The Mightiest Motion Picture of Them All

Revisiting Walt Disney's '20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.'

Art: Stephan Martiniere

After several years of production, design and location shooting, Walt Disney released his first Hollywood produced live-action motion picture in 1954. If the advertising was to be believed, it was in fact the mightiest motion picture of them all. Considering that the film was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, this is a credible claim.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring James Mason as Nemo and Kirk Douglas as Ned Land alongside Peter Lorre as Conseil and Paul Lukas as Prof. Arronax, is perhaps the single most important modern film in the genre of Scientific Romance. 20,000 Leagues came to the silver screen in a post-Hiroshima, pre-Sputnik era when Atomic Age Science Fiction was the darling of young and old imaginations alike (not to mention drive-in theatre patrons). Between voyaging to forbidden planets and fighting off prehistoric monsters, filmmakers turned their attention back to the Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. The first of these was George Pal's War of the Worlds (1953), which updated Wells' tale by placing it squarely in the modern day.

Following Treasure Island and a series of three Mediaeval historical dramas shot in England with money tied up during the Second World War, Disney sought another live-action project for production in his studios in Burbank. In doing so, he revived his childhood love for Jules Verne. His concerns, in making the film, were very much the stuff of adulthood, however.

For one, he was looking to prove that Science Fiction was a credible genre deserving of serious and lavish treatment, in much the same way that Disney had treated animation before then and amusement parks with the impending opening of Disneyland in 1955. In a time when "serious" epics were swords-and-sandals pictures about ancient Rome or Palestine, Spartacus himself was shanghaied onto the Nautilus.

Unlike War of the Worlds, the pivotal choice was made to retain the original 19th century setting of the novel. Not only that, but ostensibly futuristic motifs in Verne's original were downplayed, giving art director Harper Goff the maneuvering room to go from the novel's sleek, silver, streamlined submersible to the massive, iron-plated, iconic design seen in the film. This move would set the gold standard by which all subsequent design in the genre would be judged.

Art: Dave McCamant

Being a financial and critical success, 20,000 Leagues inspired a sudden wave of Scientific Romance adaptations to the silver screen. James Mason himself would appear in another Verne adaptation in Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959). Other films, none of them being Disney but all owing to Disney's gamble, include The Time Machine (1960), the Oscar winning Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Karel Zeman's astonishing Fabulous Worlds of Jules Verne (1958), Vincent Price's Master of the World (1961), The First Men in the Moon (1964) and 1961's The Mysterious Island (both of which enjoyed stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen), and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). It also put Disney on some more stable financial footing that enabled them to produce comparable films like Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and In Search of the Castaways (1962).

While amping up the Victorian aesthetics at the expense of the novel's futuristic designs, 20,000 Leagues also downplayed the novel's very Victorian sensibilities in favour of two concurrent plot lines that would be of greater interest to audiences of the Fifties. As one of Verne's famous Voyages Extraordinaires, the main thrust of 20,000 Leagues is simply a tour of the ocean's wonders, as guided by Nemo. Secondary to this is a subplot revealing Nemo as a political dissident using his invention to wage war on global imperialism. This subplot was itself more of a device to get Prof. Arronax and company onto the Nautilus to begin with.

While travelogues make for good documentaries - and Disney was already innovating those with his True-Life Adventures series - they make less than stellar material for big screen action epics. The Voyage Extraordinaires was made substantially less extraordinary in favour of emphasizing a "prison break" drama and a cautionary tale about atomic power. On the one hand, the "prison break" storyline added some much-needed narrative structure that allowed for a degree of extraordinary voyages through the undersea farms and shipwrecks of the Bahamas. Unfortunately, this emphasis also left out many of the book's most striking scenes, such as the Nautilus descending upon Atlantis or getting trapped in the crystalline shards of Antarctica's icebergs. Curiously, these dropped sequences resurfaced in Walt Disney World's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine ride.

