Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Captain Nemo Motion Picture Star

The French author and dreamer Jules Gabriel Verne created many characters, but within just two works “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, 1870, and “The Mysterious Island”, 1874, he described one character that truly captured people’s imaginations “Captain Nemo of the Nautilus”.

Naseeruddin Shah

When looking at all the motion pictures featuring Verne’s character. Naseeruddin Shah in 2003’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” truly captures Verne’s description of Captain Nemo, but it is James Mason in Walt Disney’s 1954 “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” who is still considered the iconic film version. Although as you will read there were many other actors in the role. This then is a look at how the motion picture industry transcribed these two novels to film and how they dominated any others based upon Verne’s works.

            James Mason

To begin with who was Captain Nemo?
For those who have never read either work. We meet Captain Nemo in the first, but go deeper into his character in the second. He was once Prince Dakkar, son of the Hindu Raja of Bundelkund an actual region of central India now divided between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Jules Verne never made up locations and incorporates history into a lot of his writing. Verne further tells us that Prince Dakkar is a descendant of the Muslin Sultan Fateh Alie Tipu the King of Mysore. The Kingdom of Mysore in actuality was the location of the Anglo-Mysore Wars. Tipu again a real personage who also was a soldier, scholar and poet. The wars were a series of four against the British basically over the policies of the East India Company and Tipu allied himself at one point with the French East India Company and through them Napoleon.
Once more using real events it was during the First Indian War of Independence in 1857. Fueled by hatred for the British East India Company that Prince Dakkar lost his family and his kingdom. It was at this time that the seeds of his alter ego Captain Nemo were born as he devotes himself to scientific research and with a crew of followers eventually designs and builds his undersea craft the Nautilus. According to Verne this is a “masterpiece containing masterpieces.” The undersea craft is powered by electricity from Nemo’s creation of a sodium/mercury battery. The source of his sodium is sea water which he can constantly pump into his ship giving him limitless power.
So now you have a little background about Nemo and his invention, but this article is about how the motion pictures saw them. There are many versions of the two Jules Verne novels which cover over approximately 96 years of live action motion pictures. I am not mentioning the animated films, or other mediums such as the great comic series “Classics Illustrated” available as E-Books that contain issues on both novels featuring Captain Nemo. Along with “Around the World in 80 Days”, “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “From the Earth to the Moon”.
The first known film version of Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is in reality a French parody entitled “Deux Cents Milles sous les mers ou le Cauchemar de pecheur (Two Hundred miles under the seas or the nightmare of the fisherman)” made in 1907 by George Melies. Who in 1902’s made “A Trip to the Moon” partly based upon Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon”.
The first actual filmed version of the novel was in 1916 distributed by “The Universal Film Manufacturing Company (the future Universal International Studios) for "Liberty Pictures", but was produced by Carl Laemme. The film starred Allen Holubar as the first Captain Nemo. In a short career that spanned 1913 to 1923 he would act in 38 films and direct another 33. Holbuar died of pneumonia at the age of 35.

The 1916 film was the first movie filmed underwater, but instead of an underwater camera. The production used a system of watertight tubes and mirrors allowing the camera to shoot reflected images with excellent results.

The film produced by Carl Laemmle and directed by Stuart Paton had a full-size navigable mock-up of the surfaced Nautilus and was shot on location not a normal practice at the time. The film used elements from Verne’s second novel “The Mysterious Island” incorporated into the screenplay. The plot has a series of seemingly unrelated events converge on “The Mysterious Island” where Nemo and his crew are based. A Civil War Balloon arrives with Union Soldiers who have escaped a Confederate Prison. At the same time a yacht belonging to a Charles Denver also arrives. The Union soldiers discover a wild girl roaming the island and one of them takes her to Denver who has offered a reward and for an unstated reason seems very interested in her appearance. The viewer is told that Denver has nightmares of a dead women the Princess Daakar. The yacht is torpedoed by Nemo as another soldier saves the girl who turns out to be Nemo lost daughter. We also discover that Denver was the Colonial Officer who killed her mother and caused Prince Daakar to become Captain Nemo.

