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Ray Harryhausen lends his talents to the Jules Verne story
on July 8, 2006
There was a woefully bad 15-part serial version of Jules Verne's "Mysterious Island" released in 1951 that stupidly gave away the big surprise by listing Captain Nemo's name in the credits. Fortunately a decade later the release of this version of "Mysterious Island" replaced that one in the public's consciousness. The team that put together "Mysterious Island" consisted of producer Charles Schneer, special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, and composer Bernard Herrmann, which is important because it puts the film more in the tradition of their earlier collaborations, "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" and "Jason and the Argonauts," than it does Verne's novels. Obviously the 1954 Disney film version of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" had an influence on this 1961 film by director Cy Endfield ("Zulu") as well.
During the American Civil War, Union Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) is being held prisoner in a Confederate prison camp along with young Herbert Brown (Michael Callan), cynical "New York Herald" reporter Gideon Spillett (Gary Merrill), and a former slave named Corporal Neb Nugent (Dan Jackson). During a massive hurricane the group escape by stealing an observation balloon and sailing over the palisade, taking with them a Confederate soldier, Sergeant Pencroft (Percy Herbert). The storm is so fierce that it blows them to an uncharted (and dare I say, mysterious) island somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, where the balloon crashes.
Harding is pulled from the water by unseen figure and the group decides to put the war behind them and work together to survive (I was going to say this is sort of like "Survivor," after the merger, which Nemo playing the Jeff Probst role, but clearly the more relevant television analogy today would be to "Lost"). But beyond the basic requirements of staying alive they learn that they have to contend with monstrously giant crabs, equally giant bees, and a ship full of bloodthirsty pirates. To make things more interesting a pair of shipwrecked female castaways are added to the little band, namely Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her pretty young niece, Elena (Beth Rogan). Using the abandoned cliff side cave of the pirates as their new home the castaways settle in for the long haul, all the while receiving timely help from their mysterious benefactor.
I never read the novel, but I still have the "Classics Illustrated" comic book version of "Mysterious Island." For me the big impression was the things the castaways did to bring a touch of civilization to the island, and while that is greatly reduced in the film you do get a least a visual sense of what they have been up to in order to make the best of a bad situation. Of course, the situation proceeds to get even worse, which forces the unseen benefactor, Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), to reveal himself and his identity, and to help the castaways one last time.
It is a good thing that Lom does not show up until the end of the film, because he overpowers the rest of the cast, just as his character enjoys superiority over them as well. Merrill stands out from the rest as the crotchety reporter, who is almost as smart as he is cynical, and Craig manages to hang on to the hero role throughout, but Herbert and Elena descend to the puppy love phase and are just begging to be eaten by one of the giant creatures on the island, preferably the giant chicken. This is not a great film for this genre, but it certainly holds up as a more than decent Saturday matinee movie.
Harryhausen's stop-motion animation is always fun, even though no one will consider his work in "Mysterious Island" to be up to the finest moments of "Sinbad" or "Jason." The link between the giant animals and Captain Nemo is a bit absurd, since hunger has never been considered one of the causes of the American Civil War, but by the time we learn about these we have already enjoyed the castaways trying to fight the monsters (the crab is the best and the chicken has to be the nadir of Harryhausen's distinguished career). Actually, the balloon journey at the beginning provides the best special effects in the movie, especially given the impressive musical score by Herrmann. This movie is not about political philosophy, but about monsters in an exotic location and the sense of adventure that has thrilled young schoolboys for generations.