Retrospective: Journey To The Center Of The Earth (1959) (a film retrospective by Mark R. Leeper).

October 4, 2016 | By | Reply More

Prior to 1950, Science Fiction was a rarity in film. There was pulpish Science Fiction such as in the serials and ‘Dr. Cyclops’ and there was ‘Things To Come’ (1936), which in spite of some very imaginative visuals, was a little talky and didactic. Then in the ten years from 1950 to 1959, Science Fiction had a modest blossoming. Once the silver screen discovered there could be fun Science Fiction, the film genre went in several different directions. The decade was capped with 20th Century Fox’s ‘Journey To The Center Of The Earth’. In some ways, this was an answer to Walt Disney’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’ (1954). Both films were based on novels by Jules Verne and both starred James Mason. The earlier film had Mason be a rather insular and brooding character without a whole lot of personal appeal. In the later film, Mason would not be sombre and brooding but cantankerous and vocal. His Lindenbrook is irascible and outspoken and, in spite of his childish ways, he holds viewer interest more by his actions rather than his mystery as Mason’s Nemo did. ‘20,000 Leagues’ was claustrophobic while ‘Journey To The Center Of The Earth’ tells its story on a much wider backdrop.

It is 1880 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and the local university’s geology professor, Oliver Lindenbrook (played by James Mason), has just been knighted. Part of his class’s congratulatory prize is a piece of volcanic rock, purchased by Alec McKuen (Pat Boone). Lindenbrook finds the rock mysteriously heavy for what should be a light piece of lava. Lindenbrook guesses that there is actually inside the rock something much heavier than what the outside shell is made of. He determines to slowly melt off the surrounding lava but a furnace explosion saves him the time and effort. Inside, he finds a plum bob with a message on it. The message was written by geologist Arne Saknussemm and tells how to reach the centre of the Earth and thus the adventure begins.

The screenplay by Walther Reisch and Charles Bracket and directed by Henry Levin is never less than entertaining. Though certain changes were made from the story but, then there are precedents in editions of the book, Verne’s characters’ names vary greatly from one edition and translation to another. The professor was called Lidenbrock or Hardwigg in different editions. In this film, he is Lindenbrook. The nephew in the book the young character is the professor’s nephew and was called Alec, for the film in the book he is Harry, Henry, or Axel. For some love interest, the film introduced two female characters. Carla Goetabaug is played by Arlene Dahl and goes on the expedition, much to Oliver Lindenbrook’s annoyance. Also, Jenny, Lindenbrook’s niece, loves Alec and stays topside and worries. She seems almost extraneous to the plot but is played by Diane Baker at the height of her attractiveness.

The production values are top-notch here, making this a beautiful film to watch. This was, I believe, the last feature film actually filmed in Carlsbad Caverns. That is not entirely coincidence. The film crew apparently did some damage shooting there and the people who maintain the caverns have never again given permission to film there again. The only actively bad visual effect is the obvious model work of the sacrificial dish rising in the volcanic chimney. Leo Tover filmed the movie spectacularly, considering some of the tight spaces he had to film in. Most of the special effects were quite nicely composed. For the dimetrodons, live lizards were used with fins glued on. That is a cruel technique that is now outlawed. But it was never used so effectively as it was in ‘Journey To The Center Of The Earth’. One clever shot is a point of view shot from inside a lizard’s mouth.

The score written for the film is one of Bernard Herrmann’s finest. Pat Boone was a popular singer and four songs were written for him, though luckily the producers thought better of the idea and Boone was limited to two songs, the two based on poems by Robert Burns so they had some claim to authenticity. Two songs ended on the cutting room floor though confusingly they do show up in the credits. The songs, ‘The Faithful Heart’ and ‘Twice As Tall’ were written by popular lyricist Sammy Cahn, known for ‘Three Coins In The Fountain’ and ‘Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow’. Until relatively recently, Pat Boone’s two missing songs were not available to the public as far as I am aware but the CD of the soundtrack includes them. Bits of their melodies show up in Herrmann’s score.

1959 was a year of lacklustre films from Fox. But Fox found ‘Journey To The Center Of The Earth’ was a notable exception. They made some effort in the following years to have a Science Fiction adventure for the summer. In 1960, it was a remake of ‘The Lost World’ for Irwin Allen. But Fox’s best summer Science Fiction adventure film was ‘Journey To The Center Of The Earth’ until it was displaced by ‘Star Wars’.

There were some problems I Found in ‘Journey To The Center Of The Earth’. I think ‘Casablanca’ is a great film and most people I talk to seem to agree but the truth is that there is a lot in that film that makes little sense. There was no such thing historically as ‘Letters of Transit’ and certainly nothing that the Gestapo would accept and absolutely nothing that the Germans were not allowed to even question. Later in the film, when the letters are actually used they seem to be barely examined. Some films just seem to click and you accept them even with their problems and, as for Rick and Louis walking off into the fog at the end, where do you find fog in the Moroccan desert? Still we just accept it because it is a good film. That is how I feel about ‘Journey To The Center Of The Earth’.

