In 1954 Disney Pictures released 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel and one of the greatest undersea films ever produced, but then a few years later 20th Century Fox took audiences on a different kind of undersea adventure, this time with producer/director Irwin Allen at the helm, a man who not only gave us a fun action-adventure film but a sci-fi entry that led to an excellent television show.
1961’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is classic science fiction from 20th Century Fox that tells the story of the crew of the submarine Seaview, the most advanced submersible ever devised, and their perilous mission to save the world. In this story we meet the submarine’s designer, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), who has to overcome various threats internal and external to save the day, and at his side is Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling) the Seaview’s Commanding Officer and these two will butt heads throughout the adventure as tensions mount, much to the consternation of Nelson’s fiercely loyal secretary Lt. Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden), who just so happens to be engaged to Crane, but what exactly is this threat that will strain even the most secure relationship?
Turns out that a meteor shower has pierced the Van Allen radiation belt causing it to catch on fire, resulting in a deadly increase in the global temperature, Nelson’s onboard friend and scientist Commodore Lucius Emery “retired” (Peter Lorre) concurs that it is possible to extinguish the belt with a perfectly timed nuclear missile launch, unfortunately, when they are called before the United Nations to get approval for such a mission things do not go all that well. Scientist Emilio Zucco (Henry Daniell) rejects the Admiral’s plan as being too risky as he believes that the composition of the belt’s gasses will cause the fire to burn itself out when it reaches 173 degrees. When Nelson’s plan is loudly voted down he and his entourage beat a hasty retreat back to the Seaview so they can go forward with the mission anyway, with the hope of Presidential permission being granted by the time they reach firing position.
Getting in contact with the President is far from the only problem that Nelson will encounter as he has two particular “guests” aboard the Seaview that will cause no end of trouble, first, we have Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine), who along with Congressman Llewellyn Parker (Howard McNear) and Vice-Admiral B.J. Crawford (John Litel) were aboard to check out this wonder-sub, but Hiller was also brought along to study crew-related stress and much to the chagrin of our heroes she spends most of her time pouring poisoned words into Crane’s ear about Nelson’s mental state and her belief that he is suffering from delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex. Which I’m guessing is based on her watching Walter Pidgeon in Forbidden Planet, but this doesn’t really matter much as she gets a rather nasty comeuppance.
The next thorn in Nelson’s paw is Miguel Alvarez (Michael Ansara), a scientist turned religious zealot after his friends were killed by the atmospheric event and believes that this catastrophe is the will of God and that man should not interfere, instead, they should just accept their fate and join all their love ones in the glory of death. So yeah, Nelson has his hands full and with Crane questioning every order Nelson gives, things get tense rather quickly, and not only do they have to deal with the possible ending of the world but they must also contend with sabotage, mutiny, attempted murder and a field of floating mines.
Note: In the novelization, by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, this minefield was placed there by Emilio Zucco’s followers in an attempt to stop the Seaview from reaching firing position, whereas in the movie it’s just bad luck. It’s also revealed in the book that Hiller is in love with Zucco and would be willing to sacrifice her life by following Zucco’s wishes.
The Seaview is mankind’s last best hope in thwarting this natural catastrophe and all the obstacles that are placed in the way all go towards making Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea a fairly good sci-fi thriller, even if some of the science fiction elements are a little dodgy and somewhat laughable at times, and the drama remains solid, especially Michael Ansara’s scientist turned fanatic whose fervent belief in the acceptance of death and God’s will is rather chilling and brings a nice edge of danger to the proceedings. Less engaging is the character of Captain Lee Crane who comes across as someone auditioning for a college production of The Caine Mutiny, you can only wonder what Barbara Eden’s character sees in this two-dimensional stick in the mud.
• The opening title song, sung by Frankie Avalon, sounds more like a love ballad than something you’d expect to find kicking off an underwater action-adventure movie.
• It’s great that this movie is progressive enough to have a female crew-member aboard a submarine, that said, having only ONE female among hundreds of male sailors doesn’t seem like a good idea, that she is engaged to the commanding officer is even more inappropriate.
• The Seaview navigates a field of sinking icebergs which is a little confusing as ice is less dense than water, which is why it always floats.
• Admiral Nelson slaps a sick seaman and accuses him of goldbricking, so it’s clear that Nelson follows the “General Patton School of Command” when it comes to dealing with subordinates.
• When fired upon by another submarine Crane wants to launch torpedoes, but Nelson exclaims “We can’t fire on a UN sub!” and I think someone should point out to Nelson that the United Nations does not have its own navy.
• Like the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea we get Seaview being attacked by a giant octopus, substituting for the giant squid from the Verne novel, apparently, these aquatic creatures just hate submarines.
In the 70s Irwin Allen would earn the moniker “Master of Disaster” with such offerings as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure, but while this movie’s main plot is about a worldwide disaster the story depicted here is more action-adventure centric than that of your standard disaster film, not so much on the effects caused by the Van Allen radiation belt catching fire. We only get brief newsreel clips of forest fires and desolated farmland and one brief mention of flooding in Europe, and I’m sure that if made ten years later Irwin Allen would have shown title surges caused by the melting polar icecaps that would flood the streets of New York, resulting in scenes reminiscent of George Pal’s When Worlds Collide, sadly, this film is more submarine bound than the genre would normally demand and thus we are “spared” from seeing any of that cool destruction.
Shot in CinemaScope, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea looks fantastic and the underwater photography and model work on display are all topnotch, as was the work by cinematographer Winton Hoch who brings a nice sense of realism to this fantastic tale, but at its heart, this an Irwin Allen production – he came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Bennett – and while the disaster element is decidedly off-screen the collection of characters and threats building throughout the film’s 105-minute running time is all stuff that would become standard tropes of the disaster genre. What’s interesting to note is that this film was about a group of people trying to stop the world from cooking after a freak meteor strike on the Van Allen Radiation Belt, while today, the Earth is cooking but the cause isn’t from outer space, instead, it’s us pesky humans, so if a remake is ever pondered I don’t think anything in Seaview’s arsenal would be able to save us from Global Warming.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea may not be top-tier science fiction but Allen really knows how to put on a show and this movie has a lot of fun adventure moments, some silly some not, and an excellent cast to back it all up.