Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of an early handful of films based on Jules Verne’s work, focusing on an expedition to the wonders-untold inside our planet.

MGM’s 1959 Cinemascope presentation of Journey to the Center of the Earth turns Jules Verne’s adventure story about an expedition to the core of the planet into a epic spectacle. With a star-studded cast, fantastic sets and production value, this first adaptation of this particular story sets a high bar for future endeavors.

First Impressions

The trailer promises a marvelous adventure through all the elements known to readers of the Jules Verne classic. Journey to the Center of the Earth doesn’t appear to be an easy navigation, but the sights teased in the trailer include: giant mushroom forests, underground oceans, and giant dinosaurs! Narrated by actor James Mason, the film looks to be an amazing journey, that the world of cinema has yet to see, presented in the fantastic Cinemascope!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

The Fiction of The Film

Journey to the Center of the Earth rivals Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in terms of scope and adherence to the source material. The film opens in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1880 at the University of Edinburgh where Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) has just been knighted and is being celebrated by his students. One of his students, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone), presents him with a large piece of volcanic ore. Sir Oliver discovers that hidden inside is a man-made plumb bob that belonged to the Icelandic explorer and scientist, Arne Saknussemm, who had once thought the world hollow.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth title card.

Sir Oliver sends word to his fellow scientist Professor Goetabaug (Ivan Triesault) at the University of Stockholm, and waits weeks for a reply. Alec has been helping Sir Oliver monitor the mail, and assisting him with his research, but mostly it’s an excuse to hang around Oliver’s niece, Jenny (Diane Baker), whom he hopes to propose to shortly. When Alec shows up with word from Stockholm that Goetabaug has gone missing, Oliver immediately realizes that he has gone off into the Icelandic volcano looking for the entrance to the center of the Earth.

Alec and Oliver travel to the volcano, waiting for the precise day when the setting sun will show them the entrance. As the attempt to gather the supplies they need, they are kidnapped by Professor Goetabaug and imprisoned in a barn. They are released by a native man, Hans (Peter Ronson), along with his pet duck Gertrude. During the investigation of the kidnapping, Oliver and Alec find the professor dead at his hotel. They realize he has been poisoned. When Goetabaug’s wife Carla (Arlene Dahl) comes to meet him, Sir Oliver tells her the news of her husband’s demise. She gives him the blessing to continue on the expedition, but insists on coming with them.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Jenny and Alec witness Sir Oliver’s discovery.

Gathering the precise location to enter the volcano, Sir Oliver and Alec, along with Carla and Hans (whom Carla translates for, as he speaks no English), descend into the lava tubes and passageways following marks left by Arne Saknussemm. They are followed by Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), a descendant of Arne’s, and claimant to the discoveries of his ancestor. The team is tricked by the Count into taking the wrong path, but instead discover some amazing jewel-encrusted hot springs. Things seem to be going fine until Alec gets separated from the group, ending up in a salt deposit, where the Count discovers him.

The Count demands that Alec work for him. When Alec refuses, the Count shoots him in the arm. Sir Oliver and company use the echo of the gunshot to reunite with Alec. The decide the Count must be punished for his assault (and previous killing of Prof. Goetabaug), but none of the team can take his life, so they grudgingly allow him to tag along. From there they discover a giant mushroom forest on the shores of a underground ocean. They are attacked by giant dimetrodons, but manage to escape on a raft into the waters.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Sir Oliver discovers the lost city of Atlantis.

Sailing across this vast ocean, they come upon a whirlpool, which Oliver surmises is the exact center of the Earth. Reaching the other side, the adventurers collapse on the beach, exhausted. The Count wanders around looking for food, and realizes that Gertrude would make a fine meal. The rest of the team must hold Hans back from killing the Count for this breach of etiquette. They explore further inland and discover the ruins of the lost kingdom of Atlantis. The Count is killed in a cave-in, but the remaining members find the corpse of Arne Saknussemm pointing to the way out. Avoiding a giant lizard, the quartet uses some black powder to blow open a volcanic vent that shoots them all to the surface, protected by a giant alter bowl made of asbestos. They return to Edinburgh, and are hailed heroes. Sir Oliver, unfortunately, has no proof but he encourages others to continue searching, knowing that the spirit of man cannot be stopped.

This is it, this is it! The junction of magnetic forces from the North Pole to the South Pole – the center of the earth!” – Sir Oliver Lindenbrook

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The grandeur of the volcano in Iceland; the entrance to the Center of the Earth.

History in the Making

Journey to the Center of the Earth was the first, and still the best regarded version of the Jules Verne novel. Originally written in 1864, Verne’s novel became a cornerstone of the “hollow Earth” or subterranean fiction sub-genre. And while this film does not have some of the whimsey that Disney’s 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had, it stands as a worthy continuation of Verne’s adaptations to film.

