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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)
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by Jay Seaver

"Amazing in its time; dull in ours."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 36TH ANNUAL BOSTON SCI-FI MARATHON: The 1916 version of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" is an amazing technical achievement for its time. In case you had any doubt that the technical advances used to make it were the draw, watch the opening credits, and note the most prominent names are those of George Williamson and Ernest Williamson, the brothers who developed the cameras used to shoot the underwater scenes. That's as it should be, though - while they achieve something impressive, the rest of the movie isn't so good.

There's a monster terrorizing the seas during the American Civil War - or so the government thinks. It's actually Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar), using his incredible submarine the Nautilus to gain revenge on the long list of people he feels has wronged him. The government dispatches a team consisting of Professor Aronnax (Dan Hanlon), his daughter (Edna Pendleton), and expert harpooner Ned Land (Curtis Benton) to stop the attacks. Meanwhile, a reconnaissance balloon full of Union troops led by Lt. Bond (Matt Moore) is cast adrift, landing on a mysterious island inhabited only by wild animals and a "child of nature" (Jane Gail), who is feral but more than attractive enough for a marooned unit of men. And, somewhere else, shipping magnate Charles Denver (William Welsh) remembers the crimes of his youth.

Verne's adventure stories are still considered classics, the ancestors of most other science fiction tales, but even with great source material, it's still possible to get bad results. Filmmaker Stuart Paton mashes the two Nemo stories (20,000 Leagues and Mysterious Island) together, but does so in an extremely awkward way. We're introduced to the Aronnaxes and Land early on, and given the impression that they will be important, but they really don't have much of an impact; the girl disappears almost entirely. There are also long stretches when the movie isn't necessarily boring, but it also doesn't seem like the characters do very much. It's also easy for plot threads to drop from notice for a long time, as jumping back and forth was not exactly the style at the time.

Other things that were the style are going to be pretty rough on a contemporary audience, as well. Jane Gail's dancing and emoting as the wild girl is incredibly over the top, the sort of pantomime style that one doesn't see much even in later silents, let alone talkies. It's actually not the biggest head-scratcher of the movie, though; that would be the conception of Captain Nemo. Though Allen Holubar was a popular and respected actor in the early days of cinema, he doesn't seem to match up with the producers' conception of Nemo as an Indian prince. Thus the producers give him costumes and make-up that can best be described as "blackface Santa", and that's distracting in a number of ways.

Still, it's not hard to be impressed by some of what Paton and the Williamson brothers do here. The undersea photography, while not quite so dynamic as what you might see today - I'm guessing that they had to shoot in relatively shallow water - but it's remarkable in context, and certainly looks nice. The location photography above the surface looks nice as well, and the bits of action are well-done. The storyline on the island actually works fairly well, even if the folks on the sub seem to be spinning their wheels.

Perhaps that serves as a lesson to today's spectacle-driven features - even when the effects hold up after they're no longer state-of-the-art, as this film's more or less manage to do, they'll eventually stop bowling audiences over, and then it's a matter of how good everything else is. The "everything else" is not good here, which makes what was likely an amazing experience ninety-five years ago something of a chore today.

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originally posted: 02/27/11 04:11:35
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  24-Dec-1916 (NR)
  DVD: 01-Dec-2008

  N/A (PG)


Directed by
  Stuart Paton

Written by
  Stuart Paton

  Allen Holubar
  Dan Hanlon
  Matt Moore
  Jane Gail

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