Like other Vernian adaptations before it, 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth was forced to expand a novel about the wonders of deep time into a palatable movie. Without any avenue for social commentary on the Atomic Age, it was left with turning the otherwise somewhat drab vehicle of the Lindenbrook Expedition into a homicidal scientific race. Prof. Lindenbrook did not come about the knowledge and records of Arne Saknussem's theories on his own, but through the device of an Icelandic plumbob encased in Mediterranean volcanic rock. In the process of research, he sent his findings to a Prof. Goetaborg in the hopes of gaining more insight. However, he absconds with it and attempts his own expedition. Goetaborg gets his commupnace when a third party looks to reclaim the family heritage of the Sakmussens. Now Lindenbrook, his assistant Alec, the widow of Goetaborg, and a Icelandic muscleman named Hans are trapped underground with a homicidal maniac, as well as subterranean dangers and gigantic reptiles.
Journey marks James Mason's second round with Jules Verne after Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. He is not the only convention that the film borrowed from its predecessor. Teen hearthrob Pat Boone is on hand to deliver the requisite song numbers and Hans brings a funny animal along with him, in the form of a duck named Gertrude. Whereas Disney took their production on location to the shallow, clear waters of the Bahamas, Journey was shot in parts in the majesty of Carlsbad Caverns. Whether the trick photographed iguanas masquerading as dimetrodons are as convincing as an animatronic squid is a point of continued debate. One cannot help but noting that when Imagineers had to supplement a 20,000 Leagues attraction in their Tokyo resort with a second Vernian adventure, they turned to Journey.
Comparisons are as unavoidable as a movie based on a Jules Verne books starring James Mason and a funny animal makes them. However, Journey stands on its own thematically and qualitatively as an enjoyable film in its own right and one of the pleasures of the genre (perhaps third only to 20,000 Leagues and Michael Todd's Around the World in 80 Days). It is a robust adventure film of the post-war era and a wonderful hymn to scientific enterprise.
What Journey lacks in Atomic kevetching it gains in genuine scientific romanticism, pulling beyond the debates about what to do with scientific knowledge to the roots of scientific wonder. Lindenbrook conveys a palpable joy at the mystery of the Icelandic artifact locked within the igneous rock of an Italian volcano. At the end, the filmmakers show a remarkable appreciation for the Scientific Method when the triumphal Lindenbrook publically proclaims that his testimony is useless without tangible evidence. Ceratinly the murderous intent of rival scientists is a bit far-fetched, but needed to add some cinematic panache. Regardless, it still conducts much electric excitement over the themes of discovery and exploration.