Movie Review: 20,000 Leagues – 1916 Version

Welcome! Please prepare yourselves as we ready this post to travel into the deep past of cinematic history. Back to a time when ‘technology’ wasn’t a word yet and films were still in black and white and without sound. If you’re ready, I give you:

Movie Cover

This was the first motion picture filmed underwater. Actual underwater cameras were not yet invented, so a system of watertight tubes and mirrors were used to allow the camera to shoot reflected images of underwater scenes. These had to be staged in shallow sunlit waters which then doubled for deep-sea locations, like the ocean floor.

So there was some ‘technology’ involved. In this case, brothers Ernest and George Williamson did the honors, and here is what the title cards had to say about their contribution:

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These two inventive men did such a good job that they even got a few seconds of screen time, something even the director, Stuart Paton, didn’t get! And here they are:

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The film was made by The Universal Film Manufacturing Company which was later to become Universal Pictures. The film’s innovative special effects, location photography, large sets, exotic costumes, sailing ships, and full-size navigable mock-up of the surfaced submarine Nautilus led to an incredibly high budget for the day!

And just how good were the effects in this film? Let’s have a look at some stills:

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The Nautilus

Looking like a blurry picture of the Loch Ness Monster, this image could be of almost any modern-day submarine. There was no effort to make the craft look futuristic.

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Undersea Images

The Williamson boys did their best, and I’m sure these images looked better back in the day on the big screen, but the print I viewed did them no justice. But considering this was the first time anyone had even tried to film under water, kudos for the effort!

There were some similarities between Disney’s big budget 1954 film. Such as the undersea walking, farming, and funeral scenes:

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Turtle Soup tonight!

Allen Holubar plays the title character of Captain Nemo. His performance was… interesting. I think they must have served a lot of ham at the catering truck during filming. His performance was over-the-top to say the least, but he had some strong competition from the rest of the cast!

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Both my wife and I saw this moment in the film and thought it looked a little like Santa Claus on Weight Watchers talking to his elves! Once that image got into our minds, it was hard to take him seriously throughout the rest of the film.

Before I rate this film, let me give you a brief (?) synopsis of the plot: A giant ‘sea creature’ has been sinking ships on the high seas so the government sends a professor and his daughter (?) on another ship to investigate. Seems safe enough. It wasn’t. Nemo rams the ship and then rescues the Professor and his daughter and spends half the film showing them the ocean floor. Meanwhile, a balloon is launched (?) which crashes on an island inhabited by ‘a child of nature’, or beautiful jungle girl. This is a nod to another Jules Verne classic, Mysterious Island. Then a yacht arrives (?) with a guy who abandoned a girl on the same island years earlier and he just thought he’d drop by to see if she was still alive. Seems a decent thing to do. But one of the balloon guys kidnaps the girl and takes her onto the yacht which is then torpedoed by Nemo after which he rescues them too.

Now here is where it gets interesting:

In elaborate flashback scenes to India, Nemo reveals that he is Prince Daaker, and that he created the Nautilus to seek revenge on the yacht guy for causing the death of his wife and for stealing his daughter (!) He is overjoyed to discover that the abandoned wild girl is his long-lost daughter, but then he drops dead. His loyal crew bury him in the ocean, disband, and leave the Nautilus to drift to its own watery grave.

The film ends with a shot of one of the balloon guys and the long-lost daughter looking off into the sunset. Presumably, everyone else died. The end.

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Captain Nemo in happier times

I would give this film a 3 out of 5 Stars. It doesn’t deserve that many stars based on the storytelling but it is pretty amazing that they managed to film under water and do a fairly good job of it. Also, you have to consider how much of an impact it would have had on 1916 audiences!

This film has a G rating. It contains: Two attempted rapes. Child abuse. Three kidnappings (all of the same girl). Murder. Suicide. And a storyline that basically has a maniac destroying dozens of ships and killing hundreds of people just because he hates one man. But we are told he feels bad about it. This film has a G rating. I just thought I’d say it again.

I recommend the Disney version.

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