On the other hand, the story about the price and promise of atomic energy responded to the concerns of a world caught up in the Cold War. In Verne's story, the electrical power source for Nemo's sub appeared to be a prognostication but really served as a plot device. Once the captives were on the submersible, there had to be some way of getting them around that wouldn't involve asphyxiating them with coal furnaces. Necessity is the mother of invention, even in speculative fiction. As a general rule, one can figure out the vintage of a Science Fiction tale by what the biggest wizz-bang thing about it is: before the war it was electricity, in the interwar years it was radium, and after the war it was the atom.

In Disney's story, this power source fueling the Nautilus was easily associated with atomic power, with Nemo representing both the threat and the opportunity it posed. If we can say anything about the film's moral, it is "cautious optimism": Nemo pessimistically felt that the nations of the world would misuse atomic power, but that some day, humanity would progress to the point where it could be harnessed for useful pursuits. That day, Disney hoped and the film implies, is our day.

The final sequence of 20,000 Leagues serves as the introduction to Disney's 1958 documentary Our Friend the Atom. After a voice-over artist repeats James Mason's final, hopeful line that "some day, in God's good time" atomic power may be used for the benefit of humanity, the camera turns to Walt himself who states that it has come to pass... The future envisioned by Verne has arrived, with all its dangers and all its possibilities. The remainder of the documentary is turned over to Operation Paperclip scientist Heinz Haber, who explains the development of atomic theory and the positive, beneficial uses of atomic power, which, with hindsight being 20-20, appear disastrously naive.

This ironic ambiguity in the message is only highlighted by the ambiguity of not only Captain Nemo, but of his cinematic creator. As noted by many thinkers, including Celeste Olaquiaga in The Artificial Kingdom: A Treasury of the Kitsch Experience, Nemo is at least a paradox if not a hypocrite. Tired of the rule of violence and hierarchy above the waves, he goes beneath them in his magnificent Nautilus... Where he creates almost exactly the same society with himself as the head.

The astute viewer may notice that only one of the Nautilus' crew ever speaks, and that merely to affirm orders given by Nemo. We still don't know his name, or that of any of the other crewmen. Perhaps this was only a circumstance necessitated by the presence of Arronax's party, but there is no evidence that anyone is entitled to use the opulent salon except Captain Nemo himself. As Ned Land notes upon seeing Nemo's private quarters, he has done right good for himself. When Nemo dies, the crew meekly agree to go to their own deaths.

Drawing comparisons between Captain Nemo and Walt Disney himself is inescapable. In many ways, Nemo and his Nautilus reflect Disney and his studio; the studio bearing Disney's name is just as much an extension of him as the Nautilus is an extension of Nemo... an apparatus by which the imagination of its mastermind could extend beyond the reach of his own body and talents.

Walt recognized in an abstract way the collective effort that went into every product of his studio:

Whatever we accomplish is due to the combined effort. The organization must be with you or you don't get it done... In my organization there is respect for every individual, and we all have a keen respect for the public.

With characteristic humility he recounted a story about what exactly his position is:

My role? Well, you know I was stumped one day when a little boy asked, 'Do you draw Mickey Mouse?' I had to admit I do not draw anymore. 'Then you think up all the jokes and ideas?' 'No,' I said, 'I don't do that.' Finally, he looked at me and said, 'Mr. Disney, just what do you do?' 'Well,' I said, sometimes I think of myself as a little bee. I go from one area of the Studio to another and gather pollen and sort of stimulate everybody. I guess that's the job I do.

But at the same time, he was notoriously unresponsive on the particulars of whose creative brilliance was behind the creations of his company. Because of this, he was heralded as America's most culturally important artist, even as he could barely replicate his own distinctive signature. In private he confessed that the Disney name had taken on a life of its own, and that Walt the Legend more often than not eclipsed Walt the Man. Though teamwork was essential to him, only a very few Disneyphiles recognize the names honored on Main Street U.S.A.'s windows. A man of paradox himself, he revealed that

I don't like formal gardens. I like wild nature. It's just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess.

