20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea: An ambitious adventure tale by one of the most creative sci-fi/fantasy writers is adapted to the big screen by the greatest imagineer of all times!

For fans of Jules Verne’s work in the early 50s, seeing this big budget adaptation in color and a big screen format must have been a truly exciting moment. I can only imagine it’s similar to the way fans react at the most recent superhero film adapting a favorite storyline from the comics or the joy of from a beloved modern novel being adapted.

First Impressions

The trailer hits all the high notes and presents itself, like many things Walt Disney did, with splendor. This teaser works as a mini tour of the submarine, pointing out all the elements that readers may remember from the novel, while building the excitement for the film. Audiences are shown all the major players, some very big actors of the time, plus samples of the underwater footage, some of the films humor and even the exciting conclusion, which is a fight with a giant squid.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

The Fiction of The Film

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea opens in true Disney fashion, with the titles being projected on a curtain, that is then drawn up to present “the film.” And in case viewers did not know this was adapted from a book, the book fades in on the screen and the first page of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is shown. It’s 1868 and monster attacks are happening against vessels in the South Seas. Sailing voyages are being cancelled including one taking Professor Pierre Aronnax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) to Saigon. They are offered passage by the US Navy in exchange for their expertise on tracking down this monster.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea title card, projected on a theater curtain.

After four months of searching the South Seas with no luck, the crew of the Farragut finally spots an attack on a shipping vessel. They in turn attack “the monster” and are damaged in retaliation with Prof. Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) falling overboard. They drift into a fog and discover a giant submarine, The Nautilus, which appears to be empty. Aronnax finds a viewport and discovers the crew having a funeral on the ocean floor. Before the trio can escape, the crew returns to the ship. The captain forces the men to the deck as he prepares the vessel to dive, but changes his mind, instead letting them stay aboard, not as guests, but also not as prisoners.

The captain introduces himself as Nemo (James Mason), and shows the men around. He allows them to assist him on a “hunting” expedition to an “island” which is really an underwater area that Nemo and crew use to harvest food from the sea. Aronnax becomes enamored with Nemo, seeing the man’s brilliance, having constructed the submersible and created a power source unknown to man. Ned on the other hand wants to find a way off the infernal machine, and goes out of his way to antagonize Nemo, stealing riches that the crew uses for ballast (as material possessions have no value in the ocean). One evening after a terrible storm, Nemo’s mood becomes melancholy, and he takes to playing an ominous tune on his pipe organ.

The next day Nemo takes Aronnax ashore to the penal colony of Rura Penthe, and shows the professor his origins. Having been a prisoner himself, Nemo explains the slavers force the miners to move matériel for explosives on ships. In a state of fury, Nemo uses The Nautilus to ram the frigate, destroying it and saving the outside world from many more deaths. Aronnax is horrified by what he has witnessed. But Nemo is adamant that he is the hero in this tale. The slavers had tried to get the secret of of his submarine and power source, but he escaped with his crew. In retaliation they murdered his son and wife, and so Nemo takes on a path of vengeance, seeking to cure the world of this particular ill.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in all her glory.

After a second shore leave, where Ned and Conseil are forced to return to the ship pursued by scores of cannibals, the submarine becomes stuck on a reef. Nemo attempts to free the Nautilus before high tide when a warship bears down on them. They are attacked and begin taking on water, sinking below the waves. After fixing the engines enough to resurface, they are attacked by a giant squid. Ned saves Captain Nemo without hesitation, but later regrets his decision, realizing he still wants to escape.

Nemo sets course for his home, Vulcania, but encounters it surrounded by warships, drawn to the coordinates by messages Ned was able to drop from the submarine in bottles. The Nautilus makes its way into the lagoon inside the island. Nemo’s plan is to set off a bomb destroying his secrets. Upon returning to the ship, he is struck by a bullet from the pirates and decides to sink the submarine with all hands. Ned and Aronnax escape their confines and manage to surface the boat, leaving with Conseil, and Esmeralda the seal, in the small launch. Vulcania explodes and The Nautilus sinks below, taking all of Nemo’s secrets with him. Aronnax muses that someday all of Nemo’s technology will come to pass, when the world is ready.

