Loosely adapted from Jules Verne’s 1875 novel, L’Ile Mistereuse, special effects genius Ray Harryhausen delivers perhaps the ultimate “Boy’s Own” adventure. Chockfull of treasures and set to a rousing symphony from Bernard Herrmann. During the American Civil War, a group of Union soldiers led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) stage a daring escape from a Confederate prison in a hot air balloon. Stranded on a - you guessed it - mysterious island, the soldiers discover another group of castaways, including lovely Lady Mary Fairchild (the wonderful Joan Greenwood) and daughter, Elena (Beth Rogan).
The survivors set about transforming their surroundings into a Swiss Family Robinson-style, island paradise, but come under attack from giant crabs, killer bees and an enormous, man-eating bird. These outsized animals turn out to be the experiments of legendary genius, Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom), hidden in a cavern aboard his fabulous submarine, Nautilus. Nemo helps the castaways fend off marauding pirates. He devises hi-tech diving suits and energy weapons to slay a squid-like monster, the Chambered Nautiloid, so they may escape the island before its volcano explodes.
Harryhausen can always be counted on to deliver fast-paced monster action, but Mysterious Island contains a plethora of additional ingredients that lift it to another realm entirely. Whereas most of Harryhausen’s live-action directors were solid journeymen, McCarthy exile Cy Endfield was a cut above. By result, the opening balloon escape and subsequent action sequences are breathlessly staged, while the performances are almost uniformly excellent. Michael Craig is a steadfast and resourceful hero, but the standouts are Herbert Lom and Joan Greenwood. In one of his finest roles, Lom embellishes the world-weary melancholia James Mason brought to Jules Verne’s warrior-pacifist in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Nemo may be a misunderstood genius hiding out from his persecutors, but hasn’t entirely given up on humanity. The multi-authored screenplay touches upon Verne’s themes of pacifism and class struggle, although the emphasis remains on action.
Greenwood’s plucky, resourceful Lady Fairchild is no simpering damsel, but stands shoulder to shoulder with the men folk. Described as a crack shot, the one letdown is that a misfiring rifle foils her one chance to bag a monster. Incidentally, that flightless bird mistakenly thought of as a giant chicken, is meant to be prehistoric Phorusrhacos. Harryhausen intended the island to be full of prehistoric animals, until the script was rewritten to include Nemo’s experiments with growth hormones (His intention is to solve world hunger and thus do away with war).
L’Ile Mistereuse inspired several less than faithful screen adaptations (more than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), including Ishirô Honda’s crazy Jules Verne/spy spoof/monster movie Latitude Zero (1969), The Mysterious Island of Captain Nemo (1972) with Omar Sharif, Monster Island (1980), and even Jean-Claude Forest’s comic book sequel to Barbarella (1967), Mysterious Planet. However, it’s the extra touches that keep Endfield/Harryhausen’s film endlessly watchable: the luxurious interiors of the Nautilus, Beth Rogan modelling a goatskin mini-dress, the haunting ruins of an underwater civilization, and Dan Jackson - one of the first black actors who gets to play a proper hero instead of comedy relief..
Along with Talos in Jason and the Argonauts I think the giant crab in this might be my favourite Harryhausen monster, it looks as if he took an actual crab and animated it (maybe he did?).
Although if by Monster Island (1981) you mean the Spanish Mystery on Monster Island, then that wasn't based on the same Jules Verne story as this one.
20 May 2008
I was indeed referring to the Spanish movie starring Terence Stamp and Peter Cushing. I read in Stephen Jones' Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide that it was loosely based on Verne's story, but since I haven't seen the movie - you're probably right. My mistake. Probably a case of 'inspired by' as with Cannon Films' infamous version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Ever seen that one?
20 May 2008
Actually it was based on a whole different story to Mysterious Island, hence no Captain Nemo. Haven't seen the Cannon Journey, but I can imagine the er, high quality that it entailed!