Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is both an homage to Jules Verne, as well as an update of his ideas, all while paving the way forward in the sci-fi genre.

In a decade marked by exploration and scientific advancements, Irwin Allen’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea reinvigorates old ideas and introduces new topics into the realm of science-fiction. The film also makes use of natural disasters to move the plot forward, as well as tussling with the age old questions regarding science vs faith.

First Impressions

Seven years after the release of 20,000 Leagues, the trailer for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea invokes the spirit of that film, and Jules Verne immensely. Set in modern times, an “atom powered” submarine must travel around the planet, avoiding undersea landslides, minefields, and a giant squid, in order to save the planet. The trailer, while showing many fascinating sights from the film, also invokes a popular phrase from the time, “You are there!” This phrase is based on the popular Walter Cronkite TV program, which ran from 1953-72, that would re-create important historical moments for the audience. This aspect of the trailer seems very kitschy by today’s standards.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

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The Fiction of The Film

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea opens on board the USOS Seaview, Admiral Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) is welcoming his guests for their maiden voyage, Vice Admiral BJ Crawford (John Litel), Congressman Llewellyn Parker (Howard McNear) and Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine). They receive a tour of the submarine from Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling). The crew is in preparation for a 96 hour test run of this new atomic submarine under the North Pole’s ice cap. Partway through the exercise, the ship surfaces due to an “iceberg avalanche,” which is caused by a bizarre phenomenon. The Van Allen radiation belt has caught on fire due to meteor activity, and has raised the temperature of the Earth to 135° and climbing.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea title card.

On their way out of the Arctic, the crew picks up a lone survivor of a research crew on an ice floe, Miguel Alvarez (Michael Ansara). The Admiral calls off any further search as the Seaview must get to the United Nations in New York City as soon as possible. Admiral Nelson and Commander Lucius Emery (Peter Lorre) have come up with a plan to stop the deadly blaze in the atmosphere. Upon arriving at the United Nations, they present their idea but Dr. Zucco (Henry Daniell) disagrees on the plan, favoring a wait-and-see attitude. Admiral Nelson knows they cannot wait and leaves New York, making all possible haste to the Marianas Trench in the South Pacific, near Guam.

With only a dozen days to make the needed location, Nelson orders a communication blackout so the men are not distracted by the news of disasters around the globe. Captain Crane disagrees strenuously with the Admiral’s plans, reminding him they don’t have Presidential authorization for his plan, which includes firing a missile into the radiation belt to snuff out the fire. Some scientists believe that a blast such as this would actually ignite the globe instead. Lt Cathy Conners (Barbara Eden), who is engaged to the Captain, but also the Admiral’s secretary, tries to convince Crane that the Admiral knows what he’s doing.

The crew begins to get agitated by the high-pressure situation, and the lack of news. Since the flaming skies have made radio contact near impossible, the Admiral decides to tap into the trans-Atlantic cable connecting Rio de Janeiro and London in order to get in touch with Washington DC. The Captain, Alvarez, Lieutenant Danny Romano (Frankie Avalon), and a fourth diver all go EVA to find the cable, when Crane is attacked by a giant squid. Alvarez saves him, and they are able to tap the cable. Unfortunately London hasn’t been able to raise Washington for hours, and so the Seaview moves on.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Dr. Hiller, Congressman Parker, and Vice Adm. Crawford are given the grand tour by Adm. Nelson and Capt. Crane.

After resuming course, the generator is knocked out by a saboteur, crippling the sonar and radar. All signs point towards Alvarez, who has been preaching to the crew about God’s will, and fatalism. Without sonar, the ship encounters an unexpected minefield, and two crewmembers are needed to go out in the mini-sub to untangle a mine cable from the ship. They succeed but set off a mine in the process killing both of them. Crane continues to question the Admiral’s plan, which now includes the deaths of two crewmembers.