I am not what is called a civilized man, Professor. I have done with society for reasons that seem good to me. Therefore, I do not obey its laws.” – Captain Nemo

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Ned Land, Conseil, and Prof. Pierre Aronnax take in Nemo’s hospitality warily.

History in the Making

A pairing of two creative minds like Jules Verne and Walt Disney comes along very rarely. There have only been a few such pairings like this since 20,000 Leagues, including Arthur C Clarke & Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey), Philip K Dick & Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) and Michael Crichton & Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park). In all cases the writers minds and words describe extremely creative ideas that feed the directors, or in this case the producer, creativity. The director, Richard Fleischer was no stranger to ideas, but as with films by George Pal, Walt Disney tends to overshadow those he works with. Disney’s all around presentation of the film, from the curtain rising at the beginning of the film, to the inclusion of a musical number, or the comedy bits with Esmeralda the seal, all enhance his showman’s attitude.

This was Disney’s fifth live action film, and his most ambitious to date. While the previous films were also adaptations of books, such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or historical figures, like Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue, they did not feature the same scope as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. This was the first film produced under the Walt Disney Pictures banner. And it was also one of the first films to be shot in CinemaScope, a widescreen 35mm format popularized in the early 1950s as a solution to draw audiences away from their televisions and back into theaters.

It’s widely regarded as the best Jules Verne adaptation to date (and possibly since), striking an epic feel. A sequel of sorts would be released in 1961 with The Mysterious Island, which was not produced by Disney, but is adapted from the Verne book of the same name and features the return of Captain Nemo.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Capt. Nemo and his magnificent pipe organ.


Some people may look at this film and say it is not a science fiction film. And while it may seem like a fantasy story, it’s very much in the realm of science fiction. From the standpoint of the time of the events in the film, 1868, the technology is light years ahead of its time, which is the exact basis for science fiction! 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea sets itself as a precursor to the steampunk tales that gained prominence in the mid-80s. At the time of this film, there was no name for this sort of genre. But the works of Jules Verne inspired and provided a basis for the steampunk genre, which is usually defined as modern machines created in a 18th or 19th Century setting using steam and materials common to that age. The Victorian design elements, with bronze plating, large rivets and overt mechanisms standing in for smaller modern electronics, are also a staple of the genre. The 1960 version of The Time Machine also fed into the origins of steampunk, and became a cornerstone film.

The film has a strong adventure theme built into it, with Aronnax’s travels with Nemo being the main thrust of the narrative. It doesn’t have the standard sorts of sci-fi attributes, such as aliens, spacecraft or time travel. But one could see 20,000 Leagues as a sort of alternate history in which 19th Century man was able to fashion a splendid submersible powered by some sort of atomic energy with the tools available at the time. While the power source for The Nautilus is never explicitly stated, the manner in which Nemo and Aronnax view the engine is consistent with a 1950s understanding of nuclear power. The use of wielders glass so as not to damage the eyes when looking into a core which is protected by thick metal. The odd lighting patterns of the gauges in the engine room also suggest a nuclear powered vessel.

And while there are fantastical elements to the story, especially the giant squid, everything in 20,000 Leagues is firmly rooted in reality. It’s just a reality that has adventures with nuclear submarines 100 years earlier than in our reality.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

The crew of The Nautilus harvesting lobsters and other underwater “crops.”

Societal Commentary

While previous films in Sci-Fi Saturdays have dealt with more universal societal themes, 20,000 Leagues focuses more on a personal exploration of one man’s pain. Captain Nemo is as smart, or smarter, that Professor Aronnax, and more familiar with the sea than Ned Land, a typical sailor of the day, but his desire to harm others sets him as an outsider to both these characters. He’s an antihero who ends up doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. This element of the film predates and predicts many other strong sci-fi antiheroes such as Mad Max (The Road Warrior), Rick Deckard (Blade Runner) and Snake Plissken (Escape from New York).

The antihero acts out necessity to themselves and not in any way that is outgoing or potentially beneficial to society. They almost always have a moral code that is separate and antithetical to the moral standards of the time. But when these characters are the protagonists of a piece of fiction, their issues are usually tied into thematic elements in the film. Nemo exhibits all these characteristics and Aronnax finds much conflict in his admiration of the Captain. He is impressed by the man’s superior intellect, but upset at his moral lapses in regards to the killing of frigate crews. Aronnax think Nemo a hypocrite in calling these slavers murderers, when he himself appears to take pleasure in murder as well. Nemo paints himself in a different light, justifying his actions by saying “There are the assassins, the dealers in death. I am the avenger.”

