Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thirty Days of Disney Movies, Day Sixteen - Favorite Book Adaptation

I first read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when I was in fifth grade. My interest in the book was fueled by Disney's re-release of the film in 1971, although I can't recall if I actually saw the movie back then. Whether my first recollections of the film came from inside a darkened movie theater or from a television preview, it doesn't really matter. They were unquestionably vivid. I remember the iron-clad submarine Nautilus, its jagged spine and bulbous yellow windows resembling eyes. I remember the grand pipe organ in Captain Nemo's salon and the intense battle with a giant squid in a fierce rainstorm. This was heady stuff for an imaginative 10-year old.

Captain Nemo (James Mason) and
Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas)
aboard the Nautilus
Jules Verne's original book did not disappoint, either. Nearly 40 years later, I still have that same dog-eared paperback and its episodic tale of futuristic undersea adventure.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of Walt Disney's most ambitious live-action films, with extensive (and difficult to shoot) underwater scenes, intricate sets and impressive special effects. It boasted a cast of Hollywood A-listers, a rarity for Disney films of the 1950s and 60s. James Mason was ideally cast as the Machiavellian Captain Nemo, whose warped sense of vengeance leads him to wreak havoc on all seafaring vessels. Kirk Douglas played Ned Land, the cocky, rough and tumble harpooner who becomes captive aboard Nemo's ship along with the studious marine expert Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his testy, but loyal assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre).

James Mason, Paul Lukas and
Robert J. Wilke on location
While some underwater footage was shot on a Disney sound stage, most of it was shot off the coast of Nassau in the Bahamas. Over 20 tons of equipment was used on location, including cameras, air compressors and underwater breathing apparatuses. Shooting a single underwater burial scene required 42 submerged actors, divers and technicians using hand signals to communicate. They were limited to being underwater no more than 55 minutes at a stretch, 20 minutes of which involved getting to and from the ocean floor. In total, it took three days for director Richard Fleischer and his crew to shoot a scene that lasted less than two minutes on screen.

Even more impressive was the movie's climactic giant squid battle. Set at night in a raging storm to hide the fact that the mechanical monster looked pretty fake in decent light, the scene is an epic example of editing and special effects wizardry, circa 1954. The squid weighed over two tons with 40-foot long moving tentacles and a snapping beak. It took a team of 28 men to operate it. The efforts paid off as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would go on to win the Oscar for Best Special Effects as well as for Best Art Direction. It would be ten years later with Mary Poppins before Disney would again see this level of popular and critical success in a live-action film.

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