Suspicions get higher and a number of officers ask to leave when the Seaview encounters a derelict fishing vessel. The Admiral agrees, hoping the saboteur is just a disgruntled officer. Crane decides to remove the Admiral from command after he strikes Lt. Romano in an argument. But the process is halted when a US Submarine finds them and begins firing torpedoes to prevent the Seaview from launching her missile. The Seaview evades the sub, gets attacked briefly by a giant octopus, and manages to surface, where Dr. Hiller is revealed as the saboteur. She believes in Dr. Zucco and has now sabotaged the nuclear reactor, dosing herself fatally. The Admiral still has time to fire the missile, but before that happens Alvarez grabs a grenade and forces the crew to wait out the timer, missing their launch window. Captain Crane heads outside, and manually launches the missile in time, which snuffs out the fire, saving the entire world!

It bears out what you taught us at Annapolis: that ‘The wild dreams of today are the practical realities of tomorrow.’” – Captain Crane, referring to Admiral Nelson

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Capt. Crane reprimands Lt. Romano and Lt. Connors.

History in the Making

Welcome to the first film by Irwin Allen to be covered on Sci Fi Saturdays. While Allen would be a name associated with science-fiction and disaster films throughout his career, this was one of only a small handful of films he directed, and his only sci-fi film. After directing this film, he would end up producing a series based on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea on television between 1964-1968. His biggest active time for his sci-fi television series’ was the mid to late 60’s with Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, and The Time Tunnel. The 1970s would see Allen return to film producing epic disaster films such as The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Much like George Pal, his visionary aspect to his producing provides a clear tone to all of his films and TV shows, regardless of the director.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea also does something else in the early years of the 1960s. Coming out the 1950s with some of the biggest and most popular films being either literary adaptations or horror hybrids, this film firmly brings science-fiction back to a modern setting. The Time Machine brought a new style to sci-fi, adapting the HG Wells book, while Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea took the most current and cutting edge technology in underwater exploration and used it as a means to save the world. In fact many elements from this 1961 film are still used today in modern disaster films.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

An avalanche of icebergs catches the crew of the Seaview off guard.


This film has almost everything in it besides the kitchen sink, at least in terms of story beats and plot. It seems apparent that Irwin Allen (or perhaps 20th Century Fox) had been paying attention to recent epic adventure films and decided to include everything those films had. The film opens with a theme song sung by Frankie Avalon, who is also acting in the film. He also plays a short trumpet solo during his and Barbara Eden’s introduction. This harkens back to the use of Pat Boone, and his songs from Journey to the Center of the Earth. Unfortunately the tone this song sets is more akin to a love song like “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin, rather than something befitting of opening an adventure film.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea also updates the disaster subgenre, bringing it back to prominence. George Pal’s When Worlds Collide had a cast facing imminent destruction of their world; there was nothing that they could do, except try to escape. In Voyage the crew of the Seaview is uniquely qualified to help avert the disaster. But to heighten the stakes, Allen not only sets up a timetable that the crew must meet in order to extinguish the fiery belt, but additional obstacles that threaten to prevent the completion of the task. A saboteur, unexpected mine fields, friendly fire from US subs attempting to prevent the unauthorized launch of missiles; all these elements (and more) add a heightened complexity to the film, indicating a maturation of the genre. Films like Armageddon (1998), San Andreas (2015) and even aspects from The Hunt For Red October (1990) owe debts to Irwin Allen and his work.

Of course the biggest comparison to previous films lies in the submarine and the adventure itself. The tasks and mission of the Seaview is an updated and modernized telling of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Admiral Nelson name checks Jules Verne at one point, specifically inviting the comparisons. The Seaview encounters a giant squid as it makes its way around the globe similar to what The Nautilus encountered. What Voyage does that 20,000 Leagues didn’t, is invoke a world-saving mission to heighten the tension. 20,000 Leagues was a pretty straightforward adventure story, exploring the newness of a nuclear submarine and what fantastical inventions as this could provide. Voyage moves the sci-fi/adventure genre into a new arena as the plot focuses on external factors motivating the crew. The technology is explored, but only briefly as the fire in the sky quickly takes precedence over the tour of the submarine.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Expecting Arctic temperatures the crew is surprised by the sudden vision of the sky on fire.

