Around the World Under the Sea (1966) **
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you quite possibly the most sexist movie ever made: Around the World Under the Sea. You remember how, in my review of The Andromeda Strain, I commended Robert Wise and Nelson Gidding for their depiction of the female scientist, Ruth Leavitt? How impressed I said I was that Leavitt was allowed to be something more than just The Chick? Well, in case you had any questions regarding what I meant by that, allow me to point you toward this movie here.
The setup is suspiciously similar to that of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (which had just been spun off into a TV series a couple of years before— coincidence? I think not...). The experimental deep-diving, nuclear-powered research submarine Hydronaut is nearly ready to embark on its maiden voyage when the entire world is wracked by a series of intense earthquakes. Fortunately, the Hydronaut’s designers— Dr. Doug Standish (Lloyd Bridges, from Rocketship X-M and Strange Confession), Dr. Craig Mosby (Brian Kelly), and Professor Humaru (George Shibata)— have a plan to use their new sub in combating the crisis. Though it is, of course, impossible to prevent an earthquake, Humaru has developed a special sensor capable of detecting the seismological conditions that give rise to earthquakes before they quite reach the level necessary to set off a tremor. If, say, 50 of these devices could be planted on the sea floor near all the major fault lines, the result would be a worldwide earthquake warning system that could save millions of lives— tens of millions if the current epidemic of quakes goes on much longer. And needless to say, the Hydronaut is the only vessel in the world capable of carrying out such a mission.
Before the Hydronaut can set sail, however, it’s going to need a crew. Standish and Mosby, obviously, will be aboard; Humaru will stay on land to coordinate the mission. As for the rest, Standish and Mosby are mostly in agreement as to the lineup for their dream team. They want Dr. Orin Hillyard (Marshall Thompson, from Cult of the Cobra and First Man Into Space) to be their geologist and Dr. Philip Volker (David McCallum, of Watcher in the Woods and The Haunting of Morella) to be their electronics expert. Both men also agree that the services of Hank Stahl (Keenan Wynn, from The Devil’s Rain and Orca), a self-educated expert on underwater survival, widely regarded as the top man in his field in the entire world, will be required if so protracted and demanding an underwater mission is to have any chance of success. Getting Hillyard is no problem; he’s an old friend of Mosby’s, and is thrilled at the prospect of being tapped for such an envelope-pushing project. The other two men are a bit tougher to sell on the deal. Volker, the little Teutonic weasel, agrees only on the condition that, after the mission is over, he be allowed to use the Hydronaut to salvage some $400,000,000 worth of transistor crystals that went down when the freighter carrying them sank in an especially deep part of the ocean. Stahl, for his part, is a hermit and a misanthrope (albeit a sweet, cuddly misanthrope when you get beneath his prickly exterior), who’s spent the last several years living alone in a diving bell on the bottom of the sea— about as dramatic a renunciation of the world as you could ask for— and Standish has to resort to some pretty devious psychological warfare to draw him out of his shell and sign him on.
The last member of the team is the one about whom Standish and Mosby disagree. Standish wants to minimize the size of the crew, and he therefore wants to consolidate the positions of physician and marine biologist in one person. Needless to say, there aren’t a lot of MD’s who are also credentialed marine biologists, so this somewhat arcane requirement has pretty much narrowed the pool to two people. The doctor Mosby wants is sick, however, so the job goes to Dr. M. E. Handford, who to the surprise of everyone but the audience (what— didn’t any of these people see Tarantula?) turns out to be Dr. Margaret Elizabeth Handford (Shirley Eaton, from Blood of Fu Manchu and The Million Eyes of Sumuru). Well, now... Mosby is even more rankled now that he knows that the doctor/biologist will not only be Standish’s candidate, but a woman too, but he’s especially perturbed to learn that he will be sailing with this woman in particular. He and Handford have crossed paths already, and though he would certainly deny it if you asked him, he’s gigantically infatuated with her.