There is an elaborate flashback sequence in India which brings everything together. After being reunited with his daughter Nemo unfortunately dies and is buried by his crew under the sea. Due to the extreme cost of production and the lack of profit. It wouldn't be until 1929 that another version of these two Jules Verne novels would be released.
 This link will take my reader to the actual full length film.

Although finally released in 1929 the production on MGM’s Technicolor film “The Mysterious Island” began in 1926. The film would have three directors Benjamin Christensen, Lucien Hubbard and Maurice Tourneur before it was finally completed. The history behind this classic film came out in Forrest J. Ackerman's “Famous Monsters of Filmland” where I first read about it. I was probably 13 at the time.
The article stated that the film originally ran into trouble with weather on location, but most importantly as with other silent films “The Jazz Singer” in 1927. Production was started in 1926 and stopped and then after meetings as to how to continue started once more with the same cast and a second director. Before filming was finally completed in 1929 the cast would be under the direction of a third person. The movie is considered a classic not just for its early special effects, but because it became a hybrid illustrating the bridge between the film Eras. Portions of the “The Mysterious Island” remain silent with title cards and others contained actual spoken dialogue. When the final movie was released on October 5, 1929 it was billed on the posters as an “all-Technicolor, feature film with talking sequences, sound effects, and synchronized music”.
I saw a black and white print shortly after the “Famous Monsters” article appeared at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica, California. The film is an interesting production. It was believed that no color prints of the film still existed, but in 2013 one was discovered preserved in the Czech National Archive and representatives from Eastman Kodiak are working with the Czech’s to restore and re-master it. I look forward to the release.
Playing Count Dakkar was Lionel Barrymore and his performance is interesting as you watch Barrymore torn between the over acting required for a silent film and the new needs of a restrained performance for a talking film. Luckily as with his brother John and sister Ethel he came from the legitimate stage and seemed to be able to overcome the transition better than the rest of the cast.

IMDb has a pretty solid plot summary of the film which of course does not resemble either of Verne’s novels except for the name of Barrymore’s character:
On a volcanic island near the kingdom of Hetvia rules Count Dakkar, a benevolent leader and scientist who has eliminated class distinction among the island's inhabitants. Dakkar, his daughter Sonia and her fiance, engineer Nicolai Roget have designed a submarine which Roget pilots on its initial voyage just before the island is overrun by Baron Falon, despotic ruler of Hetvia. Falon sets out after Roget in a second submarine and the two craft, diving to the ocean's floor, discover a strange land populated by dragons, giant squid and an eerie undiscovered humanoid race.

The next time any of Jules Verne’s novels cane to the silver screen was in 1941 and made in the Soviet Union. The film’s titled “Tainstvennyy ostrov (Mysterious Island) was directed by Eduard Penclin and the cast included Nikolai Komkissrov as Captain Nemo, Pavel Kiyansky as Spillet, A. Andriyenko-Zemskov as Pencroft, R. Ross as Neb and Yuri Grammatikati as Herbert. All recognized character names from the Verne novel. The film was made at the Gorky Film Studios and ran 75 minutes.
August 23, 1951 saw Verne’s “Mysterious Island” become a 15 chapter Saturday afternoon serial from Columbia Pictures Produced by Sam Katzman. At least it stated it was based upon the Jules Verne novel and most of the serial was faithful to it. However added to the mix of Captain Nemo, escaped Union prisoners and pirates were invaders from the planet Mercury.

