20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Stuart Paton, 1916, USA, 105m, BW)
Directed by Stuart Paton
Produced by Carl Laemmle
Written by Jules Verne (novel)
Starring Allen Holubar
Cinematography Eugene Gaudio
Distributed by Universal
December 24, 1916
Language Silent film
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a 1916 silent film directed by Stuart Paton. The film's storyline is based on the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne. It also incorporates elements from Verne's The Mysterious Island. This was the first motion picture filmed underwater. Actual underwater cameras were not used, but a system of watertight tubes and mirrors allowed the camera to shoot reflected images of underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters.
The film was made by The Universal Film Manufacturing Company (now Universal Pictures), not then known as a major motion picture studio. Yet in 1916, they financed this film's innovative special effects, location photography, large sets, exotic costumes, sailing ships, and full-size navigable mock-up of the surfaced submarine Nautilus. Hal Erickson has said that "the cost of this film was so astronomical that it could not possibly post a profit, putting the kibosh on any subsequent Verne adaptations for the next 12 years."
On May 4, 2010, a new print of the film was shown accompanied by live performance of an original score by Stephin Merritt at the Castro Theatre, as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. In 2016, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.
Allen Holubar - Capt. Nemo
Jane Gail - A Child of Nature
Matt Moore - Lieutenant Bond
William Welsh - Charles Denver
Curtis Benton - Ned Land
Dan Hanlon - Professor Aronnax
Edna Pendleton - Aronnax's Daughter
A strange giant "sea creature" has been rampaging the seas. The American naval ship Abraham Lincoln is sent to investigate, but is rammed by "the creature" which turns out to be The Nautilus, the fantastic submarine of the enigmatic Captain Nemo, and "Rudderless, the 'Abraham Lincoln' drifts on". Then, in "A strange rescue" he guides the sub to surface under those pitched overboard and his crew take them, including Professor Aronnax, and his daughter (who are French) below through a hatch in the surface of the deck. After they pledge not to escape, Nemo shows them the wonders of the underwater world, and even takes them hunting on the sea floor. Meanwhile, soldiers in a runaway Union Army Balloon are marooned on a mysterious island not far from the submarine. They find a wild girl living alone on the island ("a child of nature").
The yacht of Charles Denver arrives at the island. A former Indian colonial officer, he has been haunted by the ghost of a woman (Princess Daaker) that he attacked years ago; she stabbed herself rather than submit to him. He fled with her young daughter and then abandoned the child on the island. The long-tormented Denver has returned to see what became of her. One of the Union soldiers schemes and kidnaps the wild girl onto Denver's yacht. Another soldier swims aboard to rescue her. At the same time, Nemo discovers that the yacht belongs to Denver, the enemy he has been seeking all these years. The Nautilus destroys the yacht with a torpedo, but the girl and her rescuer are saved from the water by Captain Nemo.
In elaborate flashback scenes to India, Nemo reveals that he is Prince Daaker, and that he created the Nautilus to seek revenge on Charles Denver. He is overjoyed to discover that the abandoned wild girl is his long-lost daughter, but his emotion is such that he expires. His loyal crew bury him at the ocean bottom. They disband and the Nautilus is left to drift to its own watery grave.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a fascinating artefact from the silent era. Although prints have been in circulation for many years, it was not until its video release in the 1990s that many people had the opportunity to see this previously obscure film. It is a fascinating relic that shows just how accomplished early filmmaking was.
As the only other feature-length cinematically released adaptation of the Jules Verne story, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea makes interesting – perhaps inevitable – contrast to the more well-known Disney version 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) with James Mason. What becomes noticeable is just how definitive a version the Disney version became subsequently recognized as. This version lacks any submarines with plush, ornate retro-Victorian interiors. The most notable contrast between this and the Disney version is the characterization of Captain Nemo. There in nothing of James Mason’s brooding performance in Allan Holubar’s characterization – in fact, there is no villainous side to this Captain Nemo at all. He rams the Abraham Lincoln but there is no explanation of him destroying ships of war as part of his ‘mission’.
