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It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

It_Came_From_Beneath_The_Sea_posterAfter the unexpected success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953, Ray Harryhausen teamed up with producer Charles Schneer for the 1955 It Came From Beneath the Sea, about a giant radioactive octopus that storms San Francisco.

The film opens with a brief discussion (via narrator) of the brand new 55 million dollar nuclear submarine. Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are out on maneuvers not far from Pearl Harbor, when an unidentified object catches hold of their sub. They are able to break free, but a bit of the object is jammed in their dive planes and they are obliged to bring in some scientists – Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Professor Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue) – to investigate.

The scientists conclude that the object is a giant octopus that has rise from its customary habitation deep in the sea due to a lack of food. The octopus is radioactive – caused by the testing of the hydrogen bomb – and the radiation drives away its food. Now, it is aggressively hungry and indiscriminately attacking ships, people, and fish. Eventually, the octopus ends up in San Francisco, where it decides that the Golden Gate Bridge (built in 1937) is a good target.

In many ways, It Came From Beneath the Sea looks like an even cheaper film than The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. With an even smaller budget, there are a lot of rear projection shots and stock footage (not to mention a slightly puzzling romantic subplot). In addition, the octopus doesn’t seem to have the same emotional resonance as the Rhedosaurs of the previous year, possibly because it’s harder to see its face and since what we tend chiefly to notice are the tentacles.

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It’s a Kraken!

But there is something irresistible about watching that giant octopus attack San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Or even a ship (even if it is a model of a ship). That scene so reminded me of the scene where the Kraken in Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest attacks the pirate ship (just like Harryhausen’s skeletons reminded me of the skeletons in the first Pirates of the Caribbean – in fact, there seems to be a lot of similarities between those pirate movies and the fantasy films of Harryhausen). The more classic movies I see, the more vivid it becomes to me how much films are inspired by the films that came before.

Because Harryhausen and Schneer were on such a tight budget, they were obliged to omit two legs from the octopus, so it is actually a six legged octopus instead of eight, though I confess I would not have realized it unless I had read it. They do an admiral job keeping that fact from being obvious.

The subplot involving Commander Matthews, Dr. Carter and Professor Joyce is, to say the least, unique. Mathews (played by Kenneth Tobey, who shows up as a military man in a number of 1950s sci-fi movies) is a bit of a chauvinist, a “man’s man” who is very attracted to Professor Joyce and they flirt while she’s investigating the octopus. She, on the other hand, has a warm professional relationship with Dr. Carter and the two of them respect each other’s scientific knowledge and abilities. I couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be a love triangle or not. Dr. Carter certainly doesn’t seem jealous that Joyce is attracted to Mathews. But Mathews is always trying to “protect” Joyce and Carter’s trying to explain that the “new women” want to be treated as the equal of men. By the end, Mathews suggest she quit her job and marry him, but she’s not interested.

It’s like the film was playing around with the idea that there is an incompatibility between physical attraction (Mathews and Joyce) and intellectual attraction (Joyce and Carter), and that as an academic woman you can’t have both.

Taking out the Golden Gate

Taking out the Golden Gate Bridge

It Came From Beneath the Sea is also significant for being the first film that Harryhausen would make with Charles Schneer. It was an important partnership that would provide Harryhausen the support and financial backing he needed to be able to bring his visions to life, something that Harryhausen’s idol, Willis O’Brien, always lacked. Apart from King Kong, Willis O’Brien was never given free reign. But with the support of Charles Schneer, Harryhausen was able to create some of his best work for films like The 7th Voyage of SinbadMysterious Island, and Jason and the Argonauts.

Another thing that interested me about It Came From Beneath the Sea was the repeated attention drawn to the nuclear submarine as the new, up-to-date, shiny machine that was so efficient that at the beginning of the film the crew complain that it practically runs itself. This was indeed very new. The first nuclear submarine – the USS Nautilus – was launched in 1954, just one year before the release of the movie. It was also the first submarine to navigate through the Arctic (though not punch through the ice at the North Pole – that wasn’t until 1959).

It is fascinating how the film reflects the issues of the day. The concern over the possible negative effects of the use of atomic bombs, but at the same time the super-efficient new nuclear submarine also saves the day. Not to mention the quirky exploration of women’s new roles in the workplace. But the real reason to watch the film is Ray Harryhausen’s giant octopus!

This is my second contribution to The Ray Harryhausen Blogathon, hosted by Wolffian Classics Movie Digest. Please click here for more posts celebrating Harryhausen!