Three years and four months later on December 23, 1954 Walt Disney released his “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” starring Kirk Douglas as Ned Land, James Mason as Captain Nemo, Paul Lukas as Professor Pierre Aronnax and Peter Lorre as Conseil. This version of the Jules Verne novel directed by Richard Fleischer had a budget of five million dollars and as of April 2013 has grossed 28 million 200 hundred thousand dollars. It is still considered the definitive film version of the novel.
From a production point of view the movie was filmed in multiple locations in the Bahamas and Jamaica with the cave scenes filmed at Xtabi, Westmoreland, Jamaica. The crew for just those sequences total 400 and Disney ran updates and features on this work on his "Disneyland" television program. A great tease to his young viewers and their parents. Some of these specials are available on the DVD release.
The classic scene with the giant squid was first shot at dusk in a calm sea and although it looks really good the wires and other devices for the puppet are readily seen and Walt made an expensive decision to re-shoot the entire completed sequence at night in a storm. That original sequence is also available for view on the DVD.
The Nautilus was originally described by Jules Verne this way:
It is an elongated cylinder with conical ends. It is very like a cigar in shape, a shape already adopted in London in several constructions of the same sort. The length of this cylinder, from stem to stern, is exactly 70 metres, and its maximum breadth is eight metres. It is not built on a ratio of ten to one like your long-voyage steamers, but its lines are sufficiently long, and its curves prolonged enough, to allow the water to slide off easily, and oppose no obstacle to its passage. These two dimensions enable you to obtain by a simple calculation the surface and cubic contents of the Nautilus. Its area measures 1011.45 square metres; and its contents 1,500.2 cubic metres; that is to say, when completely immersed it displaces 1500.2 cubic metres of water, or 1500.2 metric tons.
What I consider the iconic look for the Nautilus was designed by Harper Goff. Goff also designed the exterior and every set and compartment within the Nautilus. The film was awarded two Oscars. One for color art direction and the other for best special effects. The films credits read “Production Developed by Harper Goff, but he never received either Oscar because he did not have a union card. The Oscar was presented to his assistant John Meehan who was a union member and has no credit showing on the movie itself.

When Walt Disney’s Theme Park “Disneyland” opened one of my favorite attractions was nothing more than a walk through. However, it was all of Goff’s sets in order for the Nautilus and you felt as if you were on board her. Behind a glass wall was the working giant squid on the submarine’s deck. Also in the walk through where some of the great models used for the stop motion animation of the Nautilus.
The movie over the years has been highly praised for its intelligent script and the outstanding acting of its actors. James Mason who had appeared in films since 1935, played Erwin Rommel in “The Desert Fox”, Brutus in the 1953 film version of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, won the Golden Globe for Best Actor and was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar as Norman Maine in 1954’s “A Star was Born” would be forever known for the role of Captain Nemo. Five years after this picture James Mason would play Professor Lindenbrook in 20th Century Fox’s production of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. Even in his attack on Walt Disney in the book “The Disney Version” critic Richard Schickel stated of James Mason’s performance that he was: “superbly cast as the mad inventor Captain Nemo”.
One last story element in the Disney film there is no mention of Prince Dakkar, but we learn that an unnamed country murdered Nemo’s family and imprisoned him. Nemo along with his eventual crew escaped.
In 1956 Michael Todd and William Cameron Menzies released their star studded version of Verne’s classic novel “Around the World in 80 Days”. In 1958 Warner Brothers released a version of Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” starring Joseph Cotton and George Sanders directed by Bryon Haskin.
Also n 1958 supposedly based upon the Jules Verne story “Facing the Flag” came a forgotten and excellent film from Czechoslovakia that borrowed elements from other of Verne’s works such as “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Around the World in 80 Days”. The film’s title was “Vynalez zkazy (The Deadly Invention, or An Invention of Destruction)”. In 1961 Warner Brothers released the film in the United States as “The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.”

Any serious student of film needs to see this gem. The film has a visual style that faithfully recreates the line engraving drawings of the Victorian period that were used to illustrate most of Jules Verne’s novels and stories. “The Fabulous World of Jules Verne” combined double exposures, painted animation, cut-out animation, stop-motion animation, puppets, miniatures, models, stylized matte-paintings with live action in what can only be described as a seamless blend to amaze its audience. There is a giant squid reminiscent more of Disney than Verne along with submarines that fit Verne’s description above.
From Wikipedia:
Charles Stinson of the Los Angeles Times began a highly positive review for the film by saying: "The Fabulous World of Jules Verne" is precisely that. For once the title writers and the press agents have been found failing to exaggerate. They'd better watch it.
Thanks to the American release, the film was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1962.
Earlier in 1961 American International Pictures had released Vincent Price in Jules Verne’s “The Master of the World” from a Richard Matheson script based upon “Robur the Conqueror” and its sequel of the film’s title, but it was on December 20, 1961 that the character of Captain Nemo returned to the screen. The film produced by Charles H. Schneer was entitled “The Mysterious Island” known in the UK as “Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island” had as its highlight the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen.
My fellow Harryhausen fans may not like to know this little bit of trivia, but the movie was the lower half of a double bill and was little promoted at the time.
The screenplay was partly based upon Verne’s “In Search of the Castaways” along with elements from “The Mysterious Island”. Speaking of “In Search of the Castaways” Walt Disney would release a version the following year starring his teen star Hayley Mills (“The Parent Trap” and “Pollyanna”), Maurice Chevalier, George Sanders and Michael Anderson, Jr.
The only real elements of “The Mysterious Island” come at the beginning with the escape of the Union Prisoners in the balloon and at the end with the appearance of Captain Nemo.
Playing Nemo in a much underrated performance was Herbert Karel Angelo Kuchacevic ze Schluderpacheru known simply as Herbert Lom. Lom holds the audience’s attention in the part, but it is too short an appearance after what is basically “In Search of the Castaways”.
As for those special effects by Ray Harryhausen. They include a realistic crab and an excellent piece being trapped in a giant bee hive. What should have been a long scene at the sunken city of Atlantis within the films climax appears edited down from what Harryhausen might have wanted. Of note is the construction of the Nautilus in its dry dock where it closely resembles not Jules Verne’s description, but Harper Goff’s for Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

