Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962)

Excerpt from Five Weeks in a Balloon.

One of the luminous names of mid-century Science Fiction is Irwin Allen. Renowned as the "Master of Disaster", he directed and produced a number of films and television series that are regarded as classics of a sort, despite not being particularly good: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (a film in 1961 and series from 1964-68), Lost in Space (1965-68), The Time Tunnel (1966-67), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and a modernization of The Lost World (1960). Ever conscious of opportunity, he also brought one of Jules Verne's novels to life in 1962's Five Weeks in a Balloon.

Coming in the wake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and their kin, Five Weeks in a Balloon is calculated to have almost exactly everything required of a Vernian film of the period. Sir Cedric Hardwicke - who enjoyed a cameo in Around the World in 80 Days - plays Professor Ferguson, the Scottish inventor who develops a mode of aerostatic flight that does not require loss of either gasses or ballast. His assistant Jacques is played by the bepompadoured teen idol Fabian, echoing Journey's Pat Boone by singing the catchy but not especially good theme song (a trait inherited from Disney). Comic relief is supplied by both Richard Haydn - instantly recognizable as the voice of the Caterpillar from Disney's Alice in Wonderland - and Red Buttons. Haydn plays the stiff-upper-lipped British prig and Buttons the incompetent, philandering American reporter. Thrown into the comedy team is Peter Lorre, who was in both 20,000 Leagues and Around the World, as a slave trader. The funny animal this time around is a chimpanzee. Romantic interest is provided by two Barbaras: Barbara Luna as a rescued Arabish slave girl and the stunning Barbara Eden as a rescued American missionary.

Resemblance to the original novel is slight. Instead of adventure and exploration for its own sake, this expedition is in the service of the Crown to plant the Union Jack in the unexplored regions of West Africa before slave traders reach it. Should they fail, the bulk of Africa may be lost to these ne'erdowells. A moderately more serious and accurate adaptation was released a year before in the form of Flight of the Lost Balloon. Unfortunately, legal pressure by Allen and Twentieth Century Fox compelled producer/writer/director Nathan Juran to drop any explicit reference to Verne.

The bulk of Five Weeks in a Balloon's action takes place in the forbidden cities of Muslim Africa, in the palaces of Sultans and slave markets of Zanzibar and Timbuktu. Surprisingly not much time is granted to the idea of cross-African exploration. There are montages of giraffe and ostrich, to be sure, but it is not an epic on the scale of Around the World or 1950's King Solomon's Mines, 1964's Zulu, and even 1951's The African Queen. It even lacks the outlandish, matte-painted scenery and air of globetrotting exoticism of Disney's second Verne adaptation In Search of the Castaways, also released in 1962. Undoubtedly this is due in no small part to budgetary constraints allowing for the creation of a single Islamic city set but only stock footage of Victoria Falls.

Nevertheless, despite its limitations and the fact that one can check off a laundry list of tropes, Five Weeks in a Balloon is one of the more enjoyable films of the type. Its not in the echelon of 20,000 Leagues, Around the World, Journey to the Center of the Earth or even Jules Verne's Master of the World, but it is ahead of more humourless films like From the Earth to the Moon and Mysterious Island or too unfunny films like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Great Race. Like most of Irwin Allen's productions, it is an also-ran, but a fun also-ran.

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