Tuesday, 19 February 2008

The Island at the Top of the World (1974)



1974's The Island at the Top of the World starring David Hartman, Donald Sniden, and Mako as the Inuit Oomiak, was part of a mid-late 1970's revival of period films that also included the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations At the Earth's Core, The Land that Time Forgot and its sequel The People that Time Forgot, and it featured a fairly standard "lost world" story where explorers go to the arctic and find a hidden, thermally warmed oasis. This time, however, instead of dinosaurs or Ice Age mammals, the explorers find a lost colony of vikings held over from the age of the great sagas.

Based on Ian Cameron's novel The Lost Ones, this central twist of a preserved Norse culture offers an interesting outing that is never fully capitalized on. While preserved, this culture has also developed uniquely over the past thousand years, and we catch too brief a glimpse at this in setting up the "Man Against Man" portion of the story. Having been isolated in this volcanic valley for a thousand years, the vikings have written their own saga about the rest of the world being an icy wasteland, prophesying that some day barbarians would come and try to invade the valley. It isn't too difficult to figure out who those "barbarians" are. Unfortunately, this glimpse at their culture is relegated to a set-up for the conflict between the explorers and the Norse, fueled by the fervor of the viking shaman in a rather uninspired episode of blaming everything on religious intolerance once again.

The "Man Against Nature" part of the program is primarily reserved for the fantastic airship Hyperion. The token piece of fantastic technology is actually a rather nicely designed hydrogen airship, and easily holds its own alongside other film designs, including Disney's own Nautilus. The Hyperion scenes are among the most stirring of the film: while the special effects leave a lot to be desired, the miniature diorama work with the airship is quite remarkable, offering an incredible vision of arctic wastes and montane peaks.

One thing the movie very consciously attempts to convey is the sense of sheer size. This is as true of the scenes with living actors as it is with those of the Hyperion ship. Everything on the Island is immense, from the mountains and the passes between them to the great temples and the statues inside them built by the vikings. The matte work is quite well done and gives a definite impression of the sublime, which is that greatness of scale that dwarfs the sense of self in comparison to Time, Space, Nature and Divinity. Even some of the most contrived aspects of Island, like the heretofore unknown "Whales Graveyard" (a transparent take off on the myth of the Elephant's Graveyard which motivates, amongst other films, the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man), are infused with this sensibility.

An admirable effort on the part of Disney's stalwart director Robert Stevenson and his writers was to remain true to linguistic and cultural characteristics of the characters involved. The primary example of this are the vikings themselves, none of whom are made to speak English save the one who was actually taught English by a shipwrecked whaler. Nor is the viewer even treated to subtitles, relying instead upon the characters to translate for us, and suffering their same uncertainty when we can read only expressions and body language.

However, not all is credible in Island. In a film that demands the suspension of disbelief when it comes to such fantastic elements as airships and lost colonies of vikings, leave it to the relatively mundane to cause some mental stumbling. In this case, it was the incredibly unrealistic portrayal of the rigors of the arctic. Tales of human survival in the polar regions are quite satisfying on their own, as anyone who has read Jack London or followed the Shackleton Expedition can attest to. The power of nature itself is highly dramatic, as seen in Disney's 1958 True Life Adventure, White Wilderness. But Island circumvents this by treating the arctic like a pleasant winter outing, as characters survive in flimsy winter coats and dive in and out of the North Pole's waters with nary a chilled breath or lost foot.

In any event, The Island at the Top of the World has become a forgotten Disney film, probably of no interest to anyone but fans of Scientific Romances and 20,000 Leagues. It did receive one special accolade however: the French-built Hyperion served the purposes of Disneyland Paris' Jules Verne-themed Discoveryland so well that a full scale model of it acts as the entrance for the Cafè Hyperion eatery.

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