Back in the thirties, they laughed when Walt Disney said that he was going to make a feature length animated film. “Oh, how quaint” the fat studio execs chortled through solid walls of cigar smoke as they sat stewing in their leather-bound rooms “The little cartoon man thinks he can make movies”.
The little cartoon man then proceeded to make Snow White, one of the most successful movies of all time. Then, a decade later, Disney announced that he was branching out into live action movies.
“Oh how quaint” the fat studio execs chortled through solid walls of cigar smoke as they sat stewing in their leather-bound rooms “The little animated feature man thinks he can make movies with real people”.
At which point Disney fixed them with a steely glare and said “Okay, just for that? I’m going to own you. All of you. It may take decades but I now dedicate my every waking moment to ensuring that one day, everything you own will belong to me. Every movie you’ve ever made, every studio, every piece of merchandise, every character. You sneeze, I will own the dirty hankie. Every red cent you ever earn will one day BELONG TO WALTER ELIAS DISNEY SO I SWEAR ON THE OLD GODS AND THE NEW.”
And they chortled at that because some motherfuckers never learn, do they?
An important step on Disney’s path to total global conquest were their live action films of the 1950s. These were usually classic tales of derring do from literature dressed up real nice with a few catchy songs. Probably the best remembered film of this era was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, based on Jules Verne’s staggeringly prophetic novel about how big an impact submarines were going to have on all our lives.
Leagues marked something of a watershed moment for Disney’s live-action fare as it was the first Disney film to get a really top-tier cast with household names like Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and James Mason. In fact, even though Disney had already made several fairly successful live action movies at this point, Kirk Douglas needed quite a bit of coaxing, with his part being substantially altered at his request.
As director, Walt hired director Richard Fleischer, much to Fleishcer’s surprise as he was the son of Max Fleischer, Disney’s long-time rival.
So it’s 1868 and vessels all over the world have been mysteriously missing and, as usual, the monster community is being scape-goated. In San Francisco, a survivor of one shipwreck is telling anyone who’ll listen that a mysterious undersea monster wrecked his vessel and cast him into the sea like a common bottle. But Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), a whaler, arrives with a babe on each arm and tells the sailor that he’s a drunk. This, of course, was back in the fifties when whalers were still viewed as heroic rugged defenders of humanity from hordes of slavering belugas and not, as they are now, the Ultimate Sea Bastards.
Meanwhile, Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) is in town along with his little man, Conseil (Peter Lorre). Every main character in a Jules Verne story has to have a little man, it’s just this trope he has. Anyway. Aronnax is travelling to Shanghai on behalf of the National Museum of Paris because, as we all know, Paris is a country. But the pair are told that they can’t travel to Shanghai or indeed any hai at all, because the monster stalks the ocean like a great undersea creep. Annorax and Conseil are all “Pshaw! Come now sirs, we are men of science!” but gets misquoted by the local newshounds who misconstrue his words to say “RESPECTED SCIENTIST SAYS MONSTERS ARE TOTALLY REAL AND ARE COMING FOR OUR WOMEN, YA HEARD?!”
The US government, realising that a little European know how and savoir faire is required here, invite Annorax and Conseil on a naval vessel searching the ocean for the monster. Ned Land is also invited along, one of the few civilian sailors who is not afraid of the monster because he is a whaler of science.
The voyage lasts for months and the ship’s captain, Farragut, thinks that the navy is wasting its time hunting the monster.
To pass the time, Ned takes out a guitar and entertains the sailors with Whale of a Tale.
That little ditty that was included on one of those old Disney Sing-A-Long videos from way back when which is why it’s been stuck in my head for the last 25 frickin’ years thanks Kirk Douglas thanks a whole heap.
Yup, apparently Mr Douglas is still around at the age of 102, having won a magic ring in a game of riddles. Anyway, whale of a tale is an insanely catchy song whose upbeat melody distracts from the fact that this is basically Ned straight up bragging about all the chicks he’s banged.
Anyway, before he can get to the truly scandalous about Cockleshell Contessa from Nantucket, the ship is attacked by that monster everyone’s so gosh darned sure doesn’t exist and sinks. Everyone dies except obviously Aronnax, Conseil and Land because otherwise it’d be a real short flick. Adrift in a life boat, they see a shape in the water and think that it’s the monster but discover that it’s actually a miraculous submersible vessel.
