Wednesday 30 March 2022

The Mysterious Island: The Original Silent Film

At the end of what is unarguably his most famous novel, Jules Verne sent his tortured mariner Captain Nemo to an apparent death in a mighty maelstrom. The tempest echoed the tempest in Nemo's own soul, but it left behind the question of what might have happened to him after that. Did he survive? How? And what was his story? Why did this mad genius declare war on war, and who was he that he could afford so extravagant a machine of vengeance as the Nautilus?

The answer came a few years later in The Mysterious Island. The story begins much like the Robinson Crusoe type of story does, with a group of Union soldiers and their Confederate prisoner who escaped from a Confederate POW camp via aerostat, only to be blown out to the Pacific and washed ashore on the titular volcanic spit of land, south of French Polynesia and East of New Zealand. While enjoying their tropical getaway, an anonymous observer constantly supplies the Crusoes with the necessaries of survival. Eventually this benefactor is revealed to be Captain Nemo, who survived the maelstrom and has lived out his remaining years in a secret lair beneath the island. 

The novel's first adaptation to film came in 1916's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Though under the title of its predecessor novel, this film fused the two together. The sequences from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea imparted some good action scenes and made use of the still-new technique of underwater photography. The sequences from The Mysterious Island provided the dramatic gravitas. After The Great War, the works of Jules Verne unfortunately fell into some disrepute. 

Verne had always suffered from poor English translations that excised much of his literary and dramatic achievement in favour of two-fisted adventure and technological innovation that would be most appealing to children. By the end of WWI, most of Verne's predictions came true and his work gathered the reputation of simply being outdated... The simple artifacts of grandfather's simpler times. That reputation, despite being consistently overturned in academia since the Sixties and Seventies, still holds a lot of sway, as when Science Fiction author Robert J. Sawyer accused Verne languishing in obscurity because "nothing is less interesting than old technology" (supposedly).  

Consequently, the majority of Verne's books to be adapted to film between the two World Wars were his spy thrillers. The most popular of these was Michael Strogoff: The Courier of the Czar, adapted no less than six times between 1914 and 1943. Luckily for Verne, his body of work was diverse enough to lend itself to non-Science Fiction films. Only 20 of his 84 novels and short stories involved any kind of technological speculation. Verne supplied a wanting, literate public with pedagogical adventure in the far-flung locales of the world, whether the wastes of Siberia or the deeps of the ocean.

There is one outlier to this tendency towards adapting the French author's spy novels: The Mysterious Island, released by MGM in 1929. Whereas Verne was not an author of Science Fiction as we think of it, that genre was becoming established by the late Twenties. There is no bigger example than Fritz Lang's masterpiece Metropolis, released in 1927. He followed that up in 1929 with Frau im Mond ("Woman in the Moon"). Tolstoy's 1923 Science Fiction novel Aelita, or the Decline of Mars was adapted in 1924. More poignantly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 dinosaur adventure story The Lost World was adapted to film in 1925. There was a distinct possibility that Verne could be rehabilitated as a source for Sci-Fi stories in the age of Art Deco and Radium.

Fitting it into that genre was another feat which renders the use of Verne's title somewhat moot. In this version, Count Andre Dakkar (played by Lionel 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 off the coast of the fictional Eastern European nation of Hetvia is a worker's paradise without class distinctions... So much so that Dakkar's sister, Countess Sonia (Jaqueline Gadsden, billed as Jane Daly), and the engineer Nicolai (Lloyd "Lost World" Hughes) carry on a love affair. None of this sits well with the duplicitous Baron Falon (Montagu Love, who played opposite John Barrymore in Don Juan), who wants the submarines as weapons of war and the Countess as his aristocratic 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 mer-men that occupy the dark and the cold of 20,000 fathoms. 

With the only connections to the original novel being the name of Dakkar and the fact that submarines are in it, one wonders why they bothered to call it The Mysterious Island at all. There must have been some mental loops in the decision to ascribe the name of Verne to it for marketing purposes when that name did not carry a whole lot of weight at that time. Inspiration is also taken liberally from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and I would imagine that the proliferation of Michael Strogoffs had some influence on the decision to set the story in Eastern Europe and dress the cast in generically Russian clothing. An influential Franco-German production of Michael Strogoff, starring Ivan Mosjoukine, had been released only 3 years before.

There is an underlying theme of Old World, European aristocracy versus New World, American egalitarianism, and the use of technology for scientific discovery or for war, and those sorts of things. Nothing is really said or developed about them. They're just there. Lots of rousing action happens, especially when the Hussars under Falon commandeer the island, suppressing the workers while lying in wait for the first of the two submarines to surface from its first test run. The special effects are quite good for the time, and shine when the two submarines find themselves trapped in the underwater chasms belonging to the ancient lost race of marine men. When one of the submarines begins to flood, as submarines in submarine films are wont to do, effects deftly handle the tragedy. The costumes of the mer-men are a bit silly, but that's par for the course.

