While the most renowned of the adaptations of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney's 1954 film starring James Mason and Kirk Douglas is not the first time the Nautilus sailed onto the silver screen. On the contrary, the first major adaptation of Jules Verne's classic Scientific Romance premiered at Chicago's Studebaker Theatre on October 9th, 1916. The greatest novelty the film had to offer audiences of the time, however, was as "the first submarine photoplay ever filmed."
The process of underwater photography was still a recent invention by Ernest and George Williamson, who created the "Williamson Tube" device and personally supervised the filming of 20,000 Leagues. Being a new technology, the underwater sequences were the standard experimental fare... Rather than pushing themselves to thrill audiences, just being able to see the sea floor was thrill enough and the major underwater sequence is more of a travelogue. From the viewing portal on the Nautilus, the characters watch in amazement as Captain Nemo points out sponges, sharks and barracuda.
While it is easy to be facetious about it now that underwater photography is only a Discovery Channel away, there was a timeless flaw with the filming in 20,000 Leagues: the sequences were filmed in the lagoons of the Bahamas, which, with the technology at hand, didn't look particularly appealing. No doubt many a person watching the film for the first time thought that the ocean bottom was decidedly unattractive. However, recognizing the innovation made and allowing oneself to get caught up in the antiquity more than makes up for it.
The story itself is a combination of Verne's Nemo cycle: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. In fact, it is really more an adaptation of latter than of the former. The main body of the plot is lifted from The Mysterious Island and it is in the context of that where most of the action occurs. This version also explores the origins of Captain Nemo more deeply than later versions, and retains his ambiguously East Indian ethnicity.
Unfortunately though, sacrifices have to be made. There is no giant squid battle in this version, and many of the characters are rendered superfluous... Ned Land and Professor Arronax serve no useful purpose except to introduce us to Nemo. The balloonists of The Mysterious Island serve a bit more of a purpose, but overall there is the sense that everyone on ship and on land are as much spectators of the central drama of Nemo as the people watching the film in nickelodeons.
It is also worth noting that the credibility of this and other early submarine films were helped along by the Great War waging in Europe and on the high seas. Submarine warfare was making headlines almost daily, so the prognostications of Verne were especially relevant at this time, even if 20,000 Leagues discreetly chose not to fully explore the lineage between the Nautilus and the U-Boat.
Nevertheless, 1916's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is still a worthy first entry into adaptations of this classic tale. All adaptations since 1954 have languished in the long shadow cast by that Nautilus, but this early piece of silent film history has emerged to provide an alternative glimpse on the life and times of Captain Nemo.