Mysterious Island (1961) ***
At last— a Jules Verne movie that doesn’t totally blow! What is it, you ask, that separates Mysterious Island from the likes of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Master of the World, and From the Earth to the Moon? Simple: Ray Fucking Harryhausen. Don’t bother me about there not being any monsters in Verne’s Mysterious Island— I don’t care. The Dimetrodons were the only reason to watch Journey to the Center of the Earth, and the squid was far and away the most entertaining thing about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. If the makers of From the Earth to the Moon had taken the hint from Georges Melies, and crossbred Verne’s story with H. G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon, there might have been some point in watching that turkey, too. Besides, if it weren’t for Harryhausen and his stop-motion bestiary, Mysterious Island would have been nothing but Robinson Crusoe with a crippled submarine, and if that’s what you want to see, then I suggest you go get a budget and film it yourself. I’ll be over here with the giant crabs and cassowaries whenever you’re finished.
Mind you, at first blush it looks like Mysterious Island is simply going to be another one of those goddamned ballooning adventures Verne was always writing. As the Union army closes in on Richmond in 1865, three Federal soldiers in a Confederate prison camp are planning their escape under cover of storm and darkness. Under the direction of Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig, from The Vault of Horror and Inn of the Damned), Corporal Neb Nugent (Exorcism at Midnight’s Dan Jackson), and Private Herbert Brown (Michael Callan, of Chained Heat and Leprechaun 3) are preparing an ambush for their guards. Brown has sabotaged the stairway that leads down into their subterranean cell, while Harding and Nugent are standing by with improvised cudgels. The next time the guards open up the cell to bring in a new prisoner, they’ll fall through the booby-trapped staircase and be overwhelmed by the three Northerners. Then Harding and his men will steal the fallen soldiers’ overcoats and sneak over to the observation balloon tethered down at the other end of the camp. At that point, it’ll just be a matter of surviving the storm and the musket-fire of the troops on the ground. The scheme goes almost exactly as Harding intended, although the escapees end up with two extra passengers aboard the balloon. One of these is the new prisoner the guards were escorting to the cell, a Union war correspondent named Gideon Spillard (Gary Merrill, from Destination Inner Space and The Power). The other is Sergeant Pencroft (Percy Herbert, of Enemy from Space and The Viking Queen, whose miserable Southern accent can perhaps be excused by the fact that he’s really English), the only Confederate sentry who was fast enough on the draw to offer Harding’s people any meaningful opposition. The captain is initially inclined to toss Pencroft overboard, but because the rebel knows how to operate the balloon and his captors would just be guessing, Harding comes to see the wisdom of keeping the man around.
Pencroft’s ballooning expertise isn’t enough to get the men away from the storm, however, which seizes hold of the balloon and doesn’t let go until it blows itself out some five days later. By that point, the balloon is out over the Pacific ocean, and the only land in sight is a small island exhibiting no signs of human habitation. Nevertheless, it’s a place to land, and since the balloon has just sprung a leak, the fivesome are going to have to land sooner rather than later. Of course, a leaking balloon is damned hard to control, and it turns out to be an extremely rough landing. The men get separated as their aircraft bounces along the waves offshore, and the only reason Nugent, Brown, Gideon, and Pencroft are able to find Captain Harding as quickly as they do the next morning is because somebody— Harding swears it wasn’t him— built a small fire on the beach where he washed ashore.
The soldiers discover that the island is a strange and dangerous place when they make their first foray of exploration into its interior. There’s an active volcano at the island’s center— isn’t there always a volcano?— and the huge oysters Gideon finds forming a reef just out past the breakers are the least of the isle’s exotic wildlife. On the beach opposite their landing site, the soldiers are nearly killed by a land crab at least nine feet across! Their improvised spears are no match for the monster crustacean’s armor, and Harding and company are able to kill the thing only by using their weapons as levers to upend it and pitch it off a low sea-cliff into the thermal vent below. Fortuitously, the method of the crab’s demise (that is to say, being dumped alive into a pit of boiling water) means that the men will be eating very well for the next day or so.