What is also noticeable about the film is that half of the screen story has been mixed in with Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea sequel Mysterious Island (1875), which was about Confederate prison escapees who land on a desert island where they were aided by Captain Nemo. (Although the film paints the castaways as much more brutal and in-fighting than the more communally-minded, mutual survival oriented ones in the book. Indeed, the addition of Mysterious Island to the story mix unbalances and takes over in the latter half with much running around involving revenge on a rapist captain, Nemo’s daughter and the castaways). More importantly, the film takes from Mysterious Island Jules Verne’s explanation that Captain Nemo is in fact the Indian Prince Dakkar. Where James Mason’s brooding performance became the definitive characterization of Nemo that every subsequent performance in an adaptation of either 20000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island or made-up sequel modeled itself on, the uncredited Allan Holubar’s Nemo is cast more as a movie cliché version of a Hindu – an old man in silks, bandana and long beard.
What is also noticeable about the two versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is their focus as science-fiction films. The sense of wonder in the Disney version was the retro-wonderment of a submarine as though it might be designed by a Victorian inventor; the sense of wonder in this version is simply seeing underwater photography for the first time. This was the first film to be filmed underwater, using techniques pioneered by the Williamson Brothers, who were some of the earliest deep-sea divers. Underwater photography has been rendered routine today but for an audience in 1916 seeing the film for the first time must have been a totally wondrous experience. There is a ten minute sequence touring the ocean floor where we are given title-card narrated detail about what we are observing. Later we see divers fighting a shark and a sequence where they are attacked by an octopus. This latter is a sequence that makes one stop and think for a couple of moments – in addition to filming underwater, did the Williamsons not only go to the extent of building a mechanical octopus too or is it the real thing? Finally, one realizes that octopi are not that big in reality and its flat eyes give it away, but it was certainly convincing for awhile. The first appearance of the full-size Nautilus – the camera irising out on it floating at sea is also impressive as are the apparently full-size staged sequences of it ramming ships – although the underwater shots of its hull are clearly just the same model shot repeated over.
Anyone who has read “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” will immediately notice that this plotline adds a great deal to that story. The source of most of it is Verne’s “Mysterious Island,” which served as a kind of sequel to “20,000 Leagues” and solved the mystery of Captain Nemo’s origin. By combining the two, writer-director Stuart Paton has given the audience a much more complete story, but he has added a number of expensive action sequences and cluttered the screen with more characters than we can keep track of. He has made matters worse by introducing two female characters, neither in the original books, apparently as love interests, although the romantic storylines are never paid off. It would have been quite shocking in the America of “The Birth of a Nation” had the Indian wild girl ended up married to the heroic white Union soldier, but we do not get that resolution here. I suspect it was cut for being too controversial.
The film does not follow strictly Jules Verne's two books. The two main differences are that the end of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea is omitted, i.e. when the Nautilus disappears in the Maelstrom off the coast of Norway, and that two characters are added, Nemo's daughter and the evil Denver. Quite strangely, an inter-title informs the viewer towards the end of the film "Captain Nemo reveals the secret of his life, which Jules Verne never told" when the script actually follows quite closely The Mysterious Island, in particular with the revelation that Nemo is an Indian Prince whose family was massacred by the British.
This is the first film featuring under sea filming thanks to watertight tubes and mirrors allowing the camera to shoot reflected images. This allows quite spectacular (for the time) views of corrals, wrecks, sharks and actors in scuba diving suits. The filming on location on New Providence Island and the use of real sailing boats, of a full-size navigable mock-up of the Nautilus, and of large sets and exotic costumes gives authenticity to the action. The film uses quite an elaborate narrative with cross-cutting between the parallel actions of Nemo, Lt. Bond and Denver, leading to their meeting on Mysterious Island. The chronological development is interrupted by flashbacks for the actions which took place in India many years before.
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