Societal Commentary

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea presents a lot of social commentary for viewers to unpack. The biggest theme is the challenging of belief structures, which also includes debate on  whether science or faith is superior to the other. The film sets up Admiral Nelson as the foremost scientific mind on the planet. It’s fortunate that he’s on board the submarine when the Van Allen belt catches on fire, as he’s a necessary component for saving the world. His belief is that a targeted missile launch, at a specific location and time will snuff out the fire, like blowing out a birthday candle. Other scientists represented externally by Dr. Zucco, and internally by Dr. Hiller, believe that this is a dangerous course of action. They think that any explosion will ignite the belt further, causing destruction of the planet. Zucco proposes a wait-and-see attitude, claiming that at 173° the fire will burn itself out. Unfortunately that temperature is predicted to arrive after the designated place/time that Nelson needs to launch his missile.

This fundamental disagreement drives the central conflict in the film. It sets up Nelson as an antagonist to the United Nations, who favor Zucco’s plan. It creates the subplot of the saboteur (Hiller) who is damaging the Seaview to prevent Nelson from achieving his end. This is an important conflict to present, as it shows that even within the scientific community there is not always unity and consensus on matters pertaining to the physical sciences. In the early 60s, America was struggling with coming up with a plan for achieving President Kennedy’s stated goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Different groups had different ideas, all which may have been valid, but were untested; just like Nelson’s plan in the film. It seems that the filmmakers sided with a more aggressive risk vs reward type of approach, and for the public, they may have felt the same way. Voyage was released three months after Russia put the first human in orbit around the Earth, so perhaps the film represented America’s desire to try more aggressive and potentially dangerous methods to achieve space superiority.

Watching Voyage in the modern context also draws comparisons to the recent discussions on increased global temperatures. While the extremes presented in the film, with the heat rising 2° every day, from the 130s to the low 170s, is way beyond anything the world has currently encountered, Voyage spells out the problems that would exist in such a situation. Problems that scientists are currently warning about. It begins with the polar ice caps melting and flooding of low lying areas near rivers and oceans. With the extreme temps, fields and forests burn yielding food shortages, fresh water evaporates leaving many without any drinking water. And just like the scientists of the United Nations, scientific debate and discussion over the last 50 years has driven understanding of the impact of these global changes. Hopefully, the challenges faced in the film will not be something that Earth has to face anytime soon!

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Lt. Conners, Adm. Nelson, Capt. Crane, Dr. Jamison, and Dr. Hiller treat Miguel Alvarez.

An additional thematic disagreement, setup as a smaller—but no less important—challenge is the debate between science and faith. The film throws an additional outsider into the midst of the crew with the rescue Migeul Alvarez from the ice flow. For this first half of the film he is a background character, but as the destruction within the world becomes greater, and tensions about the ship are increasing he is shown proselytizing to the crew about God’s plan and their fate. The setup appears to be positioning him as the saboteur, distracting the audience from Dr. Hiller’s machinations. And while he does eventually threaten the crew, it’s after the outing of Hiller as the saboteur. His belief system tells him that God’s plan is to let the world burn, and that man is not given a choice in the matter. This sets up a the following exchange between Nelson (a man of science) and Alvarez (a man of faith):

Admiral Nelson: Alvarez… are you saying that Man must accept destruction even though it’s in his power to prevent it?
Alvarez: It’s not for us to judge, Admiral.
Admiral Nelson: Not to judge, maybe; but we can reason. If God ordains that Man should die without a fight, then why does He give us the will to live?

Nelson’s point is that to put his fate in the hands of anyone else, when he has the means to change the outcome of that fate, is ridiculous. Fortunately, Nelson’s plan is executed and is proven correct, which quickly wraps up the film. The fatalism of Alvarez is the final obstacle for Nelson’s scientific certainty, which the film supports. These types of philosophical arguments will be explored in much greater depth and complexity in future sci-fi films. But for a 1961 adventure film, this type of introspection stands out far and above the standard fare. Allen even sets up a scene, pictured below, where Captain Crane is framed with Nelson on the left and Alvarez on the right, placing him in the center of their philosophical battle. In fact, Crane comes off the worse for this as he is swayed throughout the film. First in suspecting that Nelson’s command integrity is compromised, a change instituted by Dr. Hiller and her sabotage, and then later in his inability to prevent Alvarez from threatening the crew. It’s all a continued doubt of Nelson’s plan, which Crane was never fully on board with. Crane does come to Nelson’s rescue and is ultimately responsible for launching the missile that saves the world, but it’s unsure if he does it due to duty or if he has been swayed by Nelson’s speech.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Admiral Nelson makes his case before the United Nations.

The Science in The Fiction

In 1954 the first nuclear submarine set forth into the oceans. The USS Nautilus, named after the similar vessel in Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, made headlines all over the world. The quote above, ‘The wild dreams of today are the practical realities of tomorrow,’ begins to take shape.Verne first dreamed of the nuclear submarine, and decades later in become a real thing. Voyage takes the practical applications of what a nuclear/atomic submarine might be capable of and spins that tale of adventure. Supposedly the set designer did not contact the Navy for any assistance with this film, and instead used publicly available pictures to create the interiors of the Seaview. For anyone that’s been on a real submarine, or seen photos, the film version has a lot of extra space, making a more appealing version of the vessel on screen, but impractical in the real world.

While the presentation of science regarding the submarine seems fairly accurate, the depiction of the Van Allen radiation belt is completely fictitious. Discovered in 1958 the belt is a zone of charged particles that emanate along the Earth’s magnetic field. It helps to protect the planet from excessive radiation blown in on the solar winds. By the time Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was being made very little was actually known about the belt, and as such the idea that it could be perpetually on fire was invented. It’s use as a MacGuffin (a term, coined by Alfred Hitchcock, referring to the event or element that drives the plot forward, but ultimately is unimportant) works however, to drive the characters forward.

There were other elements that the film presents that may seem innocuous now, but were not very well known at the time. One idea, which became a major plot point, was the use of all visitors on the sub to wear radiation badges. The badge, which is normally green, would display red if the individual was exposed to the radiation from the reactor. Such badges are now standard in energy plants, nuclear vessels, and certain areas of hospitals. Additionally Commander Emery’s work with sharks touches on an entire line of research that would be possible on such a research vessel.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Captain Crane is literally between Admiral Nelson (a man of science) and Miguel Alvarez (a man of faith).

The Final Frontier

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea has many actors that audiences will recognize, some from other sci-fi properties, and others from more dramatic offerings. Walter Pidgeon, who may be more familiar to Sci-Fi Saturdays readers as Morbius in Forbidden Planet, came out of retirement to make this film. Joan Fontaine was known most famously for her work with Alfred Hitchcock on Rebecca and Suspicion. Howard McNear is better known as Floyd the barber on The Andy Griffith Show. Peter Lorre makes a second submarine film, having been part of the 1954 Disney production of 20,000 Leagues, while Frankie Avalon and Barbara Eden were two relative newcomers. Avalon would go on to have a series of famous beach party films with ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, and Eden would become the star of I Dream of Jeannie. Interestingly enough, Eden was married to Michael Ansara at the time of this production. He too would have many cameos in sci-fi properties over the years, one of his more famous being the Klingon Kang in Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek series.

The film’s adventure and sci-fi premise would continue between 1964 and 1968 as four seasons of the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea television series was aired. The characters continued with different actors portraying them (Richard Basehart and David Hedison would take over as Adm. Nelson and Captain Crane), and the plots would become more elaborate and edge toward futuristic sci-fi. One of the biggest sci-fi updates is the use of the flying sub, a two-man submersible that would allow the crew of the Seaview to visit locations outside of the ocean. The format of the show would also greatly influence other sci-fi related properties, Star Trek being the easiest comparison.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Divers are attacked by a squid, while a giant octopus attacks the Seaview.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea set a strong tone for not only sci-fi adventure series and films for the rest of the decade, but for Irwin Allen productions throughout the 1960s. It created a springboard for the birth of episodic sci-fi series in the decade as well as setting the tone for many future adventure and disaster films to come.

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