Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
I understand the appeal of the 1950s CinemaScope adventure movies like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days. While their special effects are dated, the practical effects are always spellbinding to see in a world gone to CGI and the actors take it seriously. However, these same movies suffer from an extended amount of bloat and the human component is always infinitely duller than the actual “journey” being undertaken. These are the problems and triumphs employed in Journey to the Center of the Earth, a movie I liked a fair bit more than 20,000 Leagues but whose issues remained the same.
Professor Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) and his assistant Alec McKuen (Pat Boone) take a journey into the center of the Earth, facing all manner of magical locations and exotic creatures.
This is my first experience with any filmed interpretations of Jules Verne’s novel, and the mystical elements are certainly fun. This movie, and others of its ilk, fall into the likes of Ray Harryhausen wonders, where the awe comes from seeing these (now dated) examples of practical effects. Let me reiterate, in a world where everything is so easily accomplished by computer, it’s fun watching actors interact with something tangible. Sure, the painted backgrounds contrast with the practical foreground, giving an otherwise awe-inspiring moment of being on a grand mountain all the majesty of a claustrophobic boulder, but once the group actually journeys into the earth – seeing giant mushrooms, lizards, and ice caverns, that sense of majesty returns. Unlike Brigadoon, where the CinemaScope ended up expanding what was supposedly small, there’s a sufficient sense of size once the group takes their trek.
However, the group doesn’t actually do what the title claims till almost an hour into the two-hour film. The journey is necessary to stave off boredom because the first hour is rough! It is necessary for our characters to be established. James Mason, who’d just come off playing a similar character with Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues, replaced Clifton Webb and conveys the same type of acerbic, “go into the wild blue yonder” type of joie de vivre I’d believe Webb would have had, but he doesn’t play the role as coldly or sarcastic. He’s got a nice antagonistic, “opposites attract” relationship with Arlene Dahl’s Carla, and after playing Nemo there’s no one that could have embodied the role as perfectly as Mason does.
This is my first Arlene Dahl movie, and despite looking very similar to Deborah Kerr, she’s great as the equally domineering foil for Lindenbrook. There’s a strong bit of play regarding gender here, with Carla telling Lindenrbook she isn’t too “feminine” for the journey, while Lindenbrook believes she’ll resort to feminine tactics at every turn. In fact, the film’s one bit of humor sees Carla refuse to kill a man because she’s a woman, leading to Lindenbrook’s exasperation at why she’d fall back on being a woman now…duh, who wouldn’t when they’re told to kill someone?
With the adults in the room more than capable for the task, I guess you can’t expect the young ones to toe the line, quality-wise, but Pat Boone and Diane Baker are the worst parts of the film. Baker, thankfully, doesn’t have much as Boone’s intended, Jenny. She’s gorgeous, but the character has all the personality of a paint can. The same can be said of Boone, as the dewy-faced Alec. The first half of the movie rapidly establishes these two character’s relationship, and I say rapidly as in Alec shows up at dinner, meeting Jenny for what sounds like the second time. He sings a very 1950s-era song (remember, we’re in Scotland in the 1800s) before they talk about what deep-rooted feelings they have for each other in the subsequent scene. Feelings? He sang a song to her and now they have feelings? The third scene, they’re engaged! It sounds like not even the screenwriters wanted to deal with this, and thus tried to get all necessary exposition out of the way, but why not just have a line of dialogue in there stating they’ve been secretly dating or that they’ve at least known each other for years?
And remember that this takes place in Scotland? Outside of Dahl and Mason, neither Boone nor Baker make any attempts at effecting a brogue. Sure, an exaggerated brogue would have distracted as much as enhanced authenticity, but when Boone declares he’s “a Scotsman,” it’s hilarious. The only thing Scottish about him is the kilt he wears! Similarly, Baker tries to tag a lilt to the ends of her overly enunciated sentences, but comes off sound like a Southern belle. This is unimportant once the group ends up in the center of the Earth – and Baker doesn’t return till the final scene – but, again, a simple line of dialogue would have sufficed in stating Alec was born in America or something.
After the rough seas of the first hour, the titled journey has much excitement, even if it’s ridiculous to believe that the center of the Earth has mushrooms and giant lizards. You certainly believe 200 some-odd days have passed, and the camaraderie between the group leaves you rooting for them; the stakes are real, so real that when a duck – yes, one of the characters journeying is a duck – is brutally “murdered,” it affects you about as much as whether it was Mason or Dahl. (Although, the addition of the duck sounds like pandering to those who enjoyed the seal in 20,000 Leagues. If there was a duck in the original book, let me know.)
The latest Twilight Time Blu-ray presents the best version, particularly in the video department, of the film with all the lush colors you’d want in the center of the Earth. There’s also the requisite isolated soundtrack, audio commentary with Diane Baker and film historians Steven C. Smith and Nick Redman, and the trailer.
I can nitpick the obvious flaws, but these types of big-budget A-list adventure films are a dying breed. To quote Julie Kirgo’s excellent essay accompanying the film, there’s an “unironic innocence” to Journey to the Center of the Earth that can’t be imitated today.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
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