ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) Blu Ray (Eureka!)
A professor receives a message
This adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel is set in the 19th century and features James Mason as Sir Oliver Lindenbrook, a professor at the University of Edinburgh. One day, he is approached by one of his students named Alec McEwan (Pat Boone), who has a present for him which he spotted in a shop window in Glasgow: a lump of volcanic rock. Later that evening after experimenting on it for some time, he deduces that it came from a volcano in Iceland. Shortly after this one of his assistants accidentally causes it to crack open - revealing a plumb bob inside. On it, there is a message from a long-dead Swedish explorer named Arne Saknussemm, revealing that he has discovered a passage to the centre of the Earth.
He writes a letter to Professor Göteborg (Ivan Triesault) - his counterpart at Stockholm University - only to discover that he has set off by himself after reading it. Angered at the possibility of being cheated out of making history by confirming the existence of the passage, he sets off to Iceland with haste. Alec decides to come with him, leaving behind his fiancee Jenny (Diane Baker), who is Professor Lindenbrook’s daughter.
When they reach the volcano and attempt to gather the supplies necessary for undertaking their journey below the Earth’s surface, their operation is sabotaged by someone whom they suspect is Professor Göteborg. They are incapacitated and wake up together locked in a poultry house. They are rescued by Hans (played by the Icelandic-born actor Peter Ronson) and his pet duck Gertrude.
They head to Reykjavík and attempt to intercept Göteborg at the hotel where he was staying. They enter his room and discover a vast collection of essential equipment, along with his dead body. Lindenbrook finds some traces of cyanide in his beard and deduces that he has been murdered. After quizzing the manager they discover that he was accompanied by Count Saknussemm, a descendant of Arne himself.
At that moment, Göteborg’s wife Carla (Arlene Dahl) arrives. After the news of her husband’s death sinks in she insists on accompanying them on the expedition despite Lindenbrook’s objections around having a woman as part of the team. Hans and Gertrude also join them as they navigate the passage down through the volcano. During their journey, they face various perils such as environmental hazards, giant reptiles and Count Saknussemm’s own schemes.
Watch a trailer:
A 1950s blockbuster
Made on a then-considerable budget of $3.44 million, Journey to the Center of the Earth is the 1950s equivalent of what would nowadays be termed the “summer blockbuster” - albeit released around the Christmas period, which was a more common release period for this kind of film up until the mid 1970s.
It’s a rather dated film in some aspects but still a lot of fun in others. The pacing is rather slow; it takes over 45 minutes before our protagonists start their descent into the Earth and, while there is a good deal of excitement and peril, the film does devote plenty of time to establishing its plot and characters before we actually reach such scenes.
However, these establishing stretches aren’t boring. For one thing, while the period and location details aren’t necessarily 100% accurate (the film is, after all, a bona fide fantasy at heart) the production values are certainly attractive. Speaking as an Edinburgh resident it’s a pleasure to see that they filmed around such familiar locations as Edinburgh Castle, The Mound, The Old College and even Heriot Row (a street just one block away from where I live). Unfortunately, the Iceland sequences were quite clearly shot in the not-so-icy deserts of California. Even so, this is a nice-looking movie with some wonderfully imaginative sets representing the various subterranean locations. The picture-book visual compositions and composer Bernard Herrmann’s ominous pipe organ-led score manage to imbue a genuine sense of adventure and discovery as our protagonists pass from one location to another.
Sparks fly between the characters
The main characters are all well-defined and the feel of the film is quite charming without quite overdoing the twee; we get a few brief musical interludes (mostly courtesy of Pat Boone), moments of comic relief and a cute duck. It is James Mason who unsurprisingly gives the best performance here, albeit playing a character who isn’t entirely likeable early on. He’s a gruff, pushy and incredibly chauvinist man at times - as many Victorian-era high society gentlemen undoubtedly were. However, as the film progresses he develops in a well-rounded manner.