What is of particular note is that, just as the 1916 20,000 Leagues was an early experiment in underwater photography, Mysterious Island is an early experiment in sound. 

The advent of Talkies pushed back the completion of the film by several years. Production began in 1926 under the direction of Maurice Tourneur and Benjamin "Witchcraft Through the Ages" Christensen, but after Al Jolson started singing, many silent films were shelved or retooled. Tourneur walked off the set after a dispute with the producers, giving Lucien Hubbard the sole director credit. The entire film had been shot in expensive 2-strip Technicolor (with the coloured print only recently being rediscovered and restored), and then a trio of sound sequences were tacked on to the largely silent film. While it could have been a pointless novelty, Hubbard used sound to great advantage. The first of the sound sequences is right at the beginning: after a short, silent prologue establishing the setting, there is the astonishment of Barrymore and Love talking... Talking!! In the process of wowing audiences with their own voices (thankfully they both had good voices for cinema, unlike many silent era stars), they also got to knock out a good chunk of cumbersome exposition. The next two sequences are ingenious. While on its first test run, Dakkar surprises Falon with a device that allows them to communicate wirelessly with the submarine. They do, to the actual sound of Lloyd Hughes' voice. Later, when all Hell has broken loose, the submarine is lured into a trap by use of the same radio. 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.

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. No specific date for The Mysterious Island is given, but it is clearly meant to take place before the proliferation of either submarines or radio. This would place it before the early 1900's, as modern submarines had come into their own in the first decade and were employed to devastating effect in WWI (providing a bit of the subtext for Dakkar's reluctance to see his ships used for violence). Radio was already a significant mass medium by the Twenties. Whenever it takes place, it was clearly not modernized in the same way that The Lost World was. While set in the Victorian Era, much of The Mysterious Island resembles the sleekness of Science Fiction in the Twenties and early Thirties. Nevertheless, Rod Bennett, in his survey Voyages Extraordinaires on Film, argued that it was the first to deliberately set itself in that era:
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.
Unfortunately that gamble did not pay off for them the way it did for Walt Disney some 25 years later, when his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a smash hit that provoked a rash of adaptations from Verne and other 19th century authors. It cost a staggering $1 million to produce (equivalent to $14 million today) and only earned back $55,000. To the minds of Hollywood, this only proved how outdated Verne was and even cast a pall over Science Fiction as a genre for a few years. The USSR would try their own version in 1941, Hollywood gave it a go in a 1951 serial that featured an invading army from the planet Mercury, and it finally got its due in 1961's epic effects film by Ray Harryhausen.

The Mysterious Island, while far removed from Jules Verne, is at least worth seeing as a unique window in the development of motion picture arts and sciences. Without further ado, the complete 1929 adaptation of The Mysterious Island...

Wednesday 16 March 2022

Tokyo DisneySea's Mysterious Island

The Tokyo Disney Resort opened its second theme park in 2001 to great fanfare. Dubbed "Tokyo DisneySea", it quickly overtook its older sibling Tokyo Disneyland in public esteem. The park is widely heralded as one of the most artistically and technologically sophisticated theme parks in the world, virtually without equal.

Rather than the "lands" one finds in other Disney parks, Tokyo DisneySea has "ports". One of these ports is a dream come true for fans of Jules Verne and Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances: Mysterious Island. For American parkgoers more accustomed to the avaricious lusting after hip, current franchise material, basing an entire area off of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might come as a surprise. When the park opened, the film was close to 50 years old. The book it was based on was almost a century older still. Yet it was a natural fit for a park based on the oceans and a testament to what Disney's Imagineers can accomplish when left unfettered by mercantile demands. Mysterious Island and its attractions are a testament to the legacy of Disney's creative history and the power of well-done rides with well-told stories to succeed even when their source material is "outdated."

The story behind Mysterious Island begins when one enters the park. In place of a Victorian main street, guests to Tokyo DisneySea pass through Mediterranean Harbor, an ode to the Renaissance "Age of Exploration." Across the harbour is a grand castello called Fortress Explorations, home to the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A., as in DisneySEA). Towering above Fortress Explorations is Mount Prometheus, a fiery and explosive volcano. 

The approach to Mount Prometheus is littered with the crumbling remains of an ancient Greek-style city. At first these remains may seem an innocuous bit of placemaking by Disney's Imagineers. Their significance becomes more apparent in a mural within the bowels of Fortress Explorations.

The mural in Fortress Explorations is not only an optical
illusion, but an important part of the park's story.

Departing the castle, guests pass through the caverns of Mount Prometheus (and several centuries in the process) to enter the bubbling, roiling caldera of the volcano. In this harsh and forbidding environment, we discover the home of Captain Nemo and his wondrous submersible, the Nautilus.

