by Mel Valentin
Eager for a box office hit and looking to capitalize on Disney’s success with their adaptation of Jules Verne’s "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," Twentieth Century Fox turned to another well-known Verne novel, "Journey to the Center of the Earth," for the source material for their own big budget, big screen adaptation. Twentieth Century Fox put journeyman (sorry, couldn’t resist) director Henry Levin ("The Desperados," "The Ambushers," "Murderers' Row," "Genghis Khan," "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm," "The Wonders of Aladdin") at the helm of Walter Reisch’s ("The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing," "Titanic," "Niagara," "Gaslight") nimble screenplay and a production budget equal to Verne’s prolific imagination.An Edinburgh university student, Alexander 'Alec' McKuen (Pat Boone), brings his mentor, Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (James Mason), a lump of lava. After melting down the rock, Lindenbrook and McKuen discover a message from a long-lost, legendary explorer, Arne Saknussen. The message contains directions on how to reach the center of the earth (here, as in Verne’s novel, presumed hollow). After some discussion, Lindenbrook and McKuen decide to follow in Saknussen’s footsteps, but Saknussen began his journey in Iceland and while getting to Iceland isn’t difficult, they have a small window of opportunity to discover the secret passageway in a long-dormant volcano. There’s also another problem: they’re short on funds to purchase the necessary supplies and equipment for their expedition. McKuen also has a problem of his own: his engagement to Lindenbrook’s niece, Jenny (Diane Baker).
"Effortlessly entertaining old-school Hollywood filmmaking."
Once in Iceland, Lindenbrook and McKuen discover their collaborator, a geology professor, dead, and his strong-willed widow, Carla Göteborg (Arlene Dahl), eager to join the expedition. A 19th-century man through and through, Lindenbrook can’t look past his biases and prejudices against women until he realizes the expedition can’t go forward without her help. Lindenbrook also gets a local Icelander, Hans Belker (Peter Ronson), to join his expedition, but he can’t speak Icelandic. Carla, however, does. Oddly enough, Hans insists on bringing his pet duck, Gertrude, along on the journey. Unbeknownst to the Lindenbrook expedition, Saknussen’s descendant, Count Saknussen (Thayer David), has also set out for the center of the earth. Along the way, Lindenbrook and the others have to contend with a shortage of water, food, and, eventually light. They also have to find a way back to the surface.
Twentieth Century Fox’s first choice for Lindenbrook, Clifton Webb (Laura), fell ill before production was to begin, so Fox turned to James Mason (The Fall of the Roman Empire, Lolita, North by Northwest, Bigger than Life, A Star is Born, Odd Man Out). Mason turned out to be an inspired choice for the lead role, both for his ability to make dislikeable, curmudgeonly characters relatable and audience recognition of his performance five years earlier as Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. For Alec McKuen, Fox picked Pat Boone, whose reputation as a clean-cut Elvis alternative would help to bring in the all-important family demographic. Fox rounded out the cast with a strong supporting cast, but no “stars.” Apparently, the remainder of the budget went to the elaborate subterranean sets and then impressive visual effects (minus, unfortunately, the live-action lizards blown up to giant size).
Levin and Reisch’s adaptation differed in two key respects from Verne’s novel, first by adding a hissable villain, Count Saknussen, and a surprisingly strong female character, Carla Göteborg who doubles as Lindenbrook’s foil and romantic interest. Saknussen and Göteborg provide Journey to the Center of the Earth with just the right amount of inter-character conflict. Most of the plot turns, however, come not from character but from the various obstacles the characters face at well-timed interval. Just as one plot turn (e.g., water shortage) is resolved, another (e.g., a character getting lost), enters. It’s all exceedingly well paced, even if the resolutions tend stretch credulity more often than not.Not surprisingly, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is at its most implausible and ludicrous whenever the characters invoke science. No, the earth isn’t hollow, but back in the 19th century, it was, at least, an open question. It certainly wasn’t an open question when Twentieth Century Fox decided to adapt Jules Verne’s novel, but they smartly kept the 19th-century setting and trusted audiences to treat the premise as fantasy more than science (or science fiction), which they did, if box office receipts are any indication. But with Reisch’s well-paced screenplay, big budget production values, including on location filming in the Carlsbad Caverns to add a touch of authenticity to the implausible scenario, light, but never overbroad, performances, and a mix of action, romance, and humor, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is classical Hollywood filmmaking at its most effortlessly entertaining.
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originally posted: 01/13/08 22:28:32