1962 saw a comedy version of Jules Verne’s “Five Weeks in a Balloon” starring Red Button, Barbara Eden and to get the teen girls Fabian who also sang the title song.
In 1967 there was a British science fiction comedy called “Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon”. It had nothing to do with Verne’s story “From the Earth to the Moon”. Although in the UK that was the intention. The story tells about P.T. Barnum and his friends wanting to finance the first flight to the moon as a promotional stunt. The film starred Burl Ives, Gert Frobe, Troy Donahue and Terry Thomas and was released in the United States as “Those Fantastic Flying Fools” without any mention of Jules Verne, but to play off the successful comedy “Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines”.
However 1969 brought a fairly entertaining film from the U.K. “Captain Nemo and the Underwater City” Playing Captain Nemo was Robert Ryan and as American Senator Robert Fraser Chuck Connors.
Apparently at some point Roger Corman started to develop a story called “Captain Nemo and the Floating City” with co-producer Steven Pallos for MGM. The story never got out of the planning sessions over how to “Float” the city. The project was dropped until Pallos read some articles about Jacques Cousteau’s experimentation in undersea habitats. The story was resurrected by Pallos as “Captain Nemo and the Undersea City”.
The design of the Nautilus in the film is like some giant manta ray and is covered in gold as is most of the city. The story tells of a group of people whose ship is sinking in a storm and are rescued by Nemo and taken to his Undersea Utopia insides a giant dome. The habitat was correctly worked out from Cousteau’s ideas.
The problem with the film is that it truly created a Victorian world as the producer and writers Pip and Jane Baker wanted, but it worked against them. The timing of the film was wrong. Instead of 1969 had the movie been released a decade earlier, like 1956’s “Around the World in 80 Days”, it would have worked, but we were now in the turmoil of the social issues of the Vietnam War and the ideas of the film were to idyllic for America and the world. Even three fantasy based movies released over the next three years “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” reflected the reality of the times and the social issues that a film set in a Victorian world could not and 1971 would see “A Clockwork Orange” and“THX 1138”. Strangely I must have been in the minority having just gotten out of the Navy, because I liked those few minutes of escapism from reality the film provided.

What is interesting is although motion pictures were still doing Jules Verne and Captain Nemo they were not doing “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” as nobody felt they could top Walt Disney’s 1954 production.
In 1973 what has to be the greatest adaptation of a Jules Verne story was a Spanish/France/Italy/Cameroon production made in the Spanish language and starring Omar Sharif as Prince Dakkar. Titled “La Isla misteriosa y el capitan Nemo (The Mysterious Island of Captain Nemo)” this was a five hour mini-series directed by Juan Antonio Nardem and Henri Colpi. The mini-series was as completely faithful to the original novel as a five hour program could be and even the design of the exterior of the Nautilus is exactly as Verne described it. I saw the 93 minute movie version and even from this extremely edited film. I thought Omar Sharif the perfect Captain Nemo, but could tell the original version had been much longer. Although never thinking of five full hours. There is a German language version of the entire mini-series available on DVD with English subtitles. Unfortunately it is Region 2.