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Posted by on July 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

downloadAfter reading the book, I had to see Disney’s film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under Sea. Strangely enough, I never saw it before last week. I have some dim memory of seeing Kirk Douglas playing with a seal when I was a child, but I must not have seen the whole thing. I knew of it more by reputation than anything else. My cousin had very strong opinions about the film: she loved the squid and she hated Kirk Douglas.

But I enjoyed it very much. It is a much tighter story than the book, which is very episodic. In the documentary to the DVD, director Richard Fleischer said that when he read the book, he realized that the best way to adapt the story was to treat it like a jail break on a submarine and try to make everything feel claustrophobic.

The essential story is the same in the movie as it is in the book. Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his servant, Conseil (Peter Lorre), go on a sea voyage to locate a mysterious sea creature that is destroying ships. But what they encounter instead is a submarine and when they fall overboard, along with bombastic and hot-headed harpooner Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), they climb aboard the submarine, the Nautilus.

The captain of the Nautilus (James Mason) at first threatens to kill them, but relents when he sees how Aronnax is willing to die with his friends rather than be spared alone. He has a potential purpose in mind for Professor Aronnax. In the meantime, he shows Aronnax the submarine and how it works while Ned Land and Conseil scheme and plot to escape. One of Land’s schemes is to fill bottles with messages about the location of Captain Nemo’s island base (which they found on a chart in Nemo’s room) and send them out into the ocean. He also tries to escape when he is allowed to go ashore on an island, but is chased back by cannibals.

James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas

James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas

One big difference between the movie and book is that the Nautilus in the movie is not battery powered, but actually a nuclear submarine and Professor Aronnax is far more interested in Nemo’s discovery of nuclear energy and the potential good it could do civilization than he is in studying fish and other underwater wonders and it turns out that the purpose Nemo has in mind for Aronnax is that he might allow the professor to share his secret of nuclear energy with the world. But Nemo is not entirely convinced that the world is ready to handle something so potentially destructive and prevaricates. Meanwhile, Aronnax is appalled to discover that Nemo is actively engaged in sinking the ships of his unspecified enemies – a Colonial power of some sort.

The cast is excellent. James Mason is perfect as Captain Nemo –  I could even see James Mason in my mind while I was finishing the book. He’s still a Byronic hero, still a Count of Monte Cristo of the Seas like in the book, though with a more pronounced Utopian streak in him. Mason’s Nemo seems even more deeply pained by the state of humanity and their propensity to make war and discusses it more often, especially in relation to whether or not to share his knowledge of nuclear power.

Kirk Douglas’ take on Ned Land, however, is quite different. Land in the book is a tall, relatively silent man while Kirk Douglas is more of a blow-hard, a kind of irrepressible rogue. However, I have to admit that the change was probably for the best and makes a nice contrast with the rest of the characters, who are very earnest indeed. The movie might have gotten a touch lugubrious without him…and his interaction with Conseil. He and his unlikely friendship with Conseil provide the bulk of the comedy in the film.

download (1)Ironically, it is Conseil who somewhat provides the moral conscience of the film, along with Professor Aronnax. But Aronnax in the movie gets wrapped up in Nemo, at one point even making excuses for Nemo’s behavior, and extremely caught up in the potential of the nuclear energy. It is only at the end that he realizes that Nemo is quite willing to have him and his two friends die along with the Nautilus and crew in a death pact. Not quite as mad as in the book, Nemo is still willing to do anything to protect his secret. Only Conseil consistently sees the need for them to escape, partially for their own sake and partially for Ned, who gets himself in trouble with Nemo repeatedly.

Though Ned does save Captain Nemo’s life during the giant squid attack (which looks pretty awesome, even to this day). It kind of throws Nemo’s carefully nurtured misanthropy into disarray, but ultimately Ned’s earlier actions ensure that nothing positive ultimately comes of it (not that you can blame Ned for trying).

The whole film looks great. The ship is opulent as in the book (though I still wonder why Nemo gets all the cushy stuff – what’s up with his crew? They even have a suicide pact with him!). There is the organ and the library and the artwork, the walking on the bottom of the ocean, getting chased by natives, though there’s no trip to Antarctica. There is still a burial underseas. No Atlantis, but that’s okay (there’s actually an Atlantis in the 1959 film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, also with James Mason, so at least it made its way into one Verne adaptation). It’s still not a fast-paced movie, but it has the same element that captures one’s imagination that the book has.

Captain Nemo's cabin, without color

Captain Nemo’s cabin, without color

It’s also another fine example of how to adapt a book to a movie; keeping the essential flavor, the essential nature of the characters (except Land) and taking the most important plot elements in the story and constructing a cohesive and exciting cinematic experience.

 
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Posted by on September 2, 2015 in Movies

 

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