Any sort of commentary on the human condition exists within the film through the Captain Nemo character. Here is an extremely intelligent man that has suffered much, and decided to remove himself from society in order to make his own, better world. His reliance on the ocean for his food, and livelihood, predicts much of the environmental issues that would come to the forefront in the late 60s and 70s. But Nemo is not concerned about saving the planet or the conservation of natural resources as much as he is wanting revenge on the nation that took his family.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Nemo demonstrates the energy source he uses to power his submersible.

The Science in The Fiction

The science that 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is one of technology, but also of biology. This film, backed by Walt Disney features a stunning showcase of aquatic life forms in color, and a widescreen format. The Disney company had been making their True-Life Adventures nature films for a few years having released 9 films by the time 20,000 Leagues debuted. The use of the underwater photography showcasing aquatic life provided a new imagery for the film going public. Underwater photography in feature films was relatively new. The Creature From The Black Lagoon featured some incredible underwater sequences about 10 months before the release of 20,000 Leagues. But unlike Creature, 20,000 Leagues was in color and presented animals in their natural habitat in addition to fictionalized scenes below the ocean.

The film does take liberties with some of the sea life, especially the giant squid. It is shown swimming backwards, flowing tentacles-first towards The Nautilus, when it actually jets tentacles-aft, squirting water through its mantle. Another scientific gaffe deals with the squid attacking the submersible on its ascent from the depths. Nemo makes note that the craft exceeded the limits of survivability by 5,000 feet when attacked by the squid. The Nautilus makes a rapid ascent to the surface, which should have made the giant beast a pile of flopping goo (and potentially given all the sailors the bends) due to the pressure differentials between the surface and the depths. But having that sort of accuracy would not have made for as memorable a sequence.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

The Nautilus sets off after a slaver warship in an act of vengeance.

The technological aspects of the film, with the creation of The Nautilus, and it’s weapons and such is not discussed in detail, but always present in the film. The submarine plowing through the oceans is as much a scientific feat as a spaceship jetting between planets. Both vessels must provide protection to their crew, while conveying them along the journey.

The Final Frontier

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea provides some great moments, in true Disney fashion. Where else can you get so many fun sequences such as Kirk Douglas singing “A Whale of a Tale,” his drunken performance with Esmerelda the seal, the fight with a giant squid, or the destruction of Vulcania with the sinking of The Nautilus. It also influenced many films to come with it’s design and cinematography.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

A giant squid attacks the crew!

The look and functionality of The Nautilus would influence such future works as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a modern film about a nuclear submarine trying to save the world, and also the design for the submarine in Disney’s own Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The influences can be seen in other films with Ned’s escape from the cannibals being echoed in the opening moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Indiana Jones runs from the Hovitos Indians, or in yet another Disney film, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest which has hero Jack Sparrow running from cannibals in a very similar way. Even elements of Disney’s sci-fi film The Black Hole take a cue from this film, including the plot of a derelict ship being found, a crazy captain, and some design elements for the main ship The Cygnus. The slave colony of Rura Penthe was also used as the name of the prison planet in Star Trek IV: The Undiscovered Country, as a tribute to 20,000 Leagues.

The film also influenced the design of several rides at the Disney parks. The “Submarine Voyage” at Disneyland, which opened in 1959, was tangentially influenced by 20,000 Leagues, being a submarine adventure through the underwater ruins and perils. But these subs were modern nuclear vessels. There was a brief walk-thru of Nemo’s Nautilus in the park, featuring the organ room, galley, and other elements from the film between 1955-66. It wasn’t until 1971 when Walt Disney World opened “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage” that Nemo’s submarine was presented in its glory. Euro Disney and Tokyo Disneyland would also have rides dedicated to 20,000 Leagues and Jules Verne.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea continues to showcase Jules Verne and Walt Disney’s unique imagination and outlook on life. While there are some dark themes in the film, the adventurous nature and epic scope keep the film mostly light-hearted and a family friendly film that can be enjoyed by children of all ages.

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