Seen very briefly in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, in the few minutes before it was raided by the surface world's armies and subsequently consumed in a nuclear explosion, Mysterious Island recreates Vulcania in the "alternate history" of 1872 (some three years after the date given in the film for Vulcania's destruction and Nemo's death). Taking its name from the Verne book of the same name, this Mysterious Island is ruled over by the kinder, gentler, and apparently much more alive Nemo.

One of the most compelling things about Tokyo DisneySea is the park's overarching theme. Rather than being driven by situations of violence and conflict, DisneySea's narratives are driven by themes of adventure and exploration. Elsewhere in the park, one can join Sindbad's Storybook Adventure, help out Indiana Jones, or join the various exploits of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. In keeping with this theme, Captain Nemo has been rehabilitated into an enigmatic and eccentric scientist single-mindedly devoted to discovery.

In some ways, probably unintentionally, this mirrors the arc of the character in Verne's own writings. As Mike Perschon observes of the novel Mysterious Island:
At the close of 20,000 Leagues, Aronnax wonders at the fate of the Nautilus and its Captain, with the hope that "the dispenser of justice will die, and that the man of science will … continue his peaceful studies of the seas" (388). Unbeknownst to Aronnax and Verne's contemporary readers alike, the dispenser of justice had died, while the man of science survived, abandoning his quest for revenge and retreating to Lincoln Island in self-exile. Here, he is "no longer…unreconciled to God and man" (Mickel 496). Nemo's benevolence toward Cyrus Smith and his castaway companions is evidence of a "man at peace with himself, one who has overcome the inner hatred which consumed him" (496).
Though Walt Disney gave Nemo the unequivocal death denied him by Verne, the company to bear Disney's name has given the mariner his chance at healing and redemption. To further his cause, Nemo has thrown open the doors of Mysterious Island and invited the peoples of the world to explore the ocean depths and centre of the earth along with him.

Therein, Nemo has provided the best in amenities. Handy signboards point out the various marvelous sights of Mysterious Island, like the volcanic Mount Prometheus and the Nautilus at berth. Of the former, the sign declares that:
The powerful forces of nature that created this island are still active beneath our feet. It is my quest to harness that power and utilize it for the future of mankind.
And of the latter:
Behold the Nautilus -- Perhaps my greatest creation! It is the world's first and only self-contained and powered submersible boat.

He has also opened up two eateries. The foremost is the Vulcania Restaurant, which serves serviceable Chinese food. Like the rest of the park, this restaurant is impeccably themed, in this case to the base's power plant. The other is the counter-service Nautilus Galley. Of the restaurant, the signage reveals:
Heated steam from deep within the Earth's core rises to the surface under great pressure. It provides an infinite source of energy that powers this entire island. It is even used to cook the food we eat.

Recognizing his visitor's desire for souvenirs, Nemo has also constructed Nautilus Gifts. Unfortunately, the gift shops in the Tokyo Disney Resort have bitten the same bullet as those in the United States. Nearly all the shoppes sell the same goods, which in Japan are an even more constrained collection of sweets and frumpy hats. Once upon a time, Nautilus Gifts had a vast array of statues and goods bedecked with the Nautilus. Nowadays the selection is much poorer: toys cars of the ride vehicles, park soundtracks, and pins of Mickey and Minnie in crew uniforms.

The pressed penny contraption inside Nautilus Gifts.

Even the water fountains are in Nemo's industrial style! 

But the main attractions are, of course, the big attractions: Journey and 20,000 Leagues. Together, they are perhaps the two finest examples of Imagineering in the world. 

On the signage throughout Mysterious Island, Nemo himself outlines the mission of the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction:
The sea has many secrets and much to teach us. I have devised a fleet of submarine boats to expedite my exploration of the sea's bounty.
One such sub-pod can been seen hanging from the chains of 20,000 Leagues' spiraling outdoor queue.

Beneath the surface, the entrance to the sub-pod bay winds past Captain Nemo's private offices and the diving suit staging area. Though evidently savvy to the Japanese language, a self-portrait in his office indicates that this is none other than the original Nemo from the film, portrayed by James Mason.

The line eventually brings you to the sub-pod bay, where you load into your boat and are dropped into the briny depths. At this point, Tokyo's 20,000 Leagues resembles those that have come before. Aboard your craft you visit the underwater farms, ship's graveyard and have a fateful meeting with a giant squid. One unique feature of the attraction is that searchlights periodically turn on that can be controlled by the joystick in front of your seat. With them you can focus your gaze on the funny and frightening fish of the various settings. After electrocuting your way out of the squid's grasp, you once again sink to depths beyond which man has not travelled.

