Monday 13 May 2013

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

Captain Nemo, telescoping
I recently read Jules Verne's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', and enjoyed it very much.  Now, I'd probably recommend you read 'Around the World in 80 Days' instead, as its educational content is more colourful and readable, less scientific and statistical.  Nonetheless, Verne's submarinal thriller is a fine tale of high adventure, and well-written, to boot.  As I did with Dickens, I assumed I knew Verne without reading him, and was surprised to learn that his prose style is very entertaining, and his characters well-drawn and very human.

Perhaps it was a mistake, then, to go straight from the book to the film, especially to this very early adaptation, made shortly after Verne's death.  After all, films are often (though not always) less satisfying than the original books.  And, indeed, the best films tend not to have been books at all.  This 1916 work is a technical marvel.  Proudly it proclaims itself 'the first submarine teleplay ever filmed', as it has the first ever underwater shots.  These were achieved, not through invention and use of an underwater camera, but by filming through a periscope of sorts, meaning that any shot with a fish in it is rather blearier and somehow less deliberate-looking than the above-water shots.

I could have shown you a shot of sharks, but they were blurry and awful,
and reading this caption is more likely to thrill you to terror.
This movie was less a story told in pictures and supported by words (which, to my mind, is the aim of film storytelling), more an illustrated synopsis.  The whole plot can be found in the intertitles, and almost nothing is revealed visually.  This is a relief in some ways, as the shots and editing are relatively crude.  Partly, this is down to the age of the film, but partly, too, a lack of flair and innovation.

I can't condemn the film for lack of ambition, as it not only adapts that great submarine work '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea', but throws in its sequel 'The Mysterious Island', which, somebody has clearly decided, happened exactly simultaneously.  One affect of this is that the real story of the original book, and its emotional core - Ned Land and Monsieur Arronax trying to escape - is cut entirely.  Another unfortunate impact is that there are too many characters.  The lack of any close-ups at all, and the fact that everybody dresses the same (except Nemo, who dresses like Father Christmas) means the myriad characters are indistinguishable.

All in all, it's a bit of a mess.  In its time, a fabulously expensive mess, and one which did at least give audiences their first view of real live fish under the sea, a spectacle entirely lost on more fish-savvy modern viewers.

Seriously?  He probably left it out on purpose.
P.S. In about fifty films, I've somehow managed to watch three set in submarines.  The others, if you're curious, were 'Das Boot' (1981) and 'Yellow Submarine' (1968), and they're about as diverse a trio as you could find in the blog, or in the century.

P.P.S. The next update is from eleven years later, and will put this film to shame.  Since I've got a '20s film following a '10s one, I might see if I can post one from the 30s after that, and give you ten consecutive posts from consecutive decades, if that makes any sense.

I bet, after my descriptions, you don't want to watch the film.  But in case you do, here it is.

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