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Captain Nemo and the Underwater City

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City(1970)

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Working in its favor in the fall of 1970, when Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969) was given an American release through the auspices of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, was the fact that the scores of children flooding to matinee screenings had not yet seen Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), then half a generation distant. (A 1963 re-release was equally out of the reach of the memory of most ten year-olds and the film would not again play in cinemas until 1971.) A poor and somewhat imitative cousin to that Cinemascope epic, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City nevertheless succeeds on its own limited terms, both as a Boy's Own style under-the-sea adventure and as an example of the grimy, violent fare that often passed for kids' entertainment in the pre-Star Wars (1977) years. The deal breaker for most of the film's detractors seems to be the central performance of an aging Robert Ryan in the title role. Inheriting the mantle from British actors James Mason and Herbert Lom (whose peevish mariner had popped up as a surprise guest in Cy Endfield's Mysterious Island in 1961), Ryan plays Nemo as an extension of his Billy Budd (1962) master d'arms (minus the gay subtext), with the same note of melancholy the actor had brought to the role of the disappointed Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). Forty years after the fact, it is perhaps preferable to view Ryan's performance less as a fleshing out of Jules Verne's immortal character than as a case study of how the actor's long and distinguished career informed a fantasy archetype with palpably human emotions.

Working with a script that bears the stamp of both American writer R. Wright Campbell (a Hollywood bit player turned screenwriter of several films from American International Pictures) and the British husband and wife team of Pip and Jane Baker (later writers of several installments of the long-running Dr. Who series), director James Hill keeps the concoction lively, juxtaposing an almost giddy ambiance of make-believe (gold bedazzled diving suits with fish gill appliqus that look like fairy wings) leavened with buzz-killing doses of humanity at its worst in the form of greed, ambition, pompousness and psychological weakness. Hill was world famous for assuming direction of the Academy Award®-winning Born Free (1966) but Captain Nemo and the Underwater City is more of a piece with his earlier A Study in Terror (1965), which pitted Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper. (Trained as a filmmaker by the RAF during the Second World War, Hill is said to have been the model for Donald Pleasence's "The Forger" in John Sturges' The Great Escape [1963].)

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City's aquatic scenes were shot off the coast of Malta, before the production settled into its home base at MGM British Studios in Borehamwood, north of London. Model work on Captain Nemo's subsurface Templemere was the work of an uncredited team consisting of Richard Conway (Brazil [1985], 28 Days Later [2002]) and George Gibbs (The Omen [1976], Alien3 [1992], photographed in candied Metrocolor by effects cameraman Jack Mills.

Seen again at the distance of forty years, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City has the disarming quaintness of a fairytale but soon distinguishes itself as a surprisingly thoughtful and unsparing examination of morality during global crisis. (The narrative is set during the American Civil War but the film was made at the height of the conflict in Vietnam.) Most refreshingly is that, even though Ryan's aquatic expatriate and Chuck Connors' American diplomat (whose ship has floundered en route to stop European involvement in the War Between the States) find themselves at loggerheads throughout the bulk of the film, both are permitted to survive with original values intact. Not so lucky are the supporting characters that fall short, in various ways, of utopian goals and die horribly. In many ways, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City plays as an unlikely linchpin between Joseph Conrad's novella The Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's big screen, Southeast Asia-set adaptation Apocalypse Now (1979), with a more reasonable but no less resolute Nemo standing in for the lunatic Kurtz. Contrasting nicely in their physical appearances and acting styles, Ryan and Connors were also on opposite ends of the political spectrum: while the conservative Connors had stumped for Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1968, Ryan served as a delegate for Democratic challenger Eugene McCarthy. For those sensitive to this political preamble, the film's final moments are imbued with an encouraging feeling of compromise, as both sides of the central equation part company agreeing to disagree.

Robert Ryan drew criticism for slumming his way through Captain Nemo and the Underwater City but the pragmatic Chicago-born actor (who turned 60 that November) saw it differently. "It's important to continue working in films to keep your image warm," Ryan told interviewers during production. "You can have six million dollars but if you insist on turning down bad pictures, people are going to say 'Whatever happened to Robert Ryan?'" (To his credit, Ryan had just come off of an acclaimed staging of Thornton Wilder's Our Town and the Broadway revival of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page.) Sadly, tragedy was waiting for Ryan in the wings. Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1970, Ryan spent the next three years receiving treatment for the disease while making a punishing eight more feature and made-for-TV films, from the ridiculous (The Love Machine [1971]) to the sublime (Sidney Lumet's 1973 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh). In May of 1972, Ryan's wife of thirty-two years, Jessica Cadwalader, succumbed to cancer. In his despair, Ryan developed a close relationship with actress Maureen O'Sullivan, the widow of film director John Farrow and mother of actress Mia Farrow. O'Sullivan was at Ryan's bedside when he died on July 11, 1973, at the age of 63. In the last year of his life, the ailing actor had vacated his long-held apartment in The Dakota, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. That apartment was later leased and eventually sold to former Beatle John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono.

Producer: Bertram Ostrer
Director: James Hill
Screenplay: Pip Baker, Jane Baker, R. Wright Campbell (writers); Jules Verne (characters)
Cinematography: Alan Hume
Art Direction: Bill Andrews
Music: Walter Stott
Film Editing: Bill Lewthwaite
Cast: Robert Ryan (Captain Nemo), Chuck Connors (Senator Robert Fraser), Nanette Newman (Helena Beckett), Luciana Paluzzi (Mala), John Turner (Joab), Bill Fraser (Barnaby Bath), Kenneth Connor (Swallow Bath), Allan Cuthbertson (Lomax).
C-106m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Robert Ryan biography by James Robert Parish, The Touch Guys (Arlington House Publishers, 1978)
Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography by Franklin Jarlett (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997)
Jules Verne on Film: A Filmography of the Cinematic Adaptations of His Works, 1902 Through 1997 by Thomas C. Renzi (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998)

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