So there’s a fairly common misconception that Jules Verne invented the submarine, which just isn’t the case. In fact, Verne’s Nautilus was named after a real submarine that saw use a whopping seventy years before the book was printed and, depending on how generous you want to be with the term “submarine”, there are records of them going back as far as the fifteen hundreds even though most of them were just fancy ways to suffocate.
Anyway, our trio board the vessel and find it deserted but, looking out of a porthole, they see a group of sailors in diving suits performing a funeral on the sea floor. The sailors re-enter the ship and the trio are brought face to face with the ship’s captain; Nemo played by James Mason.
Full disclosure. I’ve never actually seen a movie starring James Mason before now and all that can do now is curse a wasted life. This man. This man! Such lanquid grace. Such incomparable presence! I must write a sonnet!
Nemo has read Aronnax’s work and is a big fan, but has no use for Land and Conseil, who he sentences to be drowned. Aronnax begs for their life and Nemo says that he’s willing to share the secrets of the ocean with Aronnax, but that he must give up his friends. Actually his exact words are “you must choose between them and me” and honestly? Fair trade.
Aronnax refuses and Nemo regretfully sentences him to drown along with the other two. They’re left outside on Nautilus as it submerges but at the last moment Nemo orders the sub to resurface and have the three men brought aboard and confined to quarters with Nemo saying “I’ve found out what I want to know?” Which was that…they’re…not witches? I dunno.
Their now proceeds a dinner scene which is just, oh guys it’s glorious, with Mason and Kirk trading poisoned barbs like a pair of spinster aunts. Nemo tells them that they’re on probation and that if they try to escape they’re all “no shit, it’s a submarine”. The meal ends and Nemo shows Aronnax where his crew get their food, foraging on the ocean floor. We now get a long sequence of Nemo’s crew gathering lobsters, catching fish and strong-arming turtles like they’re Occupy Wall Street protestors being forcibly removed from a sit-in.
Aronnax can’t understand why a man of Nemo’s incredible intellect and masterful beard would be blowing up ships like a common Godzilla and Nemo takes them to the island Penal colony of Rura Penthe also known as the Alien’s Graveyard.
Nemo tells Aronnax that the nation that owns Rura Penthe had his wife and child tortured to death so that Nemo would reveal the secrets of his submarine which is a slightly stronger cup of coffee than your typical fifties Disney backstory. Since then, Nemo and his crew (most of whom are escaped prisoners from Rura Penthe) have been waging a war against all the great powers of the world but particularly “that hated nation”. This particular nation goes unnamed in the movie as in Verne’s novel, but between you and me it rhymes with “Schmussia”.
This brings us to the interesting question of Nemo’s nationality. The name itself means “No-one” and Verne intended Nemo as a stand in for all victims of imperial power, but he originally intended for Nemo to be a Polish aristocrat who lost everything to the Russian Empire. Unfortunately, the novel came out in 1870, the year of the Franco-Prussian war (the “Craig Killborn” of Franco-German conflicts) when France was desperately seeking an alliance with Russia against Otto Von Bismarck. Disney also keeps the identity of “that hated nation” ambigous, as he was also seeking an alliance with Russia against Otto Von Bismarck, particularly after his behaviour on the set of Cinderella.
Where things get complicated is that Verne did actually give Nemo a canonical nationality in the pseudo-sequel The Mysterious Island, where it’s revealed that Nemo was actually Prince Nattar, an Indian aristocrat, and that the “hated nation” was actually Britain.
The notion of Nemo being Indian has never really caught on in popular culture partly because well, y’know. It rhymes with “schmacism”, but also because it was never Verne’s original intention and it would require more than five people having managed to finish The Mysterious Island (not Verne’s best work, to put it bluntly). Alan Moore, however, did keep Nemo’s Indian background for his quite masterful use of the character in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Aronnax is shocked when Nemo destroys a ship leaving Rura Penthe loaded with munitions, killing the entire crew. Both Conseil and Ned are disgusted and try to convince Aronnax to join them in planning an escape but the Professor is torn by an ethical dilemma.
