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The fanciful writings of Jules Verne have been a wellspring of inspiration for filmmakers from the earliest days of the cinema (i.e., the always celebrated works of Georges Melies) up through the present. Adaptations can be found in every decade movies have been made, but during the 1950s boom in American science fiction movies, several works of Verne received the high-budget treatment from major studios. Some of these were highly touted events, such as Walt Disney's opulent and expensive 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and Mike Todd's all-star, epic treatment of Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Bringing up the rear in the decade was 20th Century Fox's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), a big-budget, family-friendly film with "something for everyone" and a generous helping of visual treats. As with the best adaptations of Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth embraces the whimsy inherent in a period-style treatment and plays the situations with tongue slightly in cheek.
The film opens in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1880, where geology professor Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) is congratulated by peers and students for his recent knighthood. One of the professor's prize pupils, Alec McKuen (Pat Boone) gives Lindenbrook an interesting piece of lava. When the professor examines the sample, he discovers that it contains an Icelandic rock, despite the fact that the lava is Mediterranean. When he tries to melt the lava, it explodes and reveals a plumb-bob which contains an etched message from Swedish explorer Arne Saknussem, who years earlier had sought the center of the Earth and disappeared. Lindenbrook sends the inscription to Swedish geologist Goetaborg for the translation, but Goetaborg travels to Iceland with the information. Lindenbrook and Alec also head to Iceland, leaving Alec's fiance Jenny (Diane Baker) behind. In Iceland they find Goetaborg dead, but recover instructions for passage within a volcano crevice to the center of the Earth. Goetaborg's widow Carla (Arlene Dahl) will give the explorers her husband's supplies only if they take her along. Husky Icelandic jack-of-all-trades Hans Belker (Peter Ronson) is enlisted to help the team; Belker also brings Gertrude, his pet duck. The team descends deep into the Earth, initially not knowing that they are being tailed by the evil Count Saknussem (Thayer David), a descendant of the original explorer. Lindenbrook and his friends encounter a wild variety of danger and wonder in their quest, including flooding chambers of rock, a forest of giant mushrooms, a tumbling boulder chasing them through a narrow crevice, a spinning vortex of salt, enormous and angry prehistoric reptiles, a vast underground ocean, and much more, including nothing less than the lost city of Atlantis.
The producer and co-screenwriter of Journey to the Center of the Earth was the witty and talented Charles Brackett, best known for his long collaboration with writer-director Billy Wilder which resulted in such classics as Ninotchka (1939), Ball of Fire (1941), The Major and the Minor (1942), The Lost Weekend (1945), A Foreign Affair (1948), Sunset Blvd. (1950), and many others. As a producer and sometimes writer for non-Wilder projects, Brackett had scored with releases like Niagara (1953), Titanic (1953), The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), and The King and I (1956).
Although it does not have the Intermission-demanding epic length of Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth stills clocks in at a longish 132 minutes. Even so, it is full of unexpected twists, interesting visuals, and incidents that lend color to the characters. Pop crooner Pat Boone does an adequate job as the juvenile lead and manages a few harmless songs which do not seem out-of-place; his presence adds to the "something for everyone in the family" vibe of the picture. The always-interesting James Mason adds distinction and gravitas by his presence; perfectly believable as the enthusiastic scientist Lindenbrook, Mason's performance also often adds to the film's light touch. As the determined Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mason was a no-nonsense, villainous instigator of mayhem in the cause of science (and revenge), but here he drives the plot in a different way, reacting to situations with an infectious sense of wonder and delight.
Make no mistake; some of the situations encountered by the band of adventurers in Journey to the Center of the Earth are quite ridiculous. The prehistoric dimetrodons on view are merely iguanas with fins attached to their backs, enlarged by high-speed photography and rear-projection screens. This method of creating "dinosaurs" had appeared in Hal Roach's One Million B.C. (1940), and that black-and-white footage was subsequently reused as stock footage by legions of low-budget filmmakers needing a quick view of prehistoric animals. Requiring color and scene-specific battle footage, the producers of Journey to the Center of the Earth at least improved greatly on the look of the earlier Roach lizards. There are several other perils and wonders encountered that defy logical science, such as the vortexes of salt and the convenient "luminous rocks," which light the way for the underground journey just as the lamps our heroes are using die out. These situations never feel like lapses in logic, however, thanks to the sly, whimsical tone established early on. After all, any story in which a duck becomes one of the supporting characters is, by definition, lighthearted in tone.
One of the highlights of the picture (and one of the reasons it does not feel repetitive during the many scenes of characters climbing down treacherous pathways during their journey) is the evocative score by Bernard Herrmann. Celebrated for his music for the films of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and the fantasy works of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, Herrmann wrote a superlative score for Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it remains one of his most underrated. Herrmann wrote in the liner notes of an album (The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann, Phase 4, 1974) containing a suite from the film, "I decided to evoke the mood and feeling of inner Earth by using only instruments played in low registers. Eliminating all strings, I utilized an orchestra of woodwinds and brass, with a large percussion section and many harps. But the truly unique feature of this score is the inclusion of five organs, one large Cathedral and four electronic. These organs were used in many adroit ways to suggest ascent and descent, as well as the mystery of Atlantis."
In his exhaustive genre survey Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (McFarland, 1986), Bill Warren praises the film for the most part, writing, "Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of the best SF movies of the declining 1950s. It isn't so much of its era as just in it. It's the kind of film that could easily have been produced, even on this scale, if the 50s SF boom had never existed." Warren notes some of the movie's flaws as well: "...Its delights are best appreciated on one viewing. The overall buoyancy of the film deflates when it is watched again and again. There's a certain plodding quality to the picture, perhaps inherent in the plot, and some elements seem overly farcical. The mismatch between the constructed sets and the few scenes actually shot underground in Carlsbad Caverns becomes apparent on repeated viewings."
Reviews at the time of release were mostly good, although a few critics, such as Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, panned it. Crowther wrote, "It's really not very striking make-believe, when all is said and done...even those horrible giant lizards are grotesque without being good. Their only service is to frighten little children who should be the best customers for this foolish film." The critic for Variety was confused by the tone, writing that it "...takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the Jules Verne story, but there are times when it is difficult to determine whether the filmmakers are kidding or playing it straight... If one is willing to accept the film as one big spoof, it can turn out to be a fairly amusing entry." Jack Harrison raved in the Hollywood Reporter, "Juveniles of all ages and all lands will be fascinated and thrilled, their elders and caretakers will be entertained and amused... Many of the titillations bear a sharp resemblance to those in the classic cliffhangers."
20th Century Fox must have found Journey to the Center of the Earth to be a big success for them, because they went on to partner with producer Irwin Allen to turn out other science-fiction and fantasy films that mimicked its basic structure, such as The Lost World (1960, based on the book by Arthur Conan Doyle), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962, based on another Verne novel). Irwin Allen never displayed much good taste or subtlety though, so these films are markedly inferior to the Charles Brackett-produced movie they are patterned after.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett (screenplay); Jules Verne (novel)
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin, Herman A. Blumenthal, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: Stuart Gilmore, Jack W. Holmes
Cast: Pat Boone (Alexander 'Alec' McKuen), James Mason (Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook), Arlene Dahl (Carla Gteborg), Diane Baker (Jenny Lindenbrook), Thayer David (Count Saknussem), Peter Ronson (Hans Belker), Robert Adler (Groom), Alan Napier (Dean)
by John M. Miller