There have been many adaptations and stories about Jules Verne’s famous submarine commander since Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published back in 1870; from the excellent 1954 Disney version with James Mason to the abysmal screen version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The film we are discussing today kind of falls in the middle.
The film starts off in a similar fashion as the one in the book, with Captain Nemo’s (Robert Ryan) submarine the Nautilus picking up survivors of a shipwreck, but in the original Nemo was the one responsible for the ship going down while in this movie it’s a storm that sinks the ship.
As the ship takes on water the passengers are rushed to the lifeboats, but high winds and turbulent waves causes one of the boats to capsize. Six people are dumped into the drink and quickly begin to sink beneath the waves. Lucky for them the Nautilus was cruising by and a group of Nemo’s submariners go out and retrieve the poor souls; Senator Robert Fraser (Chuck Connors), English engineer Lomax (Allan Cuthbertson), two gold hungry brothers Barnaby and Swallow Bath (Bill Fraser and Kenneth Connor), Widow Helena Beckett (Nanette Newman) and her son Phillip (Christopher Hartstone). They quickly learn that though they have been spared from a watery grave, as Captain Nemo (Robert Ryan) informs them, they may never return to the surface world. Their new home is the undersea city of TempleMir.
Needless to say this is a bit of a shock to the newcomers and a catastrophe for poor Lomax, a claustrophobic who once spent seven days trapped in a mine. The idea of spending his days living under thousands of tons of water is terrifying, and his constant fear and panic leads to multiple escape attempts that end in disaster. Fraser on the other hand has a more noble reason for wanting to escape, he was on a diplomatic mission to stop the supply of European weapons that were flooding both sides of the Civil War. The Bath Brothers, upon discovering that most things in this undersea kingdom are made of gold, want to escape with as much loot as they can carry.
Helena and her son are the only ones who seem to be really enjoying themselves as Phillip gets to play in an amazing waterpark while Helena has managed to catch the eye of Nemo himself. Another romance blooms between Fraser and Phillip’s swimming teacher Mala (Luciana Paluzzi), but this relationship is complicated by the fact that Fraser must return to the surface to fulfill his duty to his country, and that Nemo’s second and command Joab (John Turner) just so happens to also be in love with Mala.
Much like the original story this is not a plot heavy movie, just a series of underwater adventures interspersed with lame comic bits with the Bath Brothers. The stuff with crazed Lomax trying to escape is easily the best element of the movie as one can sympathize with his predicament, even when he breaks into the control and sabotages the key life support system, which causes over pressurizing of the dome. This results in much destruction in the city, but also Lomax’s tragic death. Much to Helena’s horror Nemo had to order the control room sealed to save the city, but in doing so dooms Lomax to a horrible fate as he drowns when the room fills up with seawater.
The other dramatic action piece has to do with Fraser and the Bath Brothers escaping in the experimental sub Nautilus II with Captain Nemo in pursuit aboard the original. Turns out the new sub has a critical engine flaw that only Nemo knew about and could explode at any moment. A nice twist is that Joab aided in the stealing of the sub because he was jealous of how close Fraser was getting to both Mala and Nemo. Joab gets the noble death for his actions while Barnaby Bath is drowned by his greed.
This is not a terrible movie, most the cast do a fine job, but the script and production designs could have used a lot more work. Both the models and the sets vary from goofy to downright cheesy, with nothing looking at all functional. Even the science is beyond stupid as we’re told that the reason there is so much stuff made of gold is because there is a machine that produces all their fresh water and oxygen and its waste by-product is gold. Even by sixties sci-fi standards that’s pretty dumb.
Chuck Connors does fine as the stalwart hero that chooses his duty over the girl he loves while Robert Ryan’s enigmatic Nemo shows cracks of being interesting with his developing relationship with Helena, but the film doesn’t really have time to expand on it, not when you can have more scenes of the Bath Brothers trying to steal gold. There is also a couple of pathetic “monster attack” scenes as TempleMir is threatened by a monstrous manta ray type creature called Mobula. To say these sequences are embarrassing is being generous.
Captain Nemo and the Underwater City was an MGM movie with a modest 1.5 million dollar budget with fairly poor special effects to prove it. Like most undersea movies it is hampered by scenes of people scuba diving, which is the cinematic equivalent to Nyquil, and director James Hill brings nothing new to the table here. Has there ever been a really good scuba diving action scene?
The film ends with Chuck Connors and the surviving Bath Brother being picked up a passing ship (the ocean is a very small place don’t yah know) but as the credits roll we are left wondering two things; will Chuck Connors ever return to the lovely Mala, and will he win the Civil War?