All the while he created his own Magic Kingdom (and threatened an Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) in which the absence of wild nature is quite notable. Rejecting the abuses of colonialism on land, Nemo brings it to the ocean bottom, which serves as his own personal larder... Recalling countless Disney company tracts and documentaries that talk about ripping out wild nature in favour of productive farmland and spacious green lawns. Yet Walt still insisted that:

If certain events continue, much of America's natural beauty will become nothing more than a memory. The natural beauty of America is a treasure found nowhere else in the world. Our forests, waters, grasslands and wildlife must be wisely protected and used. I urge all citizens to join the effort to save America's natural beauty... it's our America - do something to preserve its beauty, strength and natural wealth.

Nemo, like the man under whose name he was given cinematic life, is an ambiguity.

In spite of - or perhaps because of - this ambiguity, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remains one of the Disney's most profitable and most memorable live action films. Captain Nemo stands alongside Mary Poppins, Davy Crockett and Jack Sparrow as one of the classic Disney characters not made of ink and paint. This status led very quickly to Nemo's rehabilitation from furious angel of hatred to the cautious visionary in Disney's subsequent creative works.

20,000 Leagues was re-released to theatres in 1963, to all fanfare. In the Walt Disney's World of Adventure comic published by Gold Key, Nemo acts as a science hero facing down pirates and other threats to life and liberty. The Walt Disney Presents the Story of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea album, released by Disneyland Records the same year, offers another kinder, gentler Captain Nemo.

The 78 LP begins with Ned Land reflecting back on his amazing adventure aboard the Nautilus, in the days "long before airplanes". He, along with Professor Arronax and Arronax's nephew Conseil, was assigned to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to track down a monster prowling the Pacific Ocean. Luckily the "monster" finds them when a hurricane destroys the ship. Conseil befriends Snoopy - not Esmeralda - the seal and we meet Captain Nemo, voiced by Disneyland Records stalwart Billy Bletcher. They then learn a terrifying fact: while Nemo was gracious enough to rescue them, he will never let them leave the ship! To get his new guests accustomed to their new lives, Nemo serves them dinner and takes them out to his undersea farm. Conseil and Ned are more interested in the sunken pirate ship which is menaced by a giant sea spider, until Snoopy swims out to chase it off. When they arrive at an island full of cannibals, this Nemo locks everyone in their room so as to avoid the film version's jailbreak. They can still see the fight against the cannibals from their porthole, thankfully. Then another freak storm hits, which sends the Nautilus to the ocean bottom. Taking in the wonders, they are shocked by the sudden assault of the giant squid. Ned fights the beast off with no loss of life to the Nautilus crew, and as thanks, Nemo pleasantly releases them and allows Snoopy to go with Conseil.

Purged of being a malevolent force of violence and revenge, Captain Nemo remains a great, but stern and eccentric genius. The first theme park version of 20,000 Leagues was an exhibit of the film's sets in Disneyland's Tomorrowland. As time drew on, the more kindly Nemo invited guests at Walt Disney World to board the Nautilus on a submarine voyage. In Disneyland Paris, guests could investigate the Nautilus itself in the Verne-inspired Discoveryland. At Tokyo DisneySea, Nemo's entire base in the volcanic caldera of Mysterious Island was opened and guests enlisted to join his crew in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Nautilus-inspired scenes were also to be found in Disney's short-lived multi-user online game, Virtual Magic Kingdom. The submarines have long-since closed down at Walt Disney World, but the legend of the Nautilus supplies some inspiration (and a drink) for the Trader Sam's Grog Grotto bar at the Polynesian Village Resort.

Art: Disney

Though not as appreciated as it should be today, there is still little chance of the mightiest motion picture of all ever being forgotten. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is such a well-made film that it can still endure for generations to come.

This article originally appeared on the Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age weblog. 

Cory Gross
Cory Gross

Cory is a museums and heritage professional with a love for science, history, art, and their intersection in Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances, which he shares through his weblog Voyages Extraordinaires.

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The Mightiest Motion Picture of Them All