by Alexandre Paquin
"Around the World in Eighty Days" (1956) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, yet it now appears to be overlong and lacks a strong central performance. The film, which was mostly of visual interest when first released, has lost most of its appeal.Jules Verne's novels have been the subject of numerous film adaptations, and although the most historically important of these were short subjects filmed by the French pioneer of trick photography Georges Méliès in the first decade of the twentieth century, the most prestigious filming of the writings of Verne was undoubtedly 1956's "Around the World in Eighty Days". The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year, as well as for adapted screenplay, editing, music, and cinematography (colour), and was also nominated in the art direction-set decoration, costume design, and director categories. As it is rather unusual that a film winning an Oscar for Best Picture does not also win in one of the acting categories, the fact that "Around the World in Eighty Days" did not even obtain a nomination in any of these (an extremely rare circumstance for a Best Picture winner) should be revealing about what made the the film appealing when it premiered in 1956. It was the film's superior visual sense, with its widescreen cinematography and lavish sets and costumes, that made it the best of its year, but this also meant that the picture would become dated as soon as new technologies would emerge, and that its impact on audiences in the mid-1950's would be difficult to explain if one watches the film on a small screen, and with both sides of the image cut off. Without the original visual aspect, there is very little to appreciate about the film, which seems empty and, with a running time of nearly three hours, overlong.
"Around the World in 178 Minutes."
"Around the World in Eighty Days" tells the story of the Victorian Englishman Phileas Fogg (David Niven), who bets his entire fortune with members of his club that he can travel around the world and be back in London in eighty days or less. Accompanied by his energetic French butler, Passepartout (Cantinflas), he plans to travel across France, then East across the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, all the way to India, then to Bangkok, Shanghai, Yokohama, San Francisco, New York, and finally, back to London. His journey would be interrupted by several unforeseen events which would slow him down, including a case of mistaken identity. Indeed, because of the suddenness of his departure from England, and because he carries an impressive amount of money with him on his journey, Fogg is suspected of being the thief who robbed fifty thousand pounds at the Bank of England. This is enough to convince the private investigator Mr. Fix (Robert Newton) of Fogg's culpability, and the detective decides to travel with Fogg with the intent of arresting him as soon as possible.
During the three hours of the film, we are given exotic escapism displayed using the grand treatment. This is not necessarily wrong in itself, but escapism should not be used to hide or provide an excuse for the lack of plot or the inappropriate pacing. Of course, Jules Verne, was never really considered a writer of serious fiction (except among later admirers who hailed him as a peerless visionary), and if one wanted to read a thought-provoking work on the issues of the day, one would read the works of Flaubert or Maupassant. Verne's writings would be aimed at a different, usually younger, audience, would feature exotic locations and situations bordering on what would now be considered fantasy or science fiction, and would compensate their lack of psychological depth with a frantic pace and exciting adventures. If the film had tried to keep the same pace as the novel, it could have worked very well. Unfortunately, the film's pacing is too slow, and one keeps wondering if too much emphasis was placed on some incidents in the journey. The vast geographical scope of the novel could have led the screenwriters or the director to believe that an epic treatment could have been preferable, but the film, in spite of its impressive length, rarely ever gets pompous. A major exception to this, however, is the prologue of the film, narrated by the reputed journalist Edward R. Murrow, which emphasizes the relevance of Jules Verne's writings in the context of the Cold War and the nuclear age. As soon as the prologue is over, the film lightens up, and never quite takes itself seriously again -- thankfully, because it would have failed had it been treated as an epic. There was simply too much material to cover to make such an approach successful, and the story is too superficial and light-hearted to accommodate a more serious treatment.
While the film usually remains faithful to the novel, it did take some liberties with the material at hand. An example would be the extensive bullfighting sequence in Spain, which is also the most memorable instance of the inappropriately slow pacing of the film. What is particularly infuriating is not only that the film takes too much time on this single event, but also that the Spanish sequence is not to be found in the book. In the novel, Fogg and Passepartout take a ship from England that leads them through the strait of Gibraltar and across the Mediterranean Sea to Suez. Why was the Spanish episode included in the film? To showcase the talent of Cantinflas, a former bullfighter, as Passepartout. Nevertheless, the previous episode of a hot air balloon (a reference to another of Verne's books, Cinq semaines en ballon), which had led them to Spain, was pleasant enough, and the rest of the film never drags as much as it did in the Spanish sequence.