This was the fifth “modern” adaptation of Verne’s work. Some of his stories, such as 20,000 Leagues or Mysterious Island, had been attempted in the early teens and 20s at the birth of cinema. A 1951 serialized version of Mysterious Island marks the first modern retelling of one of his stories in America, followed by Disney’s 20,000 Leagues, Around the World in 80 Days (1956), From the Earth to the Moon (1958), and then Journey. A non serialized version of Mysterious Island would arrive within 3 years, becoming the premiere adaptation of that story.

Director Henry Levin and producer Charles Brackett, who was also the co-writer, created a rolling epic of a film, worthy of an adaptation of Verne’s work. They filmed on location in Scotland, used parts of Lone Pine, California as the exteriors of the Icelandic volcano, and shot inside Carlsbad Caverns to portray a suitable underground cavern. Still much of their work was on soundstages, but these real world locations, including a local California beach used for the underground ocean, helped create an expansive and beautiful looking film.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The giant mushroom forest under the Earth.


In the previous article on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea I discussed whether Verne’s work can actually be considered science-fiction. To modern audiences, and even audiences of the 1950s, it must seem like such a throwback. The Victorian motif is very strong, and all the scientific elements appear antiquated. But, of course, that is the point. Let’s examine what makes Journey a work of science-fiction.

In 1864 when this story was written, mankind had not yet taken flight, developed an electric light bulb, or taken more than a few steps underneath the Earth’s crust. Yet the authenticity and realism that characters in Journey to the Center of the Earth have in the exploration of a passage into the planet is extremely prescient. Of course, these events were purely speculative to Verne when he wrote the story, but as with many sci-fi tales, many of the ideas became reality.

Journey also continues to delve into, and help define the steampunk sub-genre. Steampunk is usually defined by a Victorian setting with advanced technology created in the fashion of the time, sometime involving steam power. Interestingly enough the 1950s close out with a Victorian sci-fi film, and the 1960s opens with another, The Time Machine. Journey would also inspire numerous film remakes and reinterpretations (at least six as of this writing), plus two television series in the following decades. Obviously a story that can withstand the test of time.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Sir Oliver and Carla have a momentary discussion in the crystal caves.

Societal Commentary

Probably the biggest theme in Journey to the Center of the Earth deals with man’s drive for knowledge. Sir Oliver is presented as a super-academic, caught up in the minutiae of everything. He sees problems and seeks to solve them for the betterment of the species. When presented with the mystery of Arne Saknussemm, Professor Lindenbrook doesn’t question following along the same path. He just packs up his gear and heads for Iceland, ready to see what lies beneath the surface of the Earth.

This drive for knowledge becomes a two-edged sword however as his quest puts him into the sights of a greedy descendant of Saknussemm. If Oliver thinks nothing of himself, and only for the betterment of society, then Count Saknussemm is his exact opposite. He is equally obsessed, but only with finding a treasure, not with discovering some new world, so much so that he kills at least two people, wounds another, and eats a duck! In the end, it’s his own greed that does him in.

A final thematic element of Journey has to do with women, and “their place.” Whether the social mores are derived from the 19th Century or the mid-20th, women are set up as things to be seen and not heard. On one side is Jenny, Sir Oliver’s niece, who plays coquettish games with Alec, waiting for him to propose to her, and is perfectly content to stay at home in the Edinburgh mansion. The other example is Carla Goetabaug who makes plans, travels, and insists to men that she is their equal. Sir Oliver does not take kindly to these challenges to his societal norms. But in the end, after months of traveling with this woman, he acquiesces, seeing her as potential marriage material (and maybe also as a person!) While Carla’s role is to provide some of the standard “lady in distress” moments, she is more attuned to a stronger female role (more common in later decades), than she is as a screaming sex-symbol. Her impetus begins the expedition and keeps it moving even through dire moments showing that a woman’s place in science-fiction film is slowly changing.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

While the dinosaurs are distracted, the adventure party escapes via raft.

The Science in The Fiction

While there’s not much science to packing up rations and descending into underground caves, there are a couple devices that the team bring along that defy science at the time. The first is the Ruhmkorff lamps that Sir Oliver was so keen on getting. These lamps, invented around the same time as the release of this book, were an analog to modern fluorescent lamps; basically a battery powered lamp. The film makes them seem like they’re much more powerful than the actually were. Verne obviously was captivated by the possibilities of a portable, electric lantern, and created an advanced version of already existing technology.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Count Saknussemm is finally confronted by Sir Oliver, after shooting Alec and killing Carla’s husband.