It should be pointed out that the film is somewhat less sexist than the character of Lindenbrook is; Arlene Dahl as Carla gives a plucky performance as a strong woman who - bar one “she trips over an object and flails about helplessly” moment - clearly proves her worth during the expedition. The sparks she generates off our aged hero keep things ticking over during the talkier sections; apparently, Mason and Dahl clashed off-camera as much as they did in front of it, adding a dimension of authenticity to the proceedings.
Some elements haven’t aged well
Not all of the special effects have stood the test of time. Some of the matte paintings are rather unconvincing - in particular, the ones used during the section where they reach an underground sea. It’s also clear that the huge reptilian creatures they encounter later on are decorated normal-sized iguanas and lizards traipsing about on miniature sets. It would be amusing seeing the huge fans wobbling around whilst glued to the backs of the iguanas if it wasn’t for the fact that it arguably constitutes animal cruelty. On the plus side, the editing and optical process work do a good job of convincing the viewer that these huge lizards and the human actors are sharing the same space. The shots which mix actors and effects during the volcano finale are also rather impressive.
A lesser issue is that the accents adopted by most of the main cast members don’t sound particularly authentic. In particular, Pat Boone and Diane Baker sound far more American than the Scottish characters they are meant to be portraying. James Mason’s accent is more well-bred English than Scottish, but then again many Edinburgh New Town residents traditionally come from an English background.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is one of those films which you have to go in accepting its dated aspects and embracing its old-fashioned dedication to spinning an enjoyable (if far-fetched) yarn.
Runtime: 129 mins
Dir: Henry Levin
Script: Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett, from a novel by Jules Verne
Starring: Pat Boone, James Mason, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker, Thayer David, Peter Ronson, Ivan Triesault
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
It’s a consistently sumptuous-looking 4K restoration with some very pleasing colours. As intrinsically wrong as those decorated lizards are, their shots are particularly impressive; their reptilian textures are spectacular in close-up. Diane Baker also looks fabulous here in her selection of dresses. Bernard Herrmann’s score generally sounds fine but I did detect some crackle on one occasion.
It’s more of a visual booklet than a text-heavy one; the only real pieces of written content are a contemporary (negative) review by Bosley Crowther of The New York Times and a few viewing notes. The rest of the booklet is taken up with film and behind-the-scenes stills plus posters in various languages.
Nick Redman hosts a commentary with actress Diane Baker and film historian Steven Smith. Unfortunately, the pair digress too frequently from the film in favour of discussing the wider career of herself and others. Even so, there are moments of interest; we learn that Pat Boone initially didn’t want to participate until he was offered a percentage of the profits plus the opportunity to include some of his own songs. Unfortunately, some of these were cut - although it is suggested that the initial 133-minute releases included an extra song entitled “The Faithful Heart”. The stretches where they discuss composer Bernard Herrmann are also worth a listen. On the whole, however, it’s a bit of a ramble unless you’re a major Diane Baker fan.
Interview with Kim Newman
A typically enthusiastic Kim Newman discussion of Journey to the Center of the Earth along with the other 1950s Jules Verne films and contemporary fantasy adventures of a similar ilk. He discusses the contribution of writer Charles Brackett, who used to work with Billy Wilder and brought an evident charm to the characters which was missing from the original novel. He also takes a quick glance at two movie trends from the period: the now-contentious “lizards used as dinosaurs” trick, and the casting of pop stars to catch the then-nascent baby boomer audience.
As usual, his lively and authoritative contributions to annotating the history of cinema are a pleasure to listen to, and help to brighten up the otherwise largely “meh” collection of extras here.
Unfortunately (as the opening card explains) this is not a look at the enclosed 4K restoration, but a side-by-side comparison of the various remasters used for earlier VHS, Laser Disc and DVD releases. While nothing remarkable it’s just about with using up three minutes to appreciate the improvements in picture quality of home viewing formats over the years.
A contemporary trailer (narrated by James Mason) rounds out the extras.
It’s a lot of fun if you remember the film from your childhood or if you simply enjoy old adventure movies. The 4K restoration looks superb and the Kim Newman contribution saves an otherwise so-so collection of extras.