Thursday, 26 March 2009

The Mysterious Island (1929)

An excerpt from Mysterious Island (1929).

Though it served as the primary story inspiration for 1916's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea silent film, The Mysterious Island was itself made into a proper movie in 1929 as an early sound experiment starring Lionel Barrymore and The Lost World's Lloyd Hughes. Ironically, however, 20,000 Leagues was a far truer adaptation than this venture.

In this 1929 rendition, Count Drakkar (Barrymore) has created a fleet of two submersible craft to explore the depths of the ocean, where he is sure there exists a form of aquatic man. His volcanic island is a worker's paradise where there exists no class distinctions... So much so that Drakkar's sister, Countess Sonia, and the engineer Nicolai (Hughes) carry on a love affair. None of this sits well with the duplicitous Baron Falon, who wants the submarines as weapons of war and the Countess - who deserves better than a classless engineer - as his bride. What ensues is a submersible chase to the bottom of the sea and back again, where they encounter sunken wrecks, giant octopi, and strange man-creatures that occupy the dark and the cold of 20,000 fathoms. Finally, Drakkar must make the choice to destroy his own creation rather than let it fall into the hands of world's warmongers, who have no desire to create the utopia he has made on his Mysterious Island.

All in all, the film is serviceable. It isn't bad as an silent-era b-grade film, but it by no means stands out as a classic in the genre. What it is notable for, however, is that just as the 1916 20,000 Leagues was an early experiment in underwater photography, Mysterious Island is an early experiment in sound film making.

There are two sound sequences in the movie. The first is right at the beginning, when Drakkar is explaining his submarines and theories about an undersea race to his then-friend Falon. Here, the sequence is quite satisfactory and well-used, since this setting would involve many title screens. After this the film reverts back to silence for much of the duration. Originally filmed as a silent picture, the sound sequences were added in after the fact to bolster it against the burgeoning application of sound and provide some novelty in a merely serviceable film. The second sequence comes when the characters radio from the submarine to the island, providing a double-astonishment. The communication system is pushed within the film as a wonder of technology, and the theme is driven home by playing the scene out in a wonder of real-life film making technology.

Where The Mysterious Island is also notable is that it is sometimes cited as the beginning of the modern age of Scientific Romances in film. Though Victorian and Edwardian adventure stories were often appealed to by the fledgling cinema industry, many of these either were timed just right to be included in that era - like Georges Méliès' Trip to the Moon and the aforementioned 20,000 Leagues - or were placed conspicuously in the date of release, like 1925's The Lost World. The Mysterious Island was the first to deliberately set itself in that era, though directly on the cusp of sound. Rod Bennett in his survey Voyages Extraordinaires on Film says of it,
Verne’s novels had been speculative when they first appeared, and many of them remained so for nearly a century. They were adventure stories, yes—but built almost entirely around elaborate prophecies of future technology. When those prophecies were fulfilled (as they were in the case of books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days) Verne’s novels didn’t seem futuristic anymore, or even quaint as they do to us today, but simply dated… hopelessly dated, and about as dated as any book could ever hope to be. Some of them languished in this condition for over 40 years—just old-fashioned Victorian curios, brick-a-brack on the shelves of literature’s antique store. But by the mid-1920s these books were passing into a new phase, a state of being wherein the very datedness itself had acquired a fascination. And this was the genius of the stroke: I think we can say with confidence that the producers of The Mysterious Island were the first filmmakers in history who’d ever dared, with a breathtaking flash of invention, NOT to update a hopelessly out-of-date book. They took Jules Verne’s daring predictions about the day-after-tomorrow and turned them into something else entirely—into a huge, elaborate alternate universe story. They created a 19th century of the imagination, where British Imperialists reached the Moon 75 years before Neil Armstrong, and electric submarines prowled the deep while Buffalo Bill was still prowling the West.

The Mysterious Island, while far removed from Jules Verne and from classic film making, is worth seeing more as a unique window in the development of motion picture arts and sciences.


C.K. Dexter Haven said...


Don't know if you like film music, but Film Score Monthly recently announced the release of the soundtrack to Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969). It's a limited edition CD release of 1500 copies. Here's the link (with audio samples):

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the notice. A great place to post things like this is the VEx e-mail group at Check it out!