The second device that doesn’t seem to have any relationship to actual technology is Sir Oliver’s echo locator. After Alec becomes separated from the group, and gets shot by by Count Saknussemm, the remainder of the party hear what sounds like dozens of gunshots. Sir Oliver realizes it’s only one single shot, echoing around the vast chambers. He pulls out a small device that can “listen” for the final echo, and indicate the direction it came from. Of course, this works like a charm and Sir Oliver and the rest of the expedition locate Alec quickly.

From there any potential of science goes out the window and into the realm of fantasy. The team finds a giant underground mushroom forest, giant dinosaurs and an underground ocean at the center of the world. Obviously such things weren’t known in the mid-19th Century when the story was written. Only later would scientists uncover the structures of the planet, with its layers of rock and its molten core. But as far as an adventure story goes, what a fantastic premise that one could find such amazing things within our own planet.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Sir Oliver runs from a runaway boulder.

The Final Frontier

Much like the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues, MGM wanted to make this a family friendly film. Having cast Pat Boone, who was a popular, young musical star in a similar vein as Elvis, necessitated giving him a couple songs to sing. He performs two songs, “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” and “My Heart’s In The Highlands”, which don’t seem too out of place for the tone of the film. It also seems as if the producers were trying to increase the potential of Boone being a sex symbol, as there are several scenes where he removes his shirt, including the end of the film, where all of his clothes are blasted off of him, and he needs to use a sheep to protect his modesty.

The Influences of Journey on other sci-fi films and stories is very strong. Besides the other adaptations of the film discussed earlier any film depicting Mole Men, subterranean dwellers or the city of Atlantis owe some debt to the Jules Verne story. Disney’s cartoon Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) has the heroes exploring through underground caves before discovering the lost continent itself. One scene in this film that may have potentially influenced other filmmakers is Sir Oliver being chased by a large boulder, dislodged by an earthquake. It appears very reminiscent of the boulder scene with Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raider of the Lost Ark (1981).

Journey to the Center of the Earth

After losing his clothes, Alec covers himself with a sheep to protect his…modesty.

Jules Verne will continue to be an influence on film as Sci-Fi Saturdays proceeds into the 1960s. Whether it’s direct adaptations of his work or influences of the Victorian setting, the mythology and style of adventure that he created continues on.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Retrospective: The 50s

While Sci-Fi Saturdays has only sampled a small portion of films through the decade, only 22 notable movies, there was a huge explosion of science-fiction films happening. By my research there were approximately 184 sci-fi films during the decade, between 1950 and 1959. Most of these came from America, but other countries showed that they had stories to tell as well, including Japan, Germany and England. But that was not all that was going on.

Film does not live in a vacuum. There were also books, short stories, magazines, and comics being developed over the decade that advanced science-fiction so much more than film. Many notable sci-fi authors got their start during this decade or wrote their best work during the 50s, that the mind boggles at the output. Some of these stories would be adapted to film but not for 40-50 years, or more.

Some of the key players and stories to come out of the 50s include: Isaac Asimov releasing both I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in 1950; Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, and John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids in 1951; Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment in 1953; and Heinlein’s Starship Troopers in 1959. Other writers developing their craft during this time include AE van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip Jose Farmer.

These stories, as with the early films of the decade, focused on newfound optimism and hope, post-World War II, as well as exploration into unknown arenas. Slowly that hope was replaced by paranoia and apocalyptic visions (as seen in the works of Vonnegut and Walter Miller, Jr.) plus satirical stories also emerged, like Gore Vidal’s Messiah and Live from Golgotha. Mass market paperbacks, also known as pulps, grew immeasurably for large publishers like Ace, Ballentine and Doubleday, while smaller imprints attempted to keep up.

Prior to 1950 Astounding Science-Fiction magazine and Amazing Science-Fiction – founded in the 20s as Amazing Stories, were the primary source for new sci-fi tales. Astounding was the leader in the field, but lost some of its market share due to release of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction in 1950. By 1960 Astounding would change its name to Analog Science Fiction and Fact to set itself apart from the field. Additionally comic book publishers such as Atlas Comics (a precursor to Marvel Comics) and DC Comics began putting out more sci-fi related titles, such as Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish, Space Adventures, and Mystery in Space.

The sheer amount of written content, which always seemed to be at least two to three decades ahead of cinema, offered up new ideas and technology to the public. The readers of this decades sci-fi stories and the viewers of the sci-fi films of the time would grow up to be the leaders in real science and the creators of new realms of science-fiction in the future. Mankind, and especially Americans were at the forefront of a new era, readying themselves for the next great leap into the future.

Coming Next Week

The Time Machine

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. Accept Privacy Policy