Mysterious Island
U.S.A. - U.K. / 1961
Directed by
 Cy Endfield
Starring
Michael Craig
Michael Callan
Herbert Lom
Color / 100 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Columbia-TriStar Home Video
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
7
    7   10 = Highest Rating  
This 1961 film adaptation of the classic Jules Verne adventure novel was the first Harryhausen movie I can remember seeing. I must've been about 6 or 7 at the time, encountering it on some Saturday afternoon TV broadcast. The experience left me with a serious 'monster jones', placated only by absorbing as many sci-fi/fantasy flicks featuring giant beasties as I could find on the boob tube. (This was long before the advent of VCRs.) In 1970 I was fortunate to see a re-release of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on the big screen, which pretty much blew my 8-year old mind. Though the film featured but a single monster that unforgettable giant squid I was entranced by its story of the enigmatic Captain Nemo and his incredible 19th Century submarine, the Nautilus. Copies of Classics Illustrated comic books now found their way into my hands, battling the likes of Batman and Captain America for supremacy of my imagination. When I got a little older, around 10 or 11, I was still inspired enough to seek out the written works of Verne, H.G. Wells, Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Their Victorian writing style proved a hard slog for such a young kid weaned on comics, but an excellent annotated edition of 20,000 Leagues became, in effect, my Rosetta Stone. Thus movies and comic books were the catalyst for my lifelong love of reading, something for which I'm eternally grateful.
So, I'll try not to let nostalgia influence this review. Not too much, anyway.
During the 1865 siege of Richmond, Virginia, three Union soldiers and a Northern war correspondent are captured and held as POWs Capt. Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig), a skilled military engineer; Neb (Dan Jackson), an ex-slave and devoted friend of the captain; Herbert (Michael Callan), a brash young private; and Gideon Spilett (Gary Merrill), the cynical, worldly journalist. Though by this point the war is clearly nearing its end in the Union's favor, the men are keen to escape captivity. Their means of winning freedom: a Confederate observation balloon, standing idle in a town square due to bad weather. Overpowering their guards, the POWs reach the tethered balloon and clamber aboard, forcibly dragging a Rebel sentry along with them as the craft lifts off into the storm-wracked sky. (They can't bring themselves to cold-bloodedly throw the Reb from the basket.) Their bold plan has borne fruit; Richmond drops away beneath them. Escaping the Confederate stronghold, however, proves the least of their troubles. Caught in the 'Storm of the Century', the commandeered balloon is carried aloft above an impenetrable screen of clouds, driven ever westward by fierce, hurricane-like winds. Its passengers, unable to control the craft, are completely at the mercy of the elements. The tremendous storm rages for days, sweeping the balloon across the North American continent and out over the Pacific Ocean. Then the gasbag springs a leak. What little of the earth that can be seen through the storm clouds reveals only an empty expanse of ocean. Gradually the balloon drops lower and lower; Harding and company are forced to jettison all provisions, then even the basket itself, in order to stay aloft. The men are left clinging desperately to the netting just a few feet above the crashing waves. Hope is running out for them when a sliver of land is spotted ahead. By what can only be an act of Providence, the almost completely deflated balloon drags the weary aeronauts onto a beach. But the real adventure is only beginning.
Stranded on a volcanic, uncharted isle, the castaways work together to not only survive but also to greatly improve their living conditions. (Having an engineer among the group is a major blessing.) Exploration of their new home leads to some startling discoveries this 'Land Unknown' is not just teeming with life, but gigantic forms of life, including 20-foot tall birds, bees bigger than hippos, and a crab the size of a battle tank. (Which almost makes a meal of Neb.) The men's lonely existence is brightened by the arrival of two shipwrecked women (Joan Greenwood, Beth Rogan), but danger continues to lurk in the form of the giant beasts and a shipload of bloodthirsty pirates. The volcano, too, is rumbling threateningly. How long before it erupts? And how did these fantastic creatures, seen nowhere else in nature, come to be? The castaways eventually receive answers from none other than the legendary Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), whose submarine Nautilus lies at anchor in a hidden subterranean grotto. But will this mad genius prove friend or foe?

Mysterious Island is old-fashioned 'Saturday afternoon' fun in the best sense of the word. The screenplay takes many liberties with Verne's novel (the addition of female characters and, most notably, giant monsters), but the changes afford us a much livelier cinematic experience. (In the book, Harding and company spend most of their time hunting game, making bricks, building a bridge, etc. not exactly the stuff of which exciting films are made.) Herbert Lom makes an excellent Nemo, while Gary Merrill stands out among the castaways as the sardonic reporter Spilett. But Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion monsters are the real stars of the show. Rather than breathing life into fantastical beasts of myth and legend, here the effects wizard rises to the challenge of making leviathans out of small, real-world animals. This he does spectacularly with the gargantuan crab and bees. Typically during this period, such creatures would be achieved 'Bert I. Gordon style' i.e., real animals would be filmed and then blown up in scale, superimposed upon footage of the actors. Cheaper and much easier to do, this process also tends to look about as real as a porn starlet's breasts. Harryhausen's meticulous, painstaking stop-motion technique gives life to his monsters in a way that none other can. (Even 40 years later, modern CGI technology continues to struggle toward achieving a sense of mass and solidity that is a hallmark of his best work.) Other effects in the film, such as the storm-tossed balloon and matte shots of the island, look pretty creaky by today's standards but nonetheless work the movie's infectious spirit of adventure easily permits our willing suspension of disbelief.
A significant part of that spirit is owed to the magnificent score for the film by composer Bernard Herrmann (7th Voyage of Sinbad, Psycho). From his grandiose opening theme, to the balloon escape and the individual cues for the various monsters, Hermann's music accentuates the mood and action perfectly. It's one of my personal favorites and, I daresay, one of the greatest fantasy film scores of all time.

Sadly, Mysterious Island doesn't fare as well as other titles in Columbia-TriStar's Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection. As has been reported elsewhere, Columbia made the strange decision to matte a 1.33:1 fullscreen print to a 1.85 widescreen ratio. (I didn't see too many heads chopped off at the top, but I still need to screen my old VHS copy for a true comparison.) This wouldn't be that mystifying if the original 1.33:1 version were also available on the disc (as with the 20 Million Miles to Earth DVD), but it is not. Most of the special effects sequences look substantially grainier than the non-effects portions of the film, but this has always been the case with Harryhausen's stop-motion monster rallies... The print in general looks like it could've used further restoration. My biggest beef with the disc, though, is the audio. While the mono track is clear-sounding, it's also rather flat. This is a cryin' shame in light of Hermann's marvelous score; the DVD edition of First Men in the Moon demonstrated that film music can sound great in mono. As for extras... You guessed it the same documentary featured on the other Columbia-Harryhausen discs, The Harryhausen Chronicles, is offered here. Ditto for the This Is Dynamation featurette (a short promo reel for 7th Voyage of Sinbad). 3 theatrical trailers are also included, for the main feature as well as The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. There's also an 8-minute video interview of Harryhausen discussing his work on the film, previously seen on the Golden Voyage disc. New to this DVD is a step-through gallery of promotional stills, poster art and original concept sketches. (EC's DVD rating of 7 is conditional on not owning any of the other Harryhausen DVDs from Columbia-TriStar. Otherwise, it's "5".) 11/02/02
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