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Mondays with Ray Harryhausen: Mysterious Island (1961)

Over the last two weeks, we’ve taken a deep dive into the work of Ray Harryhausen and his development of the “Creature Feature” during the 1950s. However, this week finds us entering a new decade while at the same time, seeing Harryhausen find new ways to shock and amaze audiences. Mysterious Island shows him reaching a new level in the crafting of “Creature Features” with his work showing filmmakers just how fantastic and otherworldly movies could become.

Mysterious Island follows a group of Union Army prisoners of war as they escape from a Confederate prison camp (thanks to a particularly convenient hot air balloon). They quickly find themselves stuck in a kooky and fantastic world, one which only Jules Verne could create (with the assistance of Ray Harryhausen‘s brain, of course). Michael Craig, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Herbert Lom and Joan Greenwood co-star in the movie. Cy Enfield directs the picture from a script by John Prebble and Daniel B. Ullman.

Even a superficial dive into Mysterious Island demonstrates the meteoric rise which Harryhausen’s stock as a creator experienced between It Came from Beneath the Sea in 1955 and this film in 1961. Sure, these movies are all big budget epics, but producers clearly had confidence in Mysterious Island. There’s scrumptious color photography. There’s interesting location work. And above all, there’s multiple monsters for Ray Harryhausen to throw himself into. In fact, the film feels closer to the expensive and glossy Disney epics of the period like Swiss Family Robinson and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than the creature features of the early 1950s.

Diving in, I initially struggled with this troop of characters. There’s a lot of them and despite each actor’s best efforts, it’s difficult to stand out in the crowd. Admittedly, I came to this movie looking to see Michael Callan (a favorite of yours truly) and while he most definitely plays a supporting role, he is probably the biggest standout among the large cast.

Callan originated the role of Riff in the original Broadway cast of West Side Story and by this point he had slowly made a name for himself in Hollywood thanks to his work in movies like: Because They’re Young and Gidget Goes Hawaiian. By the early 1960s, Callan’s reputation as an actor on screen was solidified thank to this movie and later roles in works like Bon Voyage! and Cat Ballou.

At the same time, I also enjoyed not only the work of Michael Craig as Captain Cyrus Harding, but also the always amazing Herbert Lom who easily personifies the enigmatic Captain Nemo. The only problem becomes, there isn’t enough of either performer! As a character, Nemo is largely relegated to the last act of the story, while Craig really struggles to stand apart until deep into the second act. With just a few “woulda coulda shoulda” tweaks, this movie could have possessed some really dynamic, interesting performances.

This is the first of Harryhausen films we’ve examined to leave reality as we know it behind and enter a fully fantastic, fictional world. As a result, this is the first work (that we’ve seen) where Harryhausen designs multiple creatures. In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea, he absolutely crushes the character design of the monsters of the title; however, those works only feature a single “beast”. This time around though, he’s designing the rich and vivd collection of lifeforms which populate this island.

The creatures are bigger, more colorful and have much more interaction with the characters. However, I have to admit I struggled with the use of the beasts in this particular feature. This isn’t to say they looked bad. They didn’t! In fact, it’s clear that Harryhausen is getting to stretch his skills a bit this time around. An early fight with a gigantic crab is inspired… particularly the decision to have the creature fall into a boiling spring and become dinner for our characters. That gave me quite the chuckle. At the same time, there’s a fiercesome chicken-like beast which (again!) looked amazing; however, I didn’t find myself as emotionally invested in the resulting action sequence. Throughout the film, the characters never seem to be in much danger. The beasts are often more of an inconvenience than a threat.

It’s difficult to land on from where this problem stems. Are the beasts not that scary? Aside from perhaps the chicken, I don’t believe this is the case. There are some definite developments in visual form and construction, particularly in the creation of a giant bee. However, while the technology at play in these pictures has developed enough to plop the actors in the same frame as the creatures (this rarely happens in the earlier films we’ve discussed) orchestrating any interaction between man and beast remains difficult. This leads to struggles within the frame to blur the line where reality ends and special effects begin (as we see in the above screen grab).

With that being said though, I don’t believe this necessarily needs to be a detractor to enjoying Mysterious Island. Visually, this is an incredibly fun and entertaining film. Enfield works well with his creative team to integrate a steampunk aesthetic which feels quite unique and rare in this era of filmmaking. If you’re a fan of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, or really any steampunk, fantasy literature, this movie very well could be up your alley.

Mysterious Island isn’t entirely a creature feature, a horror movie, or a work of science fiction. At its roots, Mysterious Island feels like a pure and entertaining work of fantasy and this is how it’s meant to be watched. As these characters land on this island, it’s easy for the audience to simply look around in awe and enjoy Ray Harryhausen’s captivating visuals. With each passing year the creator’s work get bigger and better and things are only getting more impressive from here.

Come back next week for our look at Jason and the Argonauts!

Mysterious Island is available here!

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