Cinema 21 - Portland, OR

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mysterious Island (1961)

What a thrill to look back at one of my guilty film pleasures MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) for my 50th CrazyFilmGuy blog. I became enchanted by this adaptation of the Jules Verne's novel back in the day when some enterprising programming person for the local Portland KPTV Channel 12 came up with the idea of showing the same film each night for five nights in a row.  The only problem was I was in 3rd grade and my bedtime was eight thirty.  MYSTERIOUS ISLAND would start at eight o'clock.  So from Monday thru Thursday, I watched the three Union prisoners escape from the same Confederate prison, steal the same Confederate balloon, and fly away into the stormy night.  I'd watch as they lost altitude and descended toward the ocean, glimpsing a nearby island. A few of them even fell into the surf as the others were dragged by the balloon onto the beach. But after they found an unconscious Captain Harding (Michael Craig) on the beach beside a mysterious fire, I'd have to go to bed. Only on Friday night, with no school the next day, was I finally able to stay up and watch MYSTERIOUS ISLAND in its entirety to find out who made the fire and what surprises awaited the castaways on the island.

I was so captivated by the observation balloon and the men jumping from the basket into the water that I would recreate this scene in my basement.  I would take two soft giant bean bag chairs and tumble off my sofa clutching them, imagining myself jumping into that turbulent ocean as it tossed me around like a piece of flotsam. But finally watching MYSTERIOUS ISLAND from start to finish, the fantasy film had all kinds of elements that caught my fancy: a strange prehistoric island, volcanoes, strange giant creatures, a sweet love story between the two young leads, and the enigmatic Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), mariner of the world's first submarine the Nautilus.

At the time, I had no idea that MYSTERIOUS ISLAND was considered a B movie at best. When I watched it as a young boy, it was the GREATEST movie I had ever seen. Little did I know that Verne's (and probably the screenwriters) inventions like underwater electric guns and conch shell breathing apparatuses was hooey.  I believed an observation balloon could be blown from Virginia to the South Pacific. I didn't question the stop motion animation or some of the obvious matte paintings and rear projection shots. It was all fantastic and real to me as a young boy. As I prepared to watch MYSTERIOUS ISLAND again as an adult, I wondered why someone decided to make this delightful adventure film.  I happened to turn on the TV and JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959) , another Jules Verne novel made into a movie was playing, and it hit me.  JOURNEY and its box office success probably sent producers scurrying for more adventurous tales from Verne.

Based on Jules Verne's 1875 novel, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND was written by John Prebble, Daniel Ullman, and Crane Wilbur and directed by Cy Endfield (ZULU).  Two contributors who elevate MYSTERIOUS ISLAND to a higher grade of B film are noted Hitchcock film composer Bernard Herrmann (VERTIGO, PSYCHO) and visual effects wizard  Ray Harryhausen (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS). More about their contributions later.  MYSTERIOUS ISLAND begins with a spectacular opening sequence. Set during the Civil War at the Siege of Richmond, Virginia in 1865, three Union prisoners Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig), Herbert Brown (Michael Callan), and Corporal Neb Nugent (Dan Jackson) escape from the Libby Military Prison in a giant Confederate Observation balloon. They also take with them newly captured Union War Correspondent Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) and one unfortunate Confederate soldier guarding the massive balloon, Sgt Pencroft (Percy Herbert).  The balloon rises into the sky and is swept into the atmosphere by the winds of the greatest storm in American history.

Harding's plan was just to escape the prison but they soon find themselves over the Pacific Ocean. The balloon begins to tear, bringing them down toward the water.  Through the clouds, they glimpse a nearby island. As they descend, some jump into the water while others hang onto what's left of the balloon as it drags them onto the beach. The next day, everyone is accounted for except Captain Harding. But smoke nearby leads them to an unconscious Harding lying next to a small campfire.  But who built the fire? Mr. Spilitt discovers some giant clams to feed the hungry balloonists.

Harding and his band of men begin to explore the prehistoric-like island. Harding wants to climb to the top of the island's main volcano to get their bearings.  Along the way, they come across a monstrous crab that nearly kills Neb in its pincers. The men defeat the crab but are stunned by the size of the creatures on this island.  After finally reaching the highest part of the island, they see a small boat drifting near shore. They race to the beach to discover the shipwrecked Lady Ann Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her beautiful niece Elena Fairchild (Beth Rogan).  The captain of their small vessel is dead. As they continue to investigate the island, the group discover a cave up in a cliff. Harding climbs up to investigate. Inside, he discovers the skeleton of a a pirate left for dead by his shipmates.  The group moves into the cave, calling it the Granite House.

