20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Albert W. Vogt III

Not long after I got my Disney+ subscription, one of the first movies I watched was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).  I remembered enjoying it as a kid when it played on the old Disney Channel, one of the early big media cable outlets.  When the streaming service premiered, I took it as an opportunity to revisit many of the classics I liked from its forerunner.  I appreciate old fashioned Disney because that is the kind of guy I am.  I have already reviewed some of my other favorites from that time, like Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and The Parent Trap (1961).  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was on that list, but for whatever reason, when I sat down to watch it a couple years ago, I had trouble staying awake for it.  Maybe it was because, at that time, I was waking up at an unsightly hour of the day to make a long drive for a job from which I got the boot when COVID came a calling.  In any case, I found it interminable.  When I recently saw it again, I had a different reaction.  It is amazing what sleep will do for you.

If you are unfamiliar with the Disney adaptation of Jules Verne’s early science fiction novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the important things to know are that it is set in 1868, and there is a submarine terrorizing the South Seas (read as the South Pacific).  The rest of the world does not know this yet.  Newspapers across the globe, particularly in the United States, wildly speculate that it is a giant sea monster, with wings to boot, that is sinking any vessels that dare to cross those dangerous waters.  In San Francisco, where shipping is a way of life, Professor Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) are interested in studying the supposed creature.  They are trying to find a ship that will take them across the Pacific to do so, but there is nary a willing captain.  What gets them on their way is a delegate of the United States government who proposes to put them aboard one of their steam frigates that they are sending to investigate the strange occurrences.  Going with them, though not by choice, is an experienced hand with a harpoon named Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).  He had been arrested for carousing, and apparently avoided jail by being put aboard the U.S. Navy’s steam frigate.  It is not long into their voyage that they encounter the so-called sea monster, which comes for them after their ship passes another one of its victims.  Professor Arronax, Conseil, and Ned all end up in the water, and find their way to the Nautilus (the name of the submarine) as it rests on the surface of the water.  They board her and find no one aboard.  Their search reveals that the crew had donned underwater gear and is on the ocean floor collecting material.  When her skipper, Captain Nemo (James Mason) returns, his initial thought is to immediately set the three stowaways adrift.  Captain Nemo had been willing to let Professor Arronax stay, who Captain Nemo recognizes from his scholarly work.  However, Professor Arronax says that he would rather die with his companions, forcing the skipper to let them all remain on the submarine.  Professor Arronax, despite seeing Captain Nemo as essentially a terrorist responsible for killing hundreds, is interested in discovering why this man capable of such technological wonders is carrying out these attacks.  To answer, Captain Nemo takes them to a penal colony.  Once near enough to the shore, he brings Professor Arronax to a safe observation point, and has the academic look on and see the war material the slave labor is loading unto a ship.  To Captain Nemo, the world is not ready for what he has to offer, and would only use it to perpetuate war.  After they return to the Nautilus, Captain Nemo sinks the ship.  Even though Professor Arronax better understands Captain Nemo’s purpose, he does not approve of the methods, and hopes to persuade the leader to give up his pursuits.  Meanwhile, Conseil and Ned begin to believe otherwise.  Actually, Ned is dead set to leave immediately, while Conseil is devoted to Professor Arronax.  Ned attempts to get Conseil to escape with him when they stop near an island.  Unfortunately for Ned, it is full of cannibals that chase him back to the submarine.  For attempting to escape, Captain Nemo puts Ned in confinement.  This also happens to be the moment when a warship spots the Nautilus, and manages to breach the submarine’s hull with a cannon shot.  Though they manage to right things before they are crushed in the depths, their presence in the deep attracts the attention of a giant squid.  They make it back to the surface, but Ned must break out of the brig and use his skills with the harpoon to fell the creature.  From there, it is on to Captain Nemo’s secret base called Vulcania, where he supposedly has even more technological wonders.  Ned had figured its location, and had been sending messages in bottles hoping to warn whoever might find them of the Nautilus’ destination.  As a result, there is a fleet of warships waiting when they arrive at the island.  Captain Nemo makes the decision to sneak into the lagoon in the center of the island via an underwater cave, and to blow up his base.  Unfortunately, just before making it back to the safety of the submarine after setting the fuse (so to speak), he is mortally wounded.  His intention is then to send the Nautilus to the bottom of the sea with all hands, including Professor Arronax, Conseil, and Ned.  These last three are not so keen on this idea, and Ned is able to surface the submarine and get him and his companions off as the island goes up in what seems like a nuclear explosion.  Our final shot is off a foundering Nautilus, her skipper dead inside, slipping below the waves for the last time.

In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Captain Nemo is equal parts idealist and terrorist.  The terrorist part is easy enough to determine.  He has what appears to be the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, and though he does not have torpedoes, the hull is designed to it to rip through the bottom of ships by ramming them.  The only time the Nautilus is vulnerable is when the script calls for it.  The idealism is a bit more esoteric.  It is not that it is hard to understand.  He sees the world as bent on destroying itself, and he wants to take measures to stop this from happening.  He believes that by destroying humanity’s ability to make war, it will lay down its arms and usher in a new era of peace.  I applaud the goal, but criticize the methods.  When the Church started, it had similar intentions of making the world a better place.  It is a mission it carries on two thousand years later.  One can look back at Church History and point to a few missteps along the way.  The Crusades were less than ideal, some of the attempts at evangelization in the Americas and elsewhere were not completed with the love of Jesus at heart, and there have been some other sore moments through the years.  On the whole, though, I would say that the humans that, with God’s inspiration, continued the work Jesus gave to His disciples before departing have done a pretty good job.  If not, would there be a Church that spans the globe and managed to survive this long?  I find that concept difficult to believe.  I bring this up because, even in the face of growing tension in places like Ukraine and elsewhere, the kinds of things against which Captain Nemo fought, violence is not the answer.  The Church is just one example of how you can affect positive, lasting change without violence.

I am glad I was able to stay awake for all of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea this time.  Because it was filmed in 1954, some of the effects can be a little cheesy, though the giant squid looks pretty cool.  I also had to look up later how long is a “league.”  If you are keeping score at home, there is no part of the ocean that is 70,000 miles deep, a league being 3.54 miles.  Remember that this was written in the nineteenth century, and not even Jules Verne had a firm grasp of such things.  In the meantime, you can enjoy a classic Disney film that is not as boring as I thought.  If there are kids around, they might like seeing Captain Nemo’s pet seal.

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