Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Edwardian Scientific Romances of Amicus Productions


Today's special post is part of the 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts! It is also a sequel of sorts to our post for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon a few weeks ago, this time focusing on the films of the Seventies. But for this blogathon, click on the banner above to see the line up for a weekend of great posts about great British films. If you're coming in via the blogathon, welcome to Voyages Extraordinaires, a weblog dedicated to Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances and Retro-Victorian Science Fiction!




The concurrent dawn of the Atomic Age and the Space Age created a fertile environment for the adaptation of works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells into feature film. Long since considered outdated, these Victorian authors had new life breathed into them by American and British filmmakers who saw in such stories as War of the Worlds, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, First Men in the Moon and Master of the World the potential to address the anxieties and optimism of the Fifties and Sixties from a comfortable distance. As the Sixties drew to a close, however, those anxieties shifted. Interest in outer space effectively dropped off after the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, and attention turned to Nixon's withdrawal of troops of Vietnam. Civil Rights, Second-Wave Feminism, Stonewall, the Sexual Revolution, and Woodstock were the new frontiers. Science Fiction itself changed with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and those dusty Victorian stories were put back on the shelf.

As the Sixties gave way to the Seventies, a few vain attempts were made to reinvigorate the genre. A dour, vulgar, overlong, and frankly boring adaptation of Verne's Lighthouse at the End of the World was made in 1971 with Kirk Douglas and Yul Brynner. The 1972 British horror film The Asphyx attempted to trap death with its Victorian equipments. Omar Sharif took a turn as Captain Nemo in 1973's critically under-performing The Mysterious Island. Disney made a go with 1974's Island at the Top of the World, based on a modern Canadian Arctic adventure story by Ian Cameron. Though the novel was set in its year of publication, 1961, Disney deliberately backdated it to the Edwardian Era in the hopes of recreating the success of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which was almost single-handedly responsible for that explosion of Scientific Romances two decades before. They were so hopeful that Disney's Imagineers were ready to roll with plans for an entirely new area of Disneyland based on Island at the Top of the World and 20,000 Leagues, to be called "Discovery Bay." This hope was dashed against the incongruous pencil-pushing that cut its budget, reducing its visions of grandeur to something less ambitious and substantially less profitable. While it would have been wonderful to see everything they had planned, the reality is that the fiscal hammer might not have been unfounded. Though possessing its own charms, Island at the Top of the World suffered most for not tapping into the zeitgeist the way 20,000 Leagues did. There are a lot of things going on, but none of it really means anything... A recurring theme for Scientific Romances from this time.

There was one name that had not been touched yet, however. He was one of the great authors of Edwardian Pulp fiction whose work was never very deep or literary to begin with but could keep a very punchy, action-filled pace: Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was to the creator of Tarzan and John Carter that the British company Amicus Productions turned when they gave the genre their shot.

Amicus was the brainchild of American producers Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, who vacated the U.S. for England around 1960. They set up shop in the storied Shepperton Studios with the earnest desire to produce family films that were distributed either under their own company name or other heavier hitters, beginning with It's Trad, Dad!, Just for Fun, Girl of the Night and Lad: A Dog (1962-63). Their first film, however, was a ghoulish tale of witchcraft and bloodshed titled City of the Dead (1960). Comparing the receipts on City of the Dead to their family films, Amicus realized that horror was the cash cow. Onwards they went through the Sixties and Seventies, producing mostly horror anthology films like Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973), based ostensibly on the famed EC Comics. Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing were Amicus regulars, and one would be forgiven for seeing parallels between the low-budget horror stylings of Amicus and those of American International Pictures. In fact, the two studios collaborated on such films as Vincent Price's Madhouse.

While horror paid the bills, the studio heads still felt the urge to tamer family fare. The most notorious of Amicus' productions are the two "Dr. Who" films starring Peter Cushing: Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966). These films adapted the televised Doctor Who serials The Daleks and The Dalek Invasion of Earth in full Technicolor, but butchered the story and the franchise in the process. A radio series was planned, and Dr. Who appeared in a comic serial in Doctor Who Magazine, but the feature film series ended after poor receipts for the second film. A third film, based on the serial The Chase was never produced. Perhaps audiences realized that this wasn't the Doctor. But when the gloom started to go off of British bloodletting in the mid-Seventies, Amicus turn again to Science Fiction. More specifically, to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Trailer for Dr. Who and the Daleks.

The first of three films produced by Amicus to be based on Burroughs' work was The Land That Time Forgot (1975). The novel, published in 1918, takes place on the marine front of World War I, where a German U-boat patrolling the Atlantic shipping lanes torpedoes a civilian ocean liner being used to smuggle armaments. The surviving crew, led by Doug McClure, manage in turn to commandeer the U-boat but knock out its navigation, which sends them down to the Antarctic. The extended journey strains their supplies, with the only apparent option being the chance discovery of a phantom island teeming with prehistoric beasts. Hand-held puppets and marionettes were employed to bring life to these monstrosities, which was not necessarily any less convincing than any other method available at the time. The effects are only undermined by how cartoonishly adorable the dinosaurs are.

Trailer for The Land that Time Forgot.

