Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) *½
Yeah, I know. I remember me telling myself to stay away from Jules Verne movies just as distinctly as you do. But you see, I got mixed up. I thought this was the movie with all the really cool outsized animals made by Ray Harryhausen-- the giant bees, the big ostrichy-looking birds, the immense crabs. But no. That movie was Mysterious Island. This movie is the one that makes you wait for 45 fucking minutes before so much as showing you the mouth of the cave leading to the center of the Earth, and whose idea of prehistoric monsters is a pack of monitor lizards passed off as Dimetrodons with the aid of comparatively respectable rubber thermoregulatory sails glued to their backs. True, it doesn’t equal the levels of lameness reached by From the Earth to the Moon, but neither is it any better than Master of the World.
The newly knighted Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason, of The Boys from Brazil, who had crossed swords with Jules Verne before in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) is a geologist living in 1880’s Edinburgh. In celebration of his recent recognition by the Crown, his top student, Alec McEwan (the very same Pat Boone who was even then making a fortune by offending the ears of rock and roll fans the world over with his lounged-out cover versions of their favorite hits), gives him a cool-looking hunk of lava which he bought at a souvenir shop on his recent trip to Italy. McEwan then goes home to get ready for the dinner party his mentor is holding that night; he’s got a crush on Lindenbrook’s niece, Jenny (Strait-Jacket’s Diane Baker, who would turn up unexpectedly in The Silence of the Lambs some 30 years later), and he wants to make sure he looks his best.
The party doesn’t quite pan out, however. McEwan gets to hang with Jenny, alright (and to sing to her, as well— hey, he is Pat Boone, you know), and all of the colleagues Lindenbrook invited put in an appearance, but the host himself never arrives. After a couple hours of waiting, Jenny thinks to look in her uncle’s lab back at the university, and that is indeed where Sir Oliver is to be found. You see, he happened to notice that afternoon that the slab of lava McEwan gave him was much too heavy to be composed of the type of rock it appeared to be on the outside. And sure enough, its core proves to be made of a much denser, much harder rock which puzzlingly enough is found only in Iceland. Lindenbrook has spent the whole evening trying to find a way to get at whatever is inside the curious rock, and when Jenny and McEwan burst in, he and one of his assistants have just begun trying to melt the lava away, on the theory that the denser material inside it will have a commensurately higher melting point. Jenny is horrified to hear her uncle’s estimate of the time this experiment will require (in two to four more hours, the dinner she spent all day preparing will have passed on into the realm of leftovers), but she ends up not having to wait anywhere near that long, because a small act of carelessness on the part of the professor’s assistant causes the furnace in which the lava was cooking to explode, fortuitously accomplishing the task at hand in mere seconds. The object inside the lava turns out to be a plumb bob bearing a long inscription in what looks like Icelandic, along with the signature of the man who presumably wrote it: Arne Saknusson.
Who, you ask? Well, as Lindenbrook explains, Saknusson was a famous geologist of some two centuries before, who disappeared while trying to prove that an extinct volcano in his homeland contained a shaft that led directly to the Earth’s core. Lindenbrook takes the fact that the plumb bob had somehow found its way to the interior of a chunk of igneous rock as evidence that Saknusson succeeded in his quest, and is suddenly overcome by a desire to follow in the man’s footsteps. And fortunately for him, the inscription on the plumb bob happens to explain how and where to find the mouth of the cave into which Saknusson vanished. Sir Oliver immediately writes to his colleague, Professor Goetaborg (Ivan Triesault, from The Amazing Transparent Man and Cry of the Werewolf), in Stockholm who, as the world’s foremost expert on the inner Earth, ought to be the most qualified to reevaluate Saknusson’s centuries-old claims.