I find what is wrong with the film forgivable but I would not feel right about just ignoring the many problems I saw watching the film recently. This is effectively an appendix to that essay listing problems with the writing of ‘Journey To The Center Of The Earth’.

Jules Verne’s novel leaned rather heavily on lucky coincidence. He started with a note falling out of a book where just the right person could read it but that is a small coincidence compared to those in the 1959 adaptation. Walter Reisch’s and Charles Brackett’s screenplay seems to consider this a carte blanche and over and over has fortuitous accidents pushing the story forward. Consider Arne Saknussemm who, knowing he would not return from his expedition, scratched his message into a plumb bob. Somehow this tool made its way back up to the surface from near the centre of the earth. Along the way, somehow this tool was lightly coated in lava so it look much like another rock. It managed not to fall into the sea surrounding the volcano. Then someone found the rock and sold it individually to a shop in Edinburgh where a student volcanologist found it. What do you figure are the chances of all that happening? Later, an explosion blows off the lava jacket and the plumb bob is left shiny and legible once the lava is removed.

Much of the coincidence driving the story is bad luck that turns out to be extreme good luck. Consider:-

If Lindenbrook and Alec had not been kidnapped and waylaid, they would never have found Hans to provide the great muscle power needed for the trip.

The three men stop what they are doing to have a moment of silence for Goetabaug. That slows them a bit, but it was in this moment that Lindenbrook notices the smell of potassium cyanide which tells them how Goetabaug died.

If Goetabaug had not died, the Lindenbrook expedition would not have had the equipment it had.

Perhaps the biggest coincidence of all was that there was a path and Arne Saknussemm was able to find it, saving the Lindenbrook Expedition a lot of trial and error. I have no idea how Saknussemm could have not only gone by himself on this trek but when he found a way he could have proceeded he went back and marked it. How did he know that a path continued for several days’ walk and then became impassable?

The duck also seem to know the path both when first entering the cave and, later, when Count Saknussemm gives them a fraudulent way marking. It is an unfortunate expedition that gets its best advice from a duck.

Chased by a boulder, Lindenbrook throw himself to the ground and immediately finds the three notches he might have missed.

If Alec had not fallen in the darkness, they would not have found the crystal grotto.

In the flooding grotto, Carla grabs for a stalactite to support herself and it breaks off, but that gives them an escape.

The gunshot wounds Alec helps Lindenbrook to find and save him.

In spite of my love for this film and it is a film I have loved from when I first saw it am willing to give it a pass in spite of the film’s stretches of credulity. Here are problems I have noted in addition to the coincidences already mentioned.

As I said, without help, Arne Saknussemm must have been able to find his way to the centre of the by trial and error and then go back and mark the whole path. This seems unlikely. This is a problem that goes back to the novel. It is unbelievable that Arne Saknussemm could do everything needed to prepare a way for later expeditions.

The plumb bob covered with lava, which is then roughly removed, but the message on the tool is still readable and it is a long message that seems unlikely to be written on the surface of a single plumb bob.

Lindenbrook lightly throws off that Alec will lose his acrophobia after the first million fathoms or so. A million fathoms is about 1136 miles. It is hard to believe he thought they be walking multiple thousands of miles.

On top of the mountain, Alec throws down the jacket for his accordion and apparently just carelessly leaves it there. That is not a very good way to treat Jenny’s gift.

Lindenbrook is delighted to find a room full of exploration equipment. We are never told how four people with light knapsacks carry all that gear *and* sufficient food.

How useful are charts of underground springs? After all, they were made on the surface.

Lindenbrook seems to have some intuition about which direction, left or right, the path should be going. How can he any such knowledge? Why is there even a rule of which way to go at a fork?

In the crystal grotto, I can see that minerals could form a barrier, but it is unlikely they could form a vertical wall holding back water.

When the crystal wall breaks, how does Alec avoid even getting his feet wet?

Lindenbrook says that the last echo of the gunshot will give the direction of the gunshot. That seems unlikely, even if it were the first echo. It is not even clear which is the last of the many echoes they hear.

When the electric coils are turned off, the rooms seem to get lighter, not darker.

The band eats the mushrooms they find without even knowing if they are safe or poisonous. Don’t try this at home, kiddies.

It is hard to judge the size of the dimetrodons but, in our pre- history at the longest, they were about twelve feet and they seemed longer.

Apparently at the very centre of the Earth, there is a sea to one side and not the other. And you can tell you are there because there is ,a field of force that snatches gold away’. The physics makes no sense at all. Also, in this scene, Jenny seems to have some sort of psychic link to the explorers.

After travelling across the sea, they find land almost exactly where Arne Saknussemm came ashore and it just happens to be where Atlantis was located.

It is unclear how the sacrificial dish got over to the chimney and drags the crew over to the chimney and up without injuring or burning anybody. At the top of the column, they are lightly tossed into the sea, except for Alec thrown into a tree, all without anyone being harmed.

In spite of it all, this is a film that clicks for me. It may well be second to ‘King Kong’ (1933) as the film I have seen the greatest number of times.

Mark R. Leeper

(c) Mark R. Leeper 2016

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Category: Films, MEDIA, Scifi

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