It’s a good thing food is so plentiful, too, because Harding and his people are about to have company. One morning, they spy a tiny boat adrift on the current offshore. The craft doesn’t survive the trip landward, but two of its three passengers— Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood, who later supplied the voice of the Great Tyrant in Barbarella) and her niece, Elena (Beth Rogan)— do. It looks at first as though the women, who are accustomed to lives of easy idleness, will be more of a burden than anything else, but as it happens, the older of the two possesses some useful “feminine” skills which Gideon and the soldiers lack. Not having to worry about things like maintaining and replacing their clothes, the men are free to concentrate on building the boat that might be their ticket off the island. And while exploring inland in search of timber, Harding and company find a cave high up in a cliff face overlooking the sea about a thousand yards back that should serve admirably as a base of operations until such time as the boat is finished. At the very least, it’s far preferable to a palm-frond lean-to on the exposed beach. Our heroes aren’t the first people to appreciate the value of that cave, however. From what the soldiers are able to piece together from the artifacts (including a diary and a hanged skeleton) they find in the cave, it had previously been the campsite of vicious South Seas pirates. The possibility of such men returning gives added impetus to Harding’s efforts at boat-building, which, in turn, are helped along when a steamer trunk washes up on the beach. Inside are a telescope, matches, modern metal tools, some books whose content is distinctly relevant to the situation on the island, and even a few breach-loading rifles and ammunition! It’s a rather mysterious coincidence, that trunk turning up stocked with exactly what the seven castaways happen to need, and the mystery only deepens when Herbert notices the inscription on the rifles’ stocks: “Nautilus.” As Gideon explains, the Nautilus was the submarine commanded by the notorious Captain Nemo, who terrorized the navies of the world some eight years back until his awesomely advanced vessel was apparently destroyed off the coast of South America.
Its origin aside, the contents of that trunk are about to become doubly essential, for the pirates are on their way back. When they figure out that somebody else is now using their cave, they go on the attack, first with their own muskets, then with the three cannons aboard their ship when their opponents’ sniping proves too accurate for their comfort. But again luck is with the castaways, and the pirate ship is suddenly sunk by an underwater explosion, perhaps of its own powder magazines. Yeah, well I don’t believe that either, and our suspicions that somebody has been making the unwilling islanders’ luck for them is borne out soon enough. Herbert and Elena go off into the woods to be alone together, and almost end up getting killed by honeybees the size of Cadillacs. When they escape by melting through the wax on the opposite side of the bees’ honeycomb, they discover an underground cove in which a large iron ship of totally unfamiliar design lies at anchor. You guessed it— it’s the Nautilus, and Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom, from 99 Women and Mark of the Devil) is aboard it, alive and well. He’s been assisting the castaways because he wants their help. In his seclusion on the island, he’s been hard at work perfecting the breeding of gigantic plants and animals, with an eye toward solving once and for all mankind’s food difficulties, which he believes ultimately lie at the root of war. His submarine is crippled beyond his ability to repair, however, and so his potentially world-saving biotech research will never become known to its intended beneficiaries unless someone can help furnish him with alternative transportation. The sunken pirate ship, for example— that should do nicely. There’s a deadline, though. As always, the volcano at the center of the island is gearing up for an eruption, and when that happens, the underground cove, the Nautilus, and all the secrets it contains will be destroyed unless the other vessel is ready to sail.
Count on Ray Harryhausen to enliven what might otherwise be a sad, sorry film. The monsters of Mysterious Island are nice work even by his standards, and are made even more impressive by the fact that most of them are just large versions of real-world animals. Because we all know what a crab or a honeybee looks like, the demand for realism in the miniature models is greater, and the result of meeting those demands is potentially more convincing than something like 20 Million Miles to Earth’s Ymir or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’ Rhedosaurus, even if it is also likely to be less memorable in the long run. Mysterious Island is also helped out by the presence of Herbert Lom in the cast. Many viewers will no doubt compare him unfavorably to James Mason in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but Lom still makes a much better Nemo than would just about anybody else in his price range. (With so much of the budget going to Harryhausen and his crew, there wasn’t a whole lot left over to pay for A-list actors.) He conveys just the right combination of grandeur and eccentricity, and somehow manages not to look silly even when he’s wearing a diving helmet and oxygen tank made from the shells of gargantuan sea snails. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, as is so often the case in the movies Harryhausen made for Columbia, but Lom gives Mysterious Island a firm enough human anchor to keep it from becoming a totally empty monster flick.