The marooned adventurers will encounter a giant chicken and pirates as they rush to build a boat to get off the island. Herbert and Elena discover a giant honeycomb (and some angry giant bees). They escape from the terrifying insects and stumble upon an underwater grotto, finding the submarine Nautilus. Meanwhile, the pirate ship mysteriously blows up. Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom) emerges from the water wearing a conch shell breathing apparatus. Thought to have died eight years earlier off the coast of Mexico in his submarine, Nemo has lived on this island ever since, creating these giant creatures with the hope of defeating famine throughout the world (how he's created these behemoths is conveniently never explained). With the island's volcano about to erupt, Nemo rushes to assist the castaways to raise the pirate ship from the bottom of the ocean and patch it up so they can sail away before the island explodes.

So why my love affair with MYSTERIOUS ISLAND? Is it just childhood sentimentality toward one of my first cinematic memories? Having watched the film a couple of times as an adult and looking at it from a more knowledgeable film point of view, I'm still surprise by MYSTERIOUS ISLAND'S fun factor. It might be a B film but everyone involved seems to be treating it like it's much more prestigious. The hook for me is the Union prisoners stealing the Confederate Observation balloon. The balloon is such a strong visual, offering endless choices for where the escaped Union soldiers could be blown to. AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS (1956) based on yet another Jules Verne novel would incorporate a hot air balloon in its story as well. Director Enfield stages the scene suspensefully and visual effects wizard Harryhausen fooled me with the clever use of miniatures for most of the wide shots of the enormous balloon tied down outside the prison.

FX Wizard Ray Harryhausen checking out his observation balloon set.

Without a doubt, composer Bernard Herrmann's exciting, epic musical score makes MYSTERIOUS ISLAND a notch better than most B movie adventures.  Clashing cymbals, thunderous drums, and towering horns kicks the film into another gear. Listen carefully and you can hear bits of Hermann's NORTH BY NORTHWEST score in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.  Visual effects wizard Ray Harryhausen gives the fantasy part of the film vibrancy with his larger than life creatures as well as some subtle effects like the Observation balloon or the underwater city. Matte paintings bring the volcanos and the Granite House to life. Harryhausen is clearly inspired by Skull Island from KING KONG (1933) and this strange island has some winks and nods to that great film. MYSTERIOUS ISLAND doesn't over do it with the giant creatures either. The scenes involving the giant crab and later some enormous bees are extremely well done by Harryhausen. The giant chicken scene stretches the special effects a little bit but it's both a frightening and comical sequence. I had totally forgotten about one more creature the castaways face: a giant octopus like creature referred to as a cephlapod lurking in the deep as they try to raise the sunken pirate ship. The filmmakers even put some production value into the locations by shooting the island sequences in warm Spain.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND also has some interesting depth in its story and character development not always found in B movies. The character Herbert is revealed early on to be a coward. I wonder if Herbert hadn't been caught by the Confederates if he would have been thrown in jail by his own Union army for desertion. He's hesitant during the prison break out and nearly misses catching the balloon as he freezes up, gripped by fear. But when he falls in love with Elena on the island and she's threatened by the giant chicken, Herbert overcomes his cowardice and rises to the occasion, jumping onto the chicken's back and stabbing it with a knife. Although set during the Civil War, MYSTERIOUS avoids the root causes of the war and doesn't choose sides. Interestingly, the one black character in the film, Nugent, is actually a corporal in the Union army and not a slave. The Confederate Pencroft has no problem with Nugent. His only beef is taking orders from the Union Captain Harding. But once they're all in the same predicament race, color, and rank go out the window as they bond together to survive.

Although none of the actors in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND was a superstar, each actor makes their character memorable.  Michael Callan as Herbert is the heartthrob of film. Callan's career was suppose to mirror bad boy James Dean but he ended up playing more romantic leads in films like GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN (1961) and CAT BALLOU (1965). I enjoyed the love story between Herbert and Elena (Beth Rogan). I still have fond memories of Elena's goat skin swim suit (not so much for Herbert's). Joan Greenwood who played Lady Anne is both sexy and motherly. Her husky English voice is memorable.  Greenwood hit her stride in the early 1950's in British comedies like KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949) and THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951). Gary Merrill as Spilitt has a familiar face and voice and like Greenwood, brings some class to the film. Merrill was in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) and was married to EVE star Bette Davis for ten years.  Even Percy Herbert as the Confederate Pencroft had been in David Lean's THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI (1957). No  huge stars but all very competent.

