Friday, August 28, 2020

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1916) On Blu-ray From Kino

Kino Lorber continues its acclaimed history of releasing silent films on home video with the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.

This was the first full-length cinematic adaptation of the Verne novel, produced by Universal Pictures. The film also includes much material from Verne's THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. The eccentric Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar) rescues Professor Arronax, his daughter, and Ned Land after ramming the ship that the group was on. He takes them on a tour featuring the wonders of the sea, and his submarine Nautilus stops near a mysterious island, where a group of Civil War soldiers have been stranded. There's someone else on the island as well--a young girl living a Tarzan-like existence. The girl just so happens to be Nemo's long-lost daughter! All is revealed at the end in a flashback showing that Nemo was once known as Prince Daakar of India.

This first movie version of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is historically and technically significant, due to the underwater photography pioneered by the Williamson brothers. The pair went to the ultra-clear waters of the Bahamas to get these for-the-time spectacular shots. The underwater sequences may not seem all that exciting today--they come off now as somewhat stiff--but one must take into consideration that this film was made over 100 years ago. How many of the audience members who viewed this film when it originally came out had seen such sights??

The Williamsons were also responsible for the models of the Nautilus, including a life size version that the actors could actually walk on top of. They also built a giant octopus, which of course attacks a diver during the course of the story. This special effect doesn't stand the test of time, but it is a precursor to all the many big-screen human vs. sea creature battles that would follow.

As for the non-technical aspects of the film....the narrative is very choppy at times, switching back and forth between scenes involving the Nautilus and those dealing with the stranded men on the mysterious island. There's also a rather haphazardly dropped-in flashback concerning Nemo's daughter. After the two main storylines finally converge, we get another flashback, this time dealing with Nemo's past as a prince in his homeland. This sequence feels like it comes from another movie altogether. The credited director is one Stuart Paton, but the underwater sequences and those outside the Nautilus were handled by Ernest Williamson.

This version of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA proves that even 100 years ago Hollywood was making major changes to notable source material. Female roles are added to the mix here, and Nemo gets a backstory that "explains" his character. This silent Nemo is very exotically dressed and made up--but we do get to see him play the organ.

Kino touts this Blu-ray as featuring a new 4K restoration of the film by Universal. Some of the scenes show some wear--but others are crystal clear. Once again one must realize that this is a movie that is over 100 years old--the fact that it has gotten a major restoration and a major home video release is an achievement in itself. The running time is 86 minutes, and I wonder if there might be some scenes missing, due to the sometimes confusing nature of the story.

The Blu-ray has a new music score by Orlando Perez Rosso. It's a fine one, in that it doesn't try to overwhelm the film. There's also a new audio commentary by historian Anthony Slide, who gives out reams of detail and info about the making of the movie.

When the 1916 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA was first released, it was considered a major film epic. Having seen it for the first time, I have to say that it is more interesting than entertaining. Those who have read Verne's original works will appreciate it, as will those who are fans of the Disney 20,000 LEAGUES and the Harryhausen MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (there's plenty of comparisons that can be made). Kino is starting a series of releases of Universal silents, and that's great news--they've already got some intriguing Tod Browning films on the way.

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