By the late 1950s genre cinema’s obsession with the Atom Age and its terrible, fanciful after-effects – irradiated supersized rampaging monsters, genetic mutation – was beginning to fade and a new technicolour era of fantasy cinema was thriving. Unsurprisingly the studios turned to the great early works of science-fiction literature to create the next generation of adventure films designed to show off the increasingly impressive fruits of their rapidly developing visual effects technology. HG Wells, the ‘father of science-fiction’ had already been plundered for 1953’s War of the Worlds and The Time Machine would make its screen debut in 1960. Jules Verne, sometimes-overlooked author of more tepid vintage adventure stories, had also seen his back catalogue raided for 1956’s Around the World in 80 Days and 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Verne’s best-known work, Journey to the Center to the Earth, finally made it to the screen in 1959 and, with its luxurious production values and epic visuals (which have never looked better or more vivid than on this sparkling new Blu-Ray transfer from Eureka), it remains certainly the best adaptation of the story itself (let’s draw a discrete veil over the 2008 Brendon Fraser effort) and the best film crafted from Verne’s texts.
We’re in Edinburgh in 1880 and University Professor Oliver Lindenbrook (a wonderfully waspish James Mason) is given a curious piece of volcanic rock by one of his students. Inside the rock he finds a message from long-lost scientist Arne Saknussemm who, three centuries earlier, found a passageway leading to the centre of the Earth accessible via an Icelandic volcano. Lindenbrook tells a fellow scientist in Stockholm of his discovery but realises that his rival has already set off on a similar expedition. Racing to Iceland Lindenbrook and his student Alec McEwan (50s pop idol Pat Boone) find that their rival has been murdered. It seems that someone else has designs on reaching the centre of the Earth before them and will stop at nothing to bring Lindenbrook’s eccentric expedition – which now includes the widow of his late rival, an Icelandic hunk and…er…a duck named Gertrud – to a grisly end deep below the surface of the Earth.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is big, melodramatic fun and running at over two hours it’s in no hurry to reach its destination; we’re not far short of the sixty-minute mark before we get a real sniff of the group actually starting their journey proper but once they’re on their way the film really revels in its visuals; gaping chasms, field of giant mushrooms, a broiling subterranean ocean, the ruins of Atlantis and there are even a few monsters thrown in for good measure – albeit of the ‘lizards with bits stuck on their backs’ variety briefly favoured by genre films which couldn’t be bothered to give Ray Harryhausen a bell. But it’s all great rattling entertainment which takes its time to establish its characters before setting them off on their adventure and, as Kim Newman notes in one of the disc’s features, it’s one of the few Verne stories which actually has a sense of danger and urgency. Fans of Verne’s book might balk at some of the liberties taken with the text but then Hollywood’s never been a huge respecter of the written word. Journey is obviously dated but by and large it carries its decades well and it’s a fascinating landmark in Hollywood’s own journey to the big, brash blockbusters we enjoy/endure today.
Special features: Commentary / Kim Newman interview / restoration feature / trailer / isolated music and effects track
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: HENRY LEVIN / SCREENPLAY: CHARLES BRACKETT, WALTER REISCH / STARRING: JAMES MASON, PAT BOONE, ARLENE DAHL, THAYER DAVID / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW