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I’ve seen more monsters in my Aunt Gussie’s fishbowl than on this whole cruise!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
(1954)

(SPOILERS) One of the seminal Disney movies. Although, it’s easy to see why its legacy has diminished somewhat, as the kind of spectacle and imagination it offers is now both ten-a-penny and supplied in incrementally more spectacular fashion. That said, I would have first seen the movie more than two decades after its release, and it slotted in seamlessly with the brand of ripe Doug McClure fare rife during the mid-1970s. Revisiting 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the salient question becomes one of just what Disney, and by extension Jules Verne (or should that be the other way round?) were getting at? Beyond simply a rousing adventure yarn that inspired many a kid enamoured of giant squid, that is.

Purely on a surface level, Richard Fleischer’s movie – adapted by Earl Felton, of the original The Narrow Margin – remains reasonably accomplished, offering some likeably steampunk design work and a still enviable giant squid sequence (Fleischer, who would go on to such FX spectacles as Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle and Soylent Green, as well as serial-killer fare The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place, reputedly asked Walt’s advice regarding the conspicuous cables in the mill-pond original conception, hence the storm-lashed final vision).

James Mason makes a profoundly sympathetic Captain Nemo, and Paul Lukas a suitably malleable scientific mind in Professor Aronnax (both elements were subsequently picked up in space remake The Black Hole, albeit Nemo becomes much less relatable). Peter Lorre, increasingly barrel shaped, is good fun, while Kirk Douglas’ hero Ned Land comes on as he means to continue – boisterously – with a hooker on each arm and overacting wildly; why he’s an irrepressible, rambunctious, tomfooler, the kind of scally who’d rape Natalie Wood the following year while raptured audiences remained none the wiser.

Which is to say, Kirk’s a bit of a sore thumb with his blonde hair and sub-Popeye schtick, but he’s also genuinely very amusing in his interactions with sealion Esmeralda, easily the movie’s MVP (less amusing are Douglas’ songs). Hirsute Mason, playing on his organ and getting on everyone’s tits, embroiders a subdued degree of genteel tension. If 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea lacks something, it’s a tangible air of trajectory; we’re simply expected to go along for the ride, and its only after the altercation with a warship and the squid attack that something approaching a sense of purpose inhabits the proceedings.

There are various conflicting perspectives on Verne – whereas Walt, as we all know, was a stone-cold demon, with the tunnels beneath Disneyland to prove it – some of which stress his convinced Roman Catholicism set against the unabashed scientism of his novels. The “father of science-fiction” tag has also been awarded to HG Wells, whom Verne didn’t really rate due to his more fantastic flights (aside from his posthumous novel, Verne stuck resolutely to the present, didn’t approve of such conceits as time travel, and didn’t even reflect the then established science especially accurately). How intentional Verne’s doubling down on the miracle of science was and how much it was incidental/convenient is up for debate, but the yardstick that no one could have such an enormous popular impact without a degree of Elite approval and endorsement is reasonable; if there are conflicting elements in his works, Verne nevertheless stresses the materialist view of the universe, thus informing the subsequent 150 years of history.

Whether Verne was a member of secret society(ies) seems moot; there’s a book attesting to the esoteric readings of his works, taking in freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, and pointing out Around the World in 80 Days’ Phileas Fogg’s affiliations – The Reform Club. It’s also been noted that editor Hetzel and mentor Dumas were members of La Niebla or Angelica Society. The former was said to be responsible for Verne’s optimistic strand, and also for excising the author’s more overtly political content; Nemo had been a Polish nobleman and victim of the January Uprising of 1863. With such political referencing removed at the behest of a sales-conscious publisher, he becomes East Indian in semi-sequel Mysterious Island.

We may be inclined to read the freemasonic prescriptions of a universal order into such Verne works as Off on a Comet, Around the World in 80 Days (the title alone) and The Purchase of the North Pole (involving a plan to remove the tilt of the Earth’s axis and alter climate). While From the Earth to the Moon and its sequel Around the Moon don’t feature an actual Moon landing, they most definitely vouch for it as a solid (and barren) object. Of course, they also allow for such NASA-defying notions as opening windows and throwing garbage into space. And yet, one might still have cause to ask, was science fiction used as a script for a century-long arc that saw Verne’s Cape Town Florida launch site becoming Cape Canaveral, such that it was invoked by popular actor Neil Armstrong: "A hundred years ago, Jules Verne wrote a book about a voyage to the Moon. His spaceship, Columbia [sic], took off from Florida and landed in the Pacific Ocean after completing a trip to the Moon"?