But for a couple of actors, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND appears to be their fifteen minutes of fame. Michael Craig, who is perfect as the authoritative Captain Harding, leader of the escaped POWs, performed on TV and theater but never had another notable film role. My wife thought Craig looked a lot like actor Matthew Fox who would be the leader of another band of castaways who survived a plane crash on a strange island in the ABC TV show LOST. And Beth Rogan as Elena, the pretty shipwreck survivor made only one other film before seeming to retire.  The biggest name from MYSTERIOUS ISLAND now is Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo. James Mason had already played Nemo in Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954). MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is a sequel of sorts to 20,000 LEAGUES. Lom's Nemo is older with white hair and beard. Nemo is more sympathetic and slightly less quirky in ISLAND. He's still against war but also seeking to become more of a humanitarian by creating giant food sources (clams, chickens, crab, honey). Although his submarine the Nautilus is out of commission for sinking war ships, Nemo still resides in the vessel in its underground lair. And Nemo still has ways of disposing of enemies as he demonstrates by blowing a hole in a pirate ship that threatens the islanders. Actor Lom would gain renown a few years later as the exasperated Commissioner Dreyfus who must deal with Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau in THE PINK PANTHER films. In a bit of cinematic trivia, Lom's Nemo plays Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor  on the organ on the Nautilus. Many years later, in THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976), Lom as Commissioner Dreyfus, now turned criminal mastermind, will also play Toccata in his Austrian castle as he plots to destroy the world and Clouseau.

MYSTERIOUS ISLAND seems to have survived the test of time.  Although its effects might be a tad outdated, the cast, director, composer, screenwriters, and visual effects supervisor give it their best effort and it shows. It's no coincidence that MYSTERIOUS ISLAND has been remade several times and in different countries.  The story of war prisoners escaping in a balloon blown off course onto an isolated island is a universal adventure. We all dream about escaping to a deserted island to escape our everyday problems.  I'd rather face a giant crab than a deadline at times, wouldn't you?  The influence of MYSTERIOUS ISLAND might even be seen in the television show GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and as my wife pointed out to me, the recent ABC hit LOST.  Not bad for a film that has no famous actors or even a well known director.


  1. Great review but I have to take you to task on some things. Mysterious Island is NOT a B movie! It was Columbia Pictures big Christmas film for 1961 and was a box office hit. Its budget was big enough to pay for Bernard Herrmann and the London Symphony Orchestra! Which was very very prestigious for any film to boast back then. And Cy Endfield was a well known director. Right after this film he and Stanley Baker made ZULU one of the greatest and most admired true life action films of all time. Queen Elizabeth even Knighted Endfield for his contributions to cinema! And the cast of the film were mostly all A list actors. Merrill was a much admired character actor and just two years later Joan Greenwood was nominated for an Oscar for her work in TOM JONES. This was a major Christmas season film and was treated as such at the time ; Even The Today Show on NBC had a famous balloonist demonstrate an ascension on live national TV to promote the film! How many B movies get that kind of treatment? None do of course , because this was not a B movie!

    1. Bruce, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I did probably overuse the word B movie in my review. There is no question that composer Bernard Herrmann raises the level of quality for MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. And I do think this is Ray Harryhausen's best work. But Gary Merrill and Joan Greenwood are not A list actors like a Burt Lancaster or Audrey Hepburn which is why I threw that term out. But no question MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is a big, fantastically entertaining film. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

    2. We will have to agree to disagree. Mysterious Island is not a B movie! Ray said on many occasions that beginning with 7th voyage of sinbad ALL of his pictures had A budgets and talent. Just because Lancaster and Hepburn are not in it doe not make it a B movie. If that is the criteria, then Star Wars was a low budget B movie because most of the main cast were all unknowns at the time LOL!

    3. Wanted to add. Bernard Herrmann and The London Symphony Orchestra have never performed for a low budget B movie. Ever! I knew Herrmann the last year of his life and I was a close friend of Ray Harryhausens' for over 35 years.

  2. Great review. One of my favourites too! I met Beth Rogan (then known as Jeni Cassell), a few years before she died, when she was showing some of her paintings at an art exhibition in her home town of Emsworth. She married a number of very rich men (and had a number of affairs) and lived the life of a socialite on the French and Italian Riviera[ hence her retirement from the film industry. She made her last film, Salt and Pepper (with Sammy Davis jr who became a friend) after her marriage ended. Her life formed the basis of the Julie Christie film Darling which was produced by the man who discovered her queuing for tennis tickets at Wimbledon where she was studying art.

    The model town in your picture of Ray Harryhausen is an exact replica of Shepperton Square the town where Shepperton Studios is located. The white building behind the balloon basket is the Warren Lodge Hotel a few miles from where I lived and I had lunch there last month. The square hasn't changed at all.

  3. I had a similar reaction to this film as you did. It knocked me out as a child and became my own favorite movie - and remained that way for years. I don't quite understand you feeling "guilty" about enjoying this phenomenally entertaining movie. I bought an original one sheet movie poster and, in 1995, met Ray Harryhausen personally - and he autographed my poster. It hangs in a place of honor in my "movie room" to this day.

  4. I remember this movie like it was yesterday