Mysterious Island (1961)



(director: Cy Endfield; screenwriters: John Prebble/Daniel Ullman/Crane Wilbur/based on the novel by Jules Verne; cinematographer: Wilkie Cooper; editor: Frederick Wilson; music: Bernard Herrmann; cast: Michael Craig (Captain Cyrus Harding), Herbert Lom (Captain Nemo), Joan Greenwood (Lady Mary Fairchild), Gary Merrill (Gideon Spillett), Michael Callan (Herbert Brown), Beth Rogan (Elena), Percy Herbert (Sergeant Pencroft), Dan Jackson (Neb); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Charles Schneer; Columbia Pictures; 1961-UK)

“Watchable only because of the terrific stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cy Endfield (“Zulu”/”Tarzan’s Savage Fury”/”De Sade”) flatly directs from a screenplay by John Prebble, Daniel Ullman and Crane Wilbur this juvenile adventure, that’s based on Jules Verne’s 1874 classic science-fiction novel Mysterious Island. The often filmed story has at least nine versions with this one being considered by many as the most faithful to the novel (though it certainly took some liberties). It was also the most popular version and is watchable only because of the terrific stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. It follows the exploits of the megalomaniac submarine commander Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), the hero from Verne’s prior novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, who becomes the true hero of Mysterious Island but doesn’t come into play until the film’s third act.

In 1865, following the siege of Richmond, three Union soldiers–Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig), black soldier Neb (Dan Jackson) and the youthful Herbert Brown (Michael Callan)–escape from a Confederate prison in an observation balloon when they overtake its operator, Rebel Sgt. Pencroft (Percy Herbert), and also hijack passenger war correspondent observer from the North named Gideon Spillett (Gary Merrill). In a wicked storm they are carried across the country and far out over the Pacific. They get washed ashore on an isolated South Sea island of the title, which is some 1,000 miles off the coast of New Zealand and features a strange landscape, sandy beaches, geysers and a volcano. The men make primitive tools to build a shelter and survive attacks from seemingly prehistoric monsters (later we learn that they landed on Captain Nemo’s island and through his scientific experiments he created these giant creatures). The men live off the giant crab, the honey from giant bees and a giant chicken (according to Harryhausen “It was a prehistoric Phorohacos but owing to script deletions its antediluvian origin was discarded”). Soon two aristocratic British ladies, the haughty Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her sweet niece Elena (Beth Rogan), wash ashore as the only survivors of a shipwreck. This leads to a tepid romance between Elena and the callow Herbert, who finds his manhood in this relationship. When the islanders are attacked by a cutthroat pirate ship, Captain Nemo emerges for the first time to save them by blowing up the ship. Informing the survivors he’s lived here in seclusion the last 8 years, ever since his submarine, the Nautilus, was no longer sea worthy and has spent his time blowing up war ships that pass through to advance his pacifist beliefs and also experiments in the mutation of animals to solve the world’s food shortage. Nemo tells them that it’s time to get off the island because the volcano is about to erupt at any minute, and he helps them re-float the sunken pirate ship but only he can’t escape the island when the volcano erupts.

Mysterious Island is a straightforward desert island survival tale that contains no real science-fiction material except for Nemo’s gimmicky high-tech submarine that is decked out in plush Victorian splendor. Nemo even serves wine to his guests while wearing a snappy velvet green suit, which could have been made into a camp scene but wasn’t. The Nemo characterization seemed as if he was a cross between your usual Hollywood take on a mad scientist and some kind of modern-day blubbering misguided idealistic terrorist genius foolishly thinking he was a great humanitarian by blowing up boats and falsely believing that hunger was the root cause of all wars. There was not much to latch onto in this dull pic, except it looked fine in Technicolor and the score by Bernard Herrmann was winsome. It had about as much appeal as one of those recent Survival television shows, which in my way of seeing things is not much.