene Dahl), the widow of his former rival Professor Göteborg (please ignore the subplot about Göteborg's mildly evil shenanigans, too), and a large Icelandic gentleman (Peter Ronson) of the peasant persuasion who has an unfortunate and clearly illegal relationship with a duck. There will be wonders, dinosaurs, and the mad great-great grandson of Saknussem (Thayer David) waiting for them.

Henry Levin's adaptation of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth is a bit of a weird one: despite some horrible flaws in its early parts and a bloated running time, the quality of its second half turns the film into quite an admirable peace of 50s SF/adventure movie. One only needs patience to get through a first hour that could have been cut by about thirty minutes without actually losing anything of interest.

Especially the romance sub plot between Boone and Baker is horrible, seeing as it gives Boone an opportunity to musically mangle a Robert Burns poem, and provides the film even more opportunities for cutesy and desperately unfunny humour regarding the couple; later on, Jenny is used to cut away from the actually interesting parts of the film to give us some peeks at her looking sort of depressed. This would be bad enough with an actual actor playing the student, but Boone's acting is as atrocious as his Scottish accent, and it's utterly impossible to believe that this slick, emotionless guy is a poor Scottish student in love with a girl and science.

Because the film wastes so much time on this sub plot and other "funny" business, it takes nearly an hour until the extraordinary voyage it is supposed to be about actually begins. Fortunately, once the voyage does begin, the up to that point tiring movie turns into something that is a joy to watch. There is a sense of wonder and joy about scientific discovery and strange adventures running through the film's second half that is completely in the spirit of Verne's less pessimistic phase, the kind of feeling that turns the simple discovery of a glowing part of the underworld into a moment of beauty, and that lets the film's sillier moments glow with a sense of fun.

Journey's excellent set design certainly makes a large contribution to the film's mood and sense of awe; as unrealistic as the effects work might look to the modern eye, there is such a sense of excitement on display the question of realism just doesn't seem to matter, as is only proper for this sort of movie. Sure, the dinosaur attack scenes do suffer from the "dinosaurs"' reality as poor reptiles (animals were, alas, harmed during the making of the film) with glued on fins, and can't help but produce the wish somebody in charge had hired Ray Harryhausen instead, but a dinosaur attack is an intrinsically excellent thing in a movie, even if it looks less than probable and is morally dubious.

On the characterization side I was pretty surprised by two things. Firstly, the open way a film from the conservative 50s treats Hans's very alternative lifestyle, as if being in a (clearly sexual) relationship with a duck were no big thing; okay, the film just isn't realizing it argues for bestiality, but one can't help being surprised.

Secondly, an quite a bit more seriously, the film does manage to show Carla Göteborg as a headstrong, intelligent and independent woman without feeling the need to permanently dismantle her. If you're dreading the horrible scenes every 50s SF movie with an actual woman character has where she has a complete breakdown and surrenders to the alpha male forever, rejoice, for that scene doesn't actually come; I suspect after the way Dahl holds herself for the whole of the movie, nobody would have believed that sort of scene anyway. Of course, Carla still isn't allowed to do quite as much as her male companions, but for 1959, her role is quite a satisfying one.

The script, she, and Mason even salvage the usual "two people permanently at odds with each other must be in love" romance between Göteborg and Lindenbrook by actually managing to give a lot of their squabbling the feel of coming from two persons too stubborn and set in their ways to easily fall in love, and by not confusing romance and love with forever giving up one's personality. That's not too bad for an adventure movie that begins with Pat Boone pretending to be Scottish.

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