Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Adventure Watch: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Watched:  04/22/2024
Format:  Fox Movies
Viewing:  First
Director:  Henry Levin

I've not read the original novel of Journey to the Center of the Earth, and until viewing this movie, I'd never felt particularly guilty about that or questioned it, but it's kind of kooky that I had not read it.  I'm a fan of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and have been since I was a small kid - whether you mean the Disney film, the book, or what my mother reports was likely a kid's adaptation she read me when I was 5 or 6 that she even recently was relating to me how enthused I was about the book.

When it came to the novel of Journey, I had the basic gist down from a lifetime of absorbing pop culture.  Science folk find a hole, wander about, figure out there's all sorts of crazy stuff under the surface, like an ocean and dinosaurs.  Which should sound real familiar-like to fans of Legendary's Monsterverse franchise/ the latest Kong and Godzilla team-up film.  So, yeah, hope you're enjoying a fresh, new 160 year old concept.  

Anyway, that guilt about my poor reading habits seeped in about five minutes after starting the film of Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), and I got a taste of the ol' adventure-spirit that could fill a splashy all-ages sci-fi movie in 1959.  But I also remembered how much I enjoyed the book of Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and, anyway.  I'll give it time and then read the book.

First:  This thing looks insanely expensive for 1959.  Massive sets, period setting, maybe 1/3rd of the movie on the surface before we see any caves, and lots of matte and other visual FX.  Plus, James Mason as the lead, Pat Boone(!) as the young scientist/ admirer of Mason's daughter, and Ms. Arlene Dahl playing about ten years older than she was at the time of shooting.  Some scenes have boat-loads of extras. 

The plot is a bit convoluted as we get started, but the idea is that Mason has just been knighted for his contributions to geology.  As a gift, his favorite pupil (Boone) gives him a peculiar stone.  It's a lava rock, but oddly heavy.  Mason figures out it's an Italian lava rock over the top of a much denser Icelandic stone, and there's a message on it from a lost geologist of some note.   Apparently the guy found a secret world beneath the Earth's surface.

Being a good scientist, he writes up his findings and sends his notes to a colleague in Sweden who doesn't respond.  He figures out the colleague has run off to find the entrance to the cavern system described. 

Reaching Iceland, Mason and Boone find the scientist has been murdered and someone *else* has taken off into the caves.  They make friends with the dead Swede's wife peculiarly attractive wife for a guy who looks like a cartoon drawing of a scientist (Dahl), and with a local as muscle, they all head into the caves.  Adventure awaits!

This movie knows it can and should be funny.  I totally get how they wound up casting Brendan Fraser for the 2000's-era remake (which I haven't seen) because dude can be all levels of funny from cartoon to understated dry.  Here, Mason and Boone, who is much better than I figured, do it through character bits - Mason playing the in-his-head scientist and Boone the adventurous young man.  But Dahl is the spitfire - and while we've now seen 10,000 stories in which a woman is not supposed to be there, but she winds up kind of saving the day, she's really good in the part.  

We also get Olympian Peter Ronson as our Icelander, and dude is a foot taller than the rest of our cast and oddly muscley for a guy in the 1950's - a lot is made of how hot it is in much of the center of the Earth, and so Ronson and Boone are required to be shirtless and sweaty.  

And utility player Thayer David plays our villain.  And there's a comedy duck!  Yeah, for some reason they bring a duck with them, and it's gold.

I'm not sure they make adventure films like this much anymore.  I'm curious to see what Marvel's Fantastic Four is like, as this sort of thing is absolutely the key to the DNA of the original 100 issues of FF.  Those cosmic-irradiated weirdos were traveling to unknown spaces and meeting alien people, lost civilizations, etc...  Not out battling crime.  And this stuff is *fun*.  I'm now (cough) 49, and this still sparks my imagination.  The "what if?" of being able to drop down a hole and there's unmapped worlds to find with iguanas with funs glued to their backs...  mysterious oceans...  bizarre geological structures...  

Anyway, I was way into it.  I might watch the Fraser one real fast before I get to the book.

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