Goetaborg takes his time in writing back to Lindenbrook, though, and as it turns out, he has very good reason for doing so. The Swede means to follow up on Sir Oliver’s find himself, and he’d rather not share the resulting accolades with anyone else. When Lindenbrook figures out what’s going on, he and Alec race off to Iceland, hoping there’s still time to beat Goetaborg to the punch. And indeed there is, even allowing for time lost escaping (with the help of a brawny Icelandic farm boy [Peter Ronson] and his pet duck) from a trap the rival geologist laid for them, but not for any reason they had imagined. You see, there’s yet a third scientist following Saknusson’s trail, and this third scientist has poisoned Goetaborg by the time Lindenbrook and McEwan manage to track the Swede down. Comparing notes with the manager of the inn where Goetaborg was staying and with the professor’s widow, Karla (Arlene Dahl), Lindenbrook determines that their new foe is none other than the current Count Saknusson (The Werewolf of Washington’s Thayer David), descendant of the man whose lost plumb bob started the whole mess moving in the first place. Thus, the race is still on, despite Goetaborg’s removal from it, and Lindenbrook will have to move fast if he wants his expedition to succeed. The catch is that Goetaborg bought up just about every piece of equipment in Reykjavik that a spelunking expedition could use before Lindenbrook even got to town. All that gear now belongs to Karla, and her price for using it is to be brought along on the trek. Lindenbrook doesn’t like it, but he hasn’t exactly got a lot of choice in the matter.
As I said, it’s the 45-minute mark before the Lindenbrook expedition reaches the volcano identified by Saknusson as his shortcut to the center of the Earth, and the film doesn’t start moving any faster once they do. Most of the next hour and a half (and yes, my mathematically inclined readers, that does indeed make Journey to the Center of the Earth nearly two and a quarter hours long) will consist of Lindenbrook, McEwan, Karla, brawny farm-boy Hans, and Gertrude the duck (those with sharp eyes and ears might notice that Gertrude is really a drake) wandering around through an endless series of caverns, ooh-ing and ah-ing at the ostensibly wondrous sights that confront them, and occasionally fleeing from such none-too-interesting perils as floods, rockslides, and earth tremors. Even Count Saknusson’s machinations add relatively little in the way of excitement, for he is quite swiftly shoehorned into the role of the ineffectual captive villain, rather like Dr. Smith on the old “Lost in Space” TV show. There’s a brief blip of action when those somewhat pitiful Dimetrodons show up, but they’re only in the movie long enough to chase our heroes out onto the underground sea which they find in the penultimate reel. The sunken city of Atlantis turns out to be on the far shore of that sea, but I for one was well past caring by the time Lindenbrook and company finally reached it, having long since grown itchy for the appearance of the volcano which I knew would have to be coming along to end the story sooner or later.
If you pay close attention to the dialogue, you’ll note that the plot of Journey to the Center of the Earth unfolds over the course of most of a year. And yeah, the way this movie flows, that feels about right. On the basis of my admittedly unscientific investigations, I’d say I have an extraordinarily long attention span by modern standards— God knows none of the people I hang out with could have sat through all of Stalker, or even Corridors of Blood— but I found getting from one set of credits to the other to be a real struggle here. I’m thoroughly sick of films in which stuffily macho guys are forced to accept a female sidekick who ultimately teaches them valuable lessons about the folly of underestimating the fair sex. I’ve seen enough movies filmed in Bronson Canyon that the interiors of caves really don’t impress me unless I’m actually standing inside them myself, and similarly unimpressive are such things as grottos full of huge papier-mâché mushrooms and overpriced sets of faux-classical ruins. And I have a longstanding personal prejudice against movies in which the heroes are routinely bailed out of trouble by their cute animal companions (though I suppose Journey to the Center of the Earth deserves some sort of credit for giving the Lassie role to a motherfucking duck...). Lavish production values will only carry a movie so far; it may be vastly sillier than this one, but At the Earth’s Core is at least reasonably entertaining most of the time. I guess I should just be thankful that Pat Boone only gets to sing a couple of songs...