With the release of his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864 author Jules Verne broke new ground in the area of “Subterranean fiction” a genre that dates back as early Dante’s The Devine Comedy where the narrator enters a vast cavern to travel through the center of the Earth and out the other side to Purgatory, now, there are certainly less Biblical centric stories in this genre but it was Jules Verne who used well-researched Victorian science to tell his tale. What is truly surprising is how long it took for this particular science-fiction classic to make it to the big screen.
With the success of Walt Disney’s 1954 adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, it’s odd that the “House of Mouse” wouldn’t jump at the chance to adapt another Jules Verne classic, instead, it was 20th Century Fox who brought Verne’s tale of subterranean adventure to the big screen, but turning the rather episodic nature of Verne’s book into a more robust and fun narrative, that would be more palatable for modern audiences, wasn’t all that easy. The novel dealt with an eccentric German scientist who believes there are volcanic tubes that reach the very center of the earth and he drags his rather unwilling nephew into his expedition, along with an Icelandic guide named Hans, on this dangerous adventure. The trio must survive cave-ins, subpolar tornadoes, the traversing of an underground ocean, and living prehistoric creatures from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, which one has to admit is pretty exciting stuff but it does seem to lack something very important, and by that I mean “What kind of adventure can you have without a pretty face along for the ride?”
Aside from a few similar encounters and locations the book and the movie are very different animals, with Verne’s fascination with cryptography being the impetus of the narrative with Professor Otto Lidenbrock obtaining an original runic manuscript of an Icelandic saga and discovering a transposition cipher that reveals the location of an entrance to the center of the Earth. In the movie Professor Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) receives a piece of volcanic rock from his admiring student, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone) and within that rock is an old plumb bob bearing a cryptic inscription by a scientist named Arne Saknussemm, who, almost 300 years earlier, had found a passage to the center of the Earth but never returned. Aside from a pretty face, it’s clear that the studio thought Verne’s novel was also missing a villain and thus the movie gives us Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), a descendant of Arne Saknussemm who believes that the discovery is to be his and his alone. The Count murders a man named Göteborg, who was a professor that Lidenbrock had corresponded with and who was intent on making the discovery himself, stealing the discovery from Lindenbrook, but with him now dead only Lidenbrock stands in the way.
The aforementioned pretty face is provided by Göteborg’s widow, Carla (Arlene Dahl), and due to her recently deceased husband having cornered the market on all the climbing supplies in town Lindenbrook and Alex are forced to make a deal with her so they can all that precious gear and the deal, of course, is that she can come along on the expedition. This enrages the very sexist Lindenbrook but without those supplies, their expedition would be doomed before it even started and so they agree to her demands, that she can speak Norwegian and their guide Hans Belker (Peter Ronson) speaks no English this is an added bonus. That good ole Hans brings along his duck Gertrude is an even bigger bonus as it’s this fowl member who finds the hidden passageway after the sun reveals the location of the correct cave.
Note: A secret access to a mountain being revealed on a certain day of the year was later “borrowed” by J.R.R. Tolkien for his book The Hobbit.
When one sits down to watch 20th Century Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth you shouldn’t expect to find much “science” in this particular science-fiction offering because even while Verne’s novel included dinosaur encounters, and even a prehistoric humanoid more than twelve feet in height and watching over a herd of mastodons, he did his best to stay true to the science of the time, there was no such edict from Fox Studios in the making this movie and thus if this film includes any actual science it’s probably accidental. Questions like “Why does everyone in Scotland have Scottish accents except Professor Lindenbrook and Alec?” or “How could these explorers survive the many months underground with only the food in their tiny backpacks?” and “How can there be a lightning storm over a subterranean ocean when a thunderstorm requires an active atmosphere with clouds?” And sure, you may fail to find clouds at the center of the Earth but how about the ruins of Atlantis?
Note: Even Jules Verne would have laughed at the idea of the lost continent of Atlantis surviving the 4,000-mile journey to Earth’s center in such a condition that buildings would have remained intact and upright, with dishes of stale food neatly stacked on countertops.
What Journey to the Center of the Earth may lack in the area of actual science or its faithfulness to the source material it more than makes up for it with the film’s fantastic visuals as not only are we treated to a wonderful scenic tour of this underground world, utilizing location shooting at the beautiful Carlsbad Cavern enhanced by beautiful matte paintings, and the film also landed a nomination for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and the special and visual effects team consisting of Johnny Borgese, L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon and Emil Kosa Jr. for creating this fantastic subterranean world, that all said, that the film relied on sticking a fin on the back of a bunch of iguanas to provide the film’s required dinosaur action is rather disappointing. This movie clearly had a decent budget but they couldn’t cough up some extra do for some decent stop-motion dinosaurs? Was Ray Harryhausen too busy shooting The 7th Voyage of Sindbad?
This adaptation of the Jules Verne classic is a fun and rousing adventure tale, that is if you don’t mind Pat Boone occasionally breaking into song or silly lizards cavorting around miniature sets, as you can get a lot of entertainment out of 20th Century Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it should be noted that only an actor of James Mason calibre could make a pompous sexist asshat like Lindenbrook into a rather likable chap, and he along with those great visuals makes this film a classic. If you’ve only seen the Brendan Frazer version that came out in 2008 do yourself a favour and track this one down.
Note: That none of these characters partook of those giant mushrooms and then went on a hallucinogenic trip was certainly a lost opportunity.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
Movie Rank - 7/10
If 20th Century Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth seems more like an amusement park ride rather than a daring adventure story that is mostly due to how the genre was handled back in the day but the wonderful visual effects make up for a lot of the lacking in the story department.