Sure enough, the remains of Atlantis are to be found there. Here we finally complete the mystery of the Greek ruins flanking Mount Prometheus and the Fortress Explorations painting depicting the city's destruction. Then this 20,000 Leagues takes a turn into the weird, for something else lives in Atlantis now. Training your searchlight on the frescoes, you see the story of Atlantis' abandonment and occupation by a new species that may, in fact, be from beyond the stars.

Narrowly escaping a bizarre threat, your sub-pod returns to the dock and you make your way to exit. Waiting for you there is a friendly word from Captain Nemo's corporate sponsor:

20,000 Leagues is a dry-for-wet attraction much along the same lines as Peter Pan's Flight. The submarine pod suspends from a wire monorail and the water effects are all self-contained within the vehicle's bubble windows. The effect, however, is quite convincing. It also bears another, more subtle similarity, in that 20,000 Leagues is more an heir to the Fantasyland darkride in its mechanics than to previous 20,000 Leagues rides. As the pod swims through blacklit sets, your searchlight scopes out fluorescent fish sculpted in a cartoonish, often comedic style. For example, in the ship's graveyard, Venus statues are given back their arms and heads by the careful positioning of a comic eel. Several fish find themselves adorned with pirate hats. The... somethings... that now occupy Atlantis also have a cartoon style that almost seem to transpose 20,000 Leagues onto the medium of animation.

To overcome the language barrier of the ride's narration, Tokyo Disney publishes "story papers" for many attractions. "Story papers" are free slips of good stock paper printed in a selection of languages and with excellent graphics that tell the premise of the ride for the non-Japanese portion of the audience. Most attractions in Tokyo Disneysea have a story paper that is readily available for the asking (usually at the ride loading area) and they make fantastic mementos that really ought to be common at every park. The following is the story paper for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (click to enlarge):


To fill out the menu of attractions in Tokyo Disneysea's Mysterious Island, Imagineers turned to the other works of Jules Verne for inspiration. I do not doubt that it would have been fascinating to be a fly on the wall of those meetings, hearing the debate and brainstorming over whether to have Captain Nemo take visitors on a journey Around the World in 80 Days or to have him become a Master of the World like he was a master of the sea. Maybe they would take a queue from Disneyland Paris and have a new invention take them From the Earth to the Moon?

The winning entry was Journey to the Center of the Earth, which in Disney's hands was given a heavy technological make-over. This is Captain Nemo's journey, after all. As he outlines in the signage leading up to the ride:
My first exploration of this volcano and the mysteries at the center of the Earth began with my creation of this amazing drilling device. It opened the door to the unexplored forces beneath the Earth - forces that can move the Earth... or destroy it.
Far from Lidenbrock's meager expedition, Nemo's excavation of the centre of the earth is a full-fledged scientific endeavor. Throughout the first part of the queue are laboratories filled over with crystals, rock samples and organic life culled from the dark depths. The careful observer - with lots of time on their hands - can even find foreshadowing clues to the ride's climax under the microscope and recorded in sketchbooks.

Adorning the walls of the queue's carved cavern are paintings reflecting the key moments of Nemo's explorations, echoing those of the original novel. 

At the end of this first queue is the Terravator, an elevator that takes visitors thousands of feet into the earth. Once there, you disembark and line up along catwalks that circle drilling machines and bottomless pits before loading into your exploration vehicles.

Then you're off, descending into the interior of the earth. Much of the ride is akin to the darkride format of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You pass through blacklit scenes from the book populated by almost cartoonish characters. The crystal caverns wow you, the giant mushroom forest is populated by strange glowing creatures unknown to science, and the underground ocean takes your breath away.

But things go wrong as they are wont to do. A cave in prevents your vehicle from going down the safe route carved by the drilling machines, diverting you into unexplored caverns. Grotesque egg-sacs hang from the ceiling and rumbling behind the walls tells you that something is chasing you. Then you burst onto a lava pit in which a horrifying, unknown beast swims. Avoiding it hungry lunge at you, the vehicle speeds off, up and up, spiralling through the tunnels at a rapid clip until you burst out of the side of Mount Prometheus. After going weightless for a thrilling moment, the vehicle careens to the unloading area where, once again, Nemo's corporate sponsor gives you a word of wisdom.

Also like 20,000 Leagues and countless other attractions at Tokyo Disneysea, Journey to the Center of the Earth has its own story paper (click to enlarge):


Mysterious Island is, without doubt or parallel, the fullest expression of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea's influence on the Disney parks. It would certainly have been amazing to have seen the original attraction at Disneyland, 50 years ago, which housed the original set pieces from the film. Walt Disney World's submarine ride is long since gone and Disneyland Paris' follows the Disneyland model of a walkthrough of Nemo's amazing craft. While such a walkthrough would be very welcome at Disneysea, the visitor still enjoys a chance to immersively enter the whole world of Captain Nemo and Jules Verne on an incredible scale. Mysterious Island is the height of Imagineering.