Following Fogg's arrival in Suez, where he also meets Mr. Fix, the party travels by rail and elephant through India, and the journey includes a suttee (a ceremony in which the widow of a recently-deceased man is burned alive). Fogg and his travelling partners rescue the princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine) from such a ceremony, and then continue their travel to Bangkok, Shanghai, and Yokohama. The local customs of each of these cities, either real or imagined at the time Verne wrote his novel, are developed in detail, and this travelogue approach is continued when Fogg and the others reach North America. San Francisco is depicted as a decadent and sinful city, and America is given the Wild West portrayal, with a turbulent election campaign, and a travel by rail which is interrupted by a herd of buffaloes, then by Indians (that is, until a climactic rescue by the cavalry), and a bridge on the verge of collapsing, all of these events separated by breathtaking images of the apparently endless plains.
Following the pattern of the novel, the centre of interest of the film is not Fogg himself, but his ever-efficient manservant, Passepartout. However, while Passepartout appeared in the book to be an extremely resourceful man, in the film, with the Spanish Cantinflas in the part (just another example of Hollywood's belief that all non-English accents are alike), he comes across as a buffoon more content with goofing around than serving his employer, which leaves one wondering why the very strict Fogg could have hired him him in the first place. In the novel, Passepartout carried the action; in the film, he is "comic relief", and it is not difficult to understand why. The role of Phileas Fogg is reduced to a minimum, and David Niven was chosen to play Fogg because of his almost unique ability to stand there silently and undeniably look British, but unfortunately, he was provided with very few opportunities to display his immense talent. In contrast with Niven's obvious casting, the idea of disguising Shirley MacLaine as a Hindu princess is questionable, even though her role is basically relegated to the background and in spite of the fact that the actress does not play the part for laughs (Niven and MacLaine would be teamed up again in 1959's "Ask Any Girl", with more success). The best of the main characters is Robert Newton, typically cast as the villain, Fix (his final role before his death in early 1956). To make up for the generally uninteresting central cast, the film includes forty-four cameos of celebrities of the time, who may mean very little to audiences of today, and who may furthermore appear as hampering the fluidity of the whole film, as too many cameos are likely to do.
Surprisingly enough, the film may never have seen the light of day due to constant funding problems, but became one of the biggest money-makers of its year, and also the crowning achievement of independent producer Michael Todd (better-known for his Todd-AO widescreen process, which was used for the film). Forty-five years later, however, the film's flaws have become more obvious than its merits, and it may be difficult, in retrospect, to enjoy the film as much as when it was first released. The plot appears even more naive than in the original novel because of the slow pacing. The central cast, with the exception of Cantinflas (of whom there is too much), is constantly underplayed, drowned as it is, particularly Niven, under dozens of cameos and the scenery.
Because of the desire to present a breathtaking spectacle to audiences, a film which could have lasted a mere two hours is unnecessarily extended to three. Fogg's necessity to race against the clock would have had more impact on the viewer if the film, like the book, moved along at a quick pace. As it stands, the film cares less about the destination or the time it takes to reach it than about the scenic highlights of the journey. Fogg did not bother with the scenery during his trip because he was too much in a hurry. Why, then, should it matter to audiences, especially if nothing else takes place when the camera insists on showing pretty pictures? This makes of "Around the World in Eighty Days" one of those films which must be seen in their original widescreen format and on a large screen to be appreciated, although the colour is not as crisp as it should have been (a better preserved print could solve the problem) and the direction by Michael Anderson and others mostly follows the routine instead of innovating. The music by Victor Young (for which the composer posthumously won his only Oscar) includes a few well-known and inevitable themes ("Rule Britannia"), and also provided the legendary crooner Bing Crosby with a hit in 1957 with a song written from a part of the music from the film (played during the scene in the balloon), appropriately named "Around the World (in Eighty Days)".
By the standards of today, however, "Around the World in Eighty Days" would not be considered worthy of an Academy Award for Best Picture (in a few years, we'll hopefully be saying the same about "Titanic"). This film is now considered as being overlong and lacking an outstanding and pleasant leading performance. The film's appeal in 1956 was due to its cinematography and colourful escapism, and looks dated now, but it remains worth seeing for the star cameos, and it does sustain a certain naive, light-hearted charm of its own."Around the World in Eighty Days" is a prime example of an all-show, no substance film with a completely inappropriate pace, and would have worked better had the film emphasized Fogg's necessity to meet the deadline rather than provided the audience with a travelogue.
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originally posted: 01/02/02 06:27:42