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Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) was the second of three science fiction movies that Irwin Allen produced for 20th Century Fox in the early 1960s, following the success of Fox's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), and the studio's desire to duplicate that film's family-friendly style of light Sci-Fi adventure. The first of Allen's films for Fox was The Lost World (1960), a remake of the 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's novel. The third, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), was based on a Jules Verne book. All three films were scripted by Allen and Charles Bennett, and shot in color by DeLuxe.
As the movie opens, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), one of the world's foremost scientific minds, has designed an ultra-advanced nuclear submarine, the Seaview. Following a test voyage under the Arctic ice caps, Nelson and his crew see that the sky is on fire; a freak meteor shower has ignited the Van Allen radiation belt which circles the globe. The world's scientists and politicians cannot agree on a course of action. At a meeting of the United Nations, Nelson proposes firing one of the Seaview's atomic missiles from a strategic location, which he calculates will extinguish the blaze. Voted down, Nelson brazenly proceeds on the submarine to the Marianas Trench to carry out his plan. Along on the voyage are noted physicist Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre), psychiatrist Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine), Nelson's secretary Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden), the ship's skipper Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling), boisterous young officer Chip Romano (Frankie Avalon), and the rest of the crew. Tensions are high; Emery helped Nelson formulate his plan and supports it, while others like Dr. Hiller feel it is too dangerous. Cathy is torn between loyalty to Nelson and devotion to her fiance, Capt. Crane. To make matters worse, the sub picks up a survivor, scientist Miguel Alvarez (Michael Ansara), a religious fanatic who argues against the missile plan on theological grounds. Nelson and the Seaview encounter all manner of other dangers during the voyage, such as giant sea creatures, WWII mines, pursuing submarines, and sabotage.
It has been pointed out by the film's critics over the years that the storyline of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea either lacks or ignores basic science. The premise of the main threat posed in the film is indeed seriously flawed: the Van Allen Belt exists outside of the Earth's atmosphere, so it could not possibly burst into flame as there is no oxygen to support fire. Early in the film we are shown the Seaview in peril during its Arctic voyage, due to sinking icebergs ? the result of the Earth's warming. In his exhaustive genre survey Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, Bill Warren addresses the lack of common-sense science in this sequence: "While I don't expect moviemakers to realize that (a) the ocean is saltwater, more dense than fresh, and (b) icebergs are freshwater, less dense than the ocean they float in, I would at least expect them to realize, simply from glancing at their own gin and tonics, that ice floats."
In her autobiography No Bed of Roses, Joan Fontaine called the film "horrendous," saying she appeared in it "to pad my income." The authors of The Films of Peter Lorre may be overstating their case a bit when they say "it is truly depressing to watch Peter Lorre and Joan Fontaine, twenty years after their charming and subtle performances in The Constant Nymph (1943), trapped in the unrelenting mediocrity of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The ludicrous script is hackneyed, unimaginative and obvious, peopled with characters that do not even qualify as cardboard." Certainly Allen gave veterans like Fontaine, Lorre, and Henry Daniell (playing bombastic UN scientist Dr. Zucco) roles that were simplistic and two-dimensional, but such criticism overlooks that fact that ALL of the characters in the movie were simplistic. (The ship's communications officer, played by Robert Easton, is a Southerner named "Sparks," naturally). It could be argued that Allen's goals for the film were exceedingly modest, and that it has its own brand of charm, succeeding as dumb entertainment. The simplistic aims of the film are obvious from the opening moments, as Frankie Avalon croons the theme song (written by Russell Faith) under the film's credits.
Co-screenwriter Charles Bennett had a long career as an actor, playwright and primarily, a screenwriter. After his play Blackmail was adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1929, he began a long relationship with the director which included the adaptation for The 39 Steps (1935) and the screenplays for Secret Agent (1936), Sabotage (1936), Young and Innocent (1937), and Foreign Correspondent (1940). He collaborated with Cecil B. DeMille on the films Unconquered (1947), The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), and Reap the Wild Wind (1942). Just prior to writing The Story of Mankind (1957) with Allen and beginning an almost exclusive relationship with the producer which closed out his career, Bennett wrote the screenplay for the highly regarded thriller Night of the Demon (1957), directed by Jacques Tourneur.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea received mostly scathing reviews. In the Saturday Review, Arthur Knight was generous in calling the film "?the kind of stirring adventure tale artfully designed to take one's mind off the heat and international tensions." Meanwhile, the writer for the Monthly Film Bulletin called it "?a vapid piece of science fiction, hysterical and jingoistic of tone. The action jerks from one unrelated crisis to the next, stumbling over each superfluous, inconsistent and generally incongruous character in its path to arrive at a foregone, stagy conclusion." In New Yorker, reviewer Brendan Gill cheekily writes, "About halfway though Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, I had an uneasy feeling that for the first time in my life I might be watching a movie about life underwater in which a supernaturally gigantic squid didn't attack a ship, but luckily I was wrong. The squid came in on cue, attacked the submarine, and had to be disposed of by secret rays, of which, for security reasons, the less said the better."
Following the production of Five Weeks in a Balloon, Allen moved his brand of juvenile science fiction to television, and produced four hit shows for 20th Century Fox, beginning with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1964. The series was even more successful than the film, and in its early run at least, was better received by reviewers. The frugal Allen was able to reuse the main sets and models built for the feature, as well as much of the effects footage. The series starred Richard Basehart as Admiral Nelson and David Hedison as Captain Crane. The only actor who appeared both in the movie and as a regular on the TV series was Delbert Monroe, playing crewman "Kowski" in the film, renamed slightly as "Kowalski" for the series. Voyage ran for four seasons on ABC. Its success led directly to other sci-fi series produced by Allen: Lost in Space (1965-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), and Land of the Giants (1968-1970). Allen returned to feature films in a big way with The Poseidon Adventure (1972). That film - featuring an all-star cast put in harm's way by a series of contrived perils - revived a formula that the producer/ showman had previously exploited most obviously with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and made Allen the "Master of the Disaster Movie" subgenre.
Producer: Irwin Allen
Director: Irwin Allen
Screenplay: Irwin Allen, Charles Bennett
Cinematography: Winton C. Hoch, John Lamb
Film Editing: George Boemler, Roland Gross
Music: Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter
Art Direction: Herman A. Blumenthal, Jack Martin Smith
Set Decoration: Walter M. Scott, John Sturtevant
Costume Design: Paul Zastupnevich
Special Effects: L. B. Abbott
Cast: Walter Pidgeon (Admiral Harriman Nelson), Joan Fontaine (Dr. Susan Hiller), Barbara Eden (Lt. Cathy Connors), Peter Lorre (Comm. Lucius Emery), Robert Sterling (Capt. Lee Crane), Michael Ansara (Miguel Alvarez), Frankie Avalon (Lt. Danny Romano), Regis Toomey (Dr. Jamieson).
by John M. Miller