In 1975 the Soviet Union made a three part mini-series based upon "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", "The Mysterious Island" and a third Jules Verne novel entitled "The Steam House". Part One was entitled the "Iron Whale" and introduced the "Nautilus" and "Captain Nemo", Part Two was entitled "Prince Dakkar" and the audience learns the back story of "Nemo" who is really an Indian Prince. Part Three was entitled "The Nautilus Continues to Struggle" and concludes the story.

It would be eighteen years later in 1993 before a Jules Verne title reappeared in a live action film and then the only thing in common was the title “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” This was in reality an unsold pilot for a proposed NBC television series that has modern day explorers using a drilling machine to enter the Earth’s core and discovering a hidden world. I had seen this so many times before in the 1950’s and actually in some case done better. Jules Verne had entered the television movie world.
Four years later and 43 years after the Walt Disney movie we not only had a live action made for television version of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, but 1997 saw two both made in the United States.
The first was made for “The Hallmark Channel” by “Village Roadshow Pictures” and starred Michael Caine as Captain Nemo. This was a two hour and thirty-eight minute movie that originally was shown on ABC. The film was a joint United States and Australian co-production. Like films before this other than the title of Verne’s novel and some of the character names it is not the actual story and is contains several scientific impossibilities for a script written in 1997. Such as extracting the sun’s heat from sea water calling it hydroelectricity. Hydroelectricity is in actuality the production of electrical power through the use of the gravitational force created from falling or flowing water.
Nemo and his followers live in an underwater city right out of “Captain Nemo and the Undersea City” and are setting a network of underwater explosives to release the Earth’s geotectonic tensions and protect his city. In the film Nemo has a daughter named Mara played by Mia Sara. As Nemo has been damaging and sinking shipping.The United States Navy is after him as in the original novel, but this is basically the only similarity. At the climax of the story the Navy has discovered Nemo’s base and the American Ship Abraham Lincoln fires torpedoes downward at the domed city forcing Nemo to board the Nautilus and surface. As his crew come on deck they are summarily machine-gunned by the crew of the American Naval vessel. A very un-Jules Verne touch.
During that sequence a member of the Abraham Lincoln’s crew enters the Nautilus and guns down Captain Nemo and another man on sight. Another non-Verne touch. As he is dying Nemo activates a switch that blows the Nautilus up. Mara and some others have escaped from the carnage in diving bells and will carry own her father’s work. In a twist ending we see Professor Pierre Arronax who was rescued by the navy speaking to Jules Verne about these events and Verne than starts to write his novel as if there really had been a Captain Nemo and a submarine boat called the Nautilus.

The second television version is just as bad, but in other ways. To begin with this was also made for “The Hallmark Entertainment” and premiered on CBS. To begin with the part of Conseil the assistant of Professor Aronnax played by Richard Crenna has been turned into his daughter Sophie. What develops in this 95 minute film is a love triangle between Sophie, Ned Land and Captain Nemo played by Ben Cross. Need I say more!

Although this was the last version of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” to date. The character of Captain Nemo appeared in the 2003 movie I mentioned at the start of this article “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” where he is part of a group of characters from literature, Alan Quatermain, Mina Harker, Dorian Grey and even Tom Sawyer among others, out to stop another fictional character Professor Moriarty. Unlike the two Hallmark films Naseeruddin Shah who is an Indian Actor is the only person to play Captain Nemo/Prince Dakkar as Jules Verne imagined him to be.
In the 96 years I have covered only two films have captured the essence of Jules Verne’s two novels completely. Walt Disney’s 1954 “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and the 1973 International mini-series of “The Mysterious Island”. What I found also interesting is that I could find no actual French film made after 1907 on either novel except the co-production with Spain.
One film based upon Verne did manage to capture the flavor of his work even updated with new character names and that was the 2008 production of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” starring Brendan Fraser. The film was very faithful to the source material, but off setting are the made for television films that seem to use that name just to attract an audience as with the 1993 pilot film I mentioned earlier. The fact that people still tune these quickie film in means there are still viewers out there for a quality production of any of the classic novels even if on the small screen.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written...and long!
    I'm impressed Lloyd...nice work!


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