Other works included: An Antarctic Mystery (featuring an ice sphynx); The Village in the Treetops (Darwinism rubs up against his Roman Catholic scepticism to inconclusive results); The Steam House (a steam-powered, mechanical elephant); The Child of the Cavern (an orphan girl found down a mine; you know, the kind of place Elites keep children); The Survivors of the Chancellor (justifiable cannibalism). A piece in The Independent highlighted the author’s contradictions:

In his writing, Verne is a poet of the machine, of the rational and tangible. His private life was a tapestry of evasions and paradoxes. Verne, the modernist, refused to use the early telephones and cars. Verne, the globalist, scarcely travelled. Verne, the cosmopolitan, was an anti-Semite. Verne, the creator of Phileas Fogg and several other immortal, British, fictional heroes, was, occasionally, vehemently anti-British. Verne, the socialist town councillor of Amiens, once wrote to a friend that he hoped the socialist revolutionaries of the 1870 Paris Commune would be "shot like dogs". Above all, Verne, the scientific visionary, understood little about science.

Tellingly, the article also quotes Jean-Paul Dekiss, director of the Amiens Centre International Jules Verne, who suggested, "Verne was the first modern mythmaker. He was the first writer to try to tell the story of what happens after God is de-throned, what happens when Man begins to fashion his own world, what happens when Man shrinks the globe and re-creates the terms on which he had existed for thousands of years". There is a sense with Nemo – from Latin’s “no one”; he has been paralleled to Odysseus, who wanders the Earth in exile – of one who has been illuminated, yet in so doing turns from the forces that rule the world, cognisant that they bear no goodwill towards humanity. If man has shrunk “the globe”, Nemo is confident of its unfettered expanse, outside of man’s purview. The inverse stretched matters in its account (Verne is stated to be anti-evolution, while his novel isn’t quite so explicit, and Nemo is only Indian after the fact), but this bears noting: “He fears the nascent military industrial complex, is deeply suspicious of colonial states… and believes that innovation is the domain of a sort of self-nominated elite”.

Such a position carries over into the film version, where Nemo very much identifies the surface world as a globalised unit: “I am not what is called a civilised man, Professor. I have done with society for reasons that seem good to me. Therefore, I do not obey its laws”. Nemo doesn’t individualise nations, they’re all of a similar bent overall (at least, the “civilised” ones). Indeed, he states “Here on the ocean floor is the only independence” (which encourages the idea of a one-world state out to get him). Aronnax believes he has the measure of Nemo, who finds it bizarre that Ned should have saved him from the squid (“You cannot tolerate a faith in humanity”), but it’s actually Nemo who is wrong to be beguiled by the professor’s persuasive notions: “You really believe they would lay down their arms and abolish their slave camps?” The professor is naïve and gullible to do so, meaning you’re rather on board with Nemo keeping his scientific advances to himself.

In the Disney version, the marvels of the Nautilus’ Propulsion unit – fuelled by the veritable dynamic power of the universe (Nemo has discovered what mankind has always sought) – were apparently invoking nuclear energy, but it sounds akin to aether until you get to Nemo stating they “could revitalise the world – or destroy it” (this against the novel’s fuel cell battery originally powered by coal burning).

Of course, one might also take Nemo himself as an elite, or the equivalent of a master who will only reveal secrets to lower mortals when such secrets can be responsibly received (“When the world is ready for a new and better life… in God’s good time”). The context rather speaks against this, however, since Nemo’s backstory, whereby “They are the assassins… I am the avenger” takes in how the drylanders “Tortured my wife and young son to death” for his scientific secrets (now, of course, they just steal your patent and administer an accidental demise).

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea also includes such delights as Nemo’s lunch menu – “Briskit of blowfish”; “Milk from a giant sperm whale”; “Sautee of unborn octopus”; “Seaweed cigars” – New Guinea cannibals (“They eat liars with the same enthusiasm that they eat honest men”), and Nemo deafening everyone with his mighty parping. Disney, naturally, flourished a dedicated theme-park experience.

While there have been various TV iterations since (I particularly recall The Return of Captain Nemo with José Ferrer), attempts to undertake a big screen remake have floundered; McG was attached, so was Bryan Singer (you won’t find that mentioned on the Wiki page now). It seemed David Fincher came very close (notoriously choosy, he seems a little bereft when he isn’t predictive programming his audience). James Mangold’s version has given way to a Disney mini-series with Clem Fandango, called Nautilus. I’m sure it will be super woked up. So don’t go expecting a rapey Kirk Douglas, holding in his stomach while waxing lyrical about native girls.



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