And now the sexism starts in earnest... Handford shows up late for the Hydronaut’s launch, and when she does finally arrive, she’s wearing a tight, confining dress and the most impractical shoes imaginable. Oh yes, and she’s got a pair of guinea pigs in a hat box. ‘Cause, you know— she’s The Chick. And as Standish so excitedly points out, Handford’s “as skilled with a skillet as she is with a scalpel.” ‘Cause, you know— she’s The Chick. But wait, there’s more. Handford is sort-of seeing Orin Hillyard, and she’s Phil Volker’s ex-girlfriend. Can you say “love quadrangle?”
I can’t tell you how much this angle on the story pisses me off. Despite the fact that she’s ostensibly a medical doctor and a marine biologist, just about the only function we ever see her perform on the Hydronaut is making and distributing coffee. There’s a scene in which Volker almost crashes the sub into an underwater cliff-face because he’s too busy getting angstful with Handford to pay attention to piloting the ship. In another, she causes a minor scandal by putting on an aquabatic show in front of the sub’s main viewport while wearing the smallest bikini a mainstream movie could get away with in 1966, which leads to a much less minor scene when Volker goes up on deck to meet her. And you know what the worst thing about it is? All of the men onboard— who, after all, are the ones behaving childishly and irrationally— blame Handford for their reactions to her! ‘Cause, you know— she’s The Chick.
What was that? The story? Oh, yeah. Right. The story. I almost forgot. Basically, the Hydronaut circles the globe, planting Dr. Humaru’s sensors at the appropriate places along the major fault lines, while having episodic encounters with various sorts of peril. The best scene— indeed the only one that remotely justifies sitting through Around the World Under the Sea— is the one with the giant moray eel. At one point, Hank Stahl goes out on a dive to collect specimens (wait a minute— isn’t Handford supposed to be the marine biologist?) while the rest of the crew plants a sensor, and he is attacked by a moray about half again the size of the sub. We’re in serious Bert I. Gordon territory, here, and nothing else in the movie comes anywhere close to equaling the entertainment value of the model Hydronaut facing off against a real green moray, intercut with matte shots of Stahl cowering between the sub’s ballast tanks while the eel takes up the entire screen behind him. But it doesn’t last nearly long enough, and then it’s back to the old grind until the so-called climax, in which the Hydronaut gets a little too close to an erupting volcano, and gets trapped under a pile of boulders. The crew is able to escape only by using explosives to sever the submarine’s bow, which then floats to safety on the surface. Of course, those of us who know a thing or two about submarine design will be rolling our eyes from here to the closing credits— there’s a very good reason why the main body of a sub is called the pressure hull, after all.
I suppose Around the World Under the Sea is halfway decent from a purely technical perspective. The movie looks good, even in the giant eel scene, and it’s always clear that its creators were taking their jobs seriously. The diving scenes are a bit livelier than is usually the case with such films, and the underwater cinematography is quite pretty to look at. Even the special effects are respectable by mid-60’s standards. Where Around the World Under the Sea fails is in its dismal, predictable, repetitive script, and in its acutely offensive portrayal of Margaret Handford. It’s funny... I can watch a movie like Maniac or Greta the Mad Butcher and not be the slightest bit offended, but something as seemingly innocuous as Around the World Under the Sea really pisses me off. I think what does it is the sheer offhandedness of it all. Frank Zito’s misogyny is the driving force behind Maniac’s plot, while Greta the Mad Butcher is an out-and-out sexploitation flick; one expects the women in those movies to be portrayed in a less than exemplary light. But here we have a movie that presents us with a female character of great professional standing, whose credentials drastically outweigh those of her male colleagues (none of the men onboard the Hydronaut has two doctorates), yet who is nevertheless depicted as being really quite useless, and in such matter-of-fact terms that it’s clear we’re to look on this as the natural order of things. In fact, Margaret Handford is made to seem worse than useless— she’s reckoned to be an outright hindrance by just about everyone else on the ship. At least in a sexploitation movie, women are allowed to be good for something!