Con: Nemo is a murderous terrorist.
Pro: Yeah. But he’s got a really bitchin’ submarine.
Con: He threatens the livelihood of millions by shutting down global shipping.
Pro: True. But seriously, you gotta see this submarine.
Con: He represents a threat to the entire world order.
Pro: That submarine, tho.
Con: If left unchecked…
Pro: IT HAS A PIPE ORGAN.
Ned figures out that Nemo is using the island of Vulcania as his base and drops messages in bottles telling anyone who finds them where Nemo is hiding out. Conseil and Land also try and escape when the Nautilus pulls up to an island in New Guinea for supplies. They get as far as the centre of the island where they meet some local cannibals who proceed to swarm over the Nautilus like there’s a free buffet which I guess there is.
This leads to the single greatest deliver of the single greatest line in the whole movie.
Conseil: Cannibals! Hundreds of cannibals! Captain, Captain, scores of boats!
Ned Land: Captain, we’re under attack!
Captain Nemo (purring like an Egyptian deity): Naturally, since you invaded their privacy, they have every right to invade ours.
A little less pleasant unfortunately is what happens next. Nemo electrifies the hull of the Nautilus and we get a scene of fifty or so black actors jumping around in pain while the all white main characters point and laugh.
Nemo is not happy that Land tried to escape has him confined to quarters. And then, in short order, the Nautilus is attacked by a warship and then a giant squid because Nemo is just having one of those days.
The battle with the giant squid is the most famous sequence in the whole movie and, rather appropriately, it was a sprawling many-tentacled monster of a thing to shoot that almost dragged the Disney studio down to a watery grave. The original shoot was a complete disaster with the model squid malfunctioning, the wires clearly visible and the whole thing shot on a calm, clear night at sea. Disney demanded that it be re-shot, this time during a raging storm which also required a new squid model to be built from scratch which nearly tanked the whole studio financially.
But, re-filming the scene paid off in two ways, firstly making the squid look a lot more convincing (and I gotta say, even 65 years later it’s a damn fine prop) and secondly adding a whole new level of drama to the scene as the crew battle the squid and the elements. During the battle, Nemo gets swept overboard and is saved from drowning by Ned Land. This causes a crisis of conscience for Nemo. If Ned Land, who is objectively the worst human, can be capable of such nobility then perhaps he was wrong about him, and by extension all of humanity?
Nemo tells Aronnax that he’s decided to make peace with the rest of humanity and give his scientific knowledge freely to all. But when the Nautilus pulls into port at his secret island base, the Schmussians are waiting for them, having gotten one of Ned Land’s bottles that, that, that, that seems a stretch. Think about. This entire, massive military operation was mounted on the strength of a randomly found bottle that contained the mad ramblings of a drunken whaler with a chin like a rock hammer.
Nemo, realising that all humans are Land Bastards, sets his island lair to self-distruct and gets shot with one of those bullets that kills you slowly and only at the most dramatically appropriate time. Nemo, realising that he’s dying, order the Nautilus to submerge and to be destroyed. His crew tell him that they’ll die with him as a life without James Mason operating at peak Masonry can scarcely be called a life at all. This is by far the most realistic thing in the entire movie.
Land, Conseil and Aronnax, not surprisingly, are not quite ready to die for Nemo (well, Aronnax seems kinda okay with it) and they escape as the Nautilus goes down with all hands.
As the ship goes down, Nemo’s words to Aronnax echo: “There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass, in God’s good time”.
A massive critical and commercial hit when it was released, Leagues remains a fantastic watch almost seven decades later, with Mason’s portrayal of Nemo remaining absolutely definitive. It’s a grand old romp, and well worth your time. Disney have been threatening a remake for about a decade now (somewhere there is a timeline where we got a McG directed Nemo prequel starring Will Smith and take a moment to thank your deity of choice that that never came to pass) but for now and for the foreseeable future, this is probably the best version of Verne’s tale ever set to screen.
NEXT UPDATE: 13 June 2019
NEXT TIME: Oh look, it’s that Disney movie for kids named after that time Kim Kardashian showed humanity her bare ass…