Cave men at various stages of evolution are also present in the landscape, and behind them is a rather silly premise that had a larger role in Burroughs' novel than in this film. Though boasting a script co-written by Michael Moorcock, The Land That Time Forgot is one of those films that is about as good as it can be under the circumstances. While a major hit for Amicus, it lacked the charm, optimism, and anxiety that served as the heart of genre films from the Atomic Age. Land That Time Forgot, like Island at the Top of the World and the films that followed, mastered the form as well as they could, but lacked the essence.

The next film out of the gate, released in 1976, was At the Earth's Core, based again on the Burroughs novel of the same name. Published in 1914, the novel was the first of Burroughs' series on the prehistoric underground realm of Pellucidar. Tarzan himself would eventually visit the cavernous refugium, and overall it was very much in keeping with Burroughs' running themes of two-fisted men fighting slavering beasts for the honour of nubile, disrobed ladies, be they on Martian fields of war, African jungles, or the centre of the Earth.

In At the Earth's Core, Doug McClure and an aged Peter Cushing drive their 'Iron Mole" machine to Pellucidar and are immediately captured by the Mahars, a species of telepathic pterosaurs who use humans as slaves. McClure makes a break for it, befriends one of the indigenous peoples, woos the princess, and leads a slave revolt that includes, among other things, fighting a monster in the gladiatorial arena. Those familiar with the literary and cinematic John Carter might recognize the basic outline. Nevertheless it is an outline that works, and At the Earth's Core is for t as a fun adventure film. Though the monster suits leave something to be desired, there is a very effective surrealism and creeping weirdness to this underground realm, which in turn accents the charisma of McClure and Cushing.

Trailer for At the Earth's Core.

The last of the Amicus series, and the last Amicus film period, was 1977's The People That Time ForgotThe Land That Time Forgot's cliffhanger ending left off with the promise of further exploration of Burroughs' time-lost island with its strange recapitulation of evolutionary history. With that film's closing shots of mountainous wastelands beset with glacial ice, it all-but telegraphed the probability of seeing woolly mammoths and sabretooth cats. The People That Time Forgot would be a radically different entity, unfortunately.

Unlike Burroughs' literary sequels - The People That Time Forgot and Out of Time's Abyss - the cinematic sequel did nothing to build on that promised "secret of evolution" or maintain the human to prehistoric monster ratio. Where the small handful of dinosaurs and prehistoric reptiles do come out to threaten the protagonists, they serve no essential part to the plot. The true monsters are the green-skinned, samuari-like barbarians with a fetish for sacrificing buxom women to their volcano god. Not living up to even the meager standards of The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot ended up as just a discomfiting, and very Seventies, orgy of violence, gunplay, cursing, cavewoman breasts, weird cults and that sort of thing, with few redeeming qualities. Not even Doug McClure had much to do in his returning role.

Trailer for The People That Time Forgot.

Ironically, internal friction between Subotsky and Rosenberg resulted in the dissolution of Amicus Productions in 1977. The team behind the Burroughs trilogy were not about to let that stop them, however. Kevin Conner, director of all three films, teamed back up with Doug McClure for Warlords of Atlantis in 1978. Released under EMI-Columbia, it was not an adaptation of a Burroughs novel but was very much in keeping with the tone and spirit of the trilogy.

Unlike the three films produced by Amicus, Warlords of Atlantis actually does make an attempt at profundity that mirrors the films of the Atomic Age. The Atlanteans are revealed to be aliens trapped on Earth in ages past who have committed themselves to manipulating humanity into developing the technology that will allow them to return to the stars. When the crew of a turn-of-the-century sailing vessel are taken captive, the chief scientist of the bunch (played by Peter Gilmore) is separated from the rest of the group. While the crew are left to toil as slaves for the upper-class Atlanteans, an attempt is made to enlist the scientist to their cause by showing him the unfolding of their plan. Through his brain flash images of the Nazi regime, World War II, and the development of atomic weaponry. In no uncertain terms the Atlanteans state that war is the driver of scientific and technological progress.

Trailer for Warlords of Atlantis.

A general sense of pessimism had been creeping through Western society and American society in particular in the decade leading up to Warlords of Atlantis. President Jimmy Carter took to the airwaves in 1979 to chastise Americans for their sense of malaise:
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation... We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own. Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy... The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world. As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.
In Britain, the Seventies were marked by the collapse of the "post-war consensus" style of government that had prioritized social programs and Keynesian economics. Deficit spending and labour unrest had brought about a financial crisis in 1976, forcing the sitting government to take out what was, to that point, the largest loan ever granted by the International Monetary Fund. This economic depression hit Britain's youth hard, fermenting the Punk scene with its anthem of "No Future." Widespread strikes and high unemployment culminated in the 1978-1979 "Winter of Discontent" that blew Margaret Thatcher's Tories into a victory in the 1979 election.

Despite Kevin Connor's best attempts - and these four films were only the start of his long career - Scientific Romances simply could not find the footing to respond to an era where OPEC oil crises were a more pressing concern than the Space Race, and more people were worried about getting a job than getting a flying automobile. It was a decidedly unromantic time. Irwin Allen attempted a television revival of Verne's cryogenically frozen mariner in The Return of Captain Nemo in 1978, which interestingly also included Atlantis. A 1977 Spanish production of Jule's Verne's Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth happened, but like most genre films of the time was considered a disappointment. One final film rounded out the decade, being the American production Time After Time starring Malcolm Macdowell and David Warner as H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper on a romp through modern day San Francisco, released in 1979. Like Warlords of Atlantis, Time After Time also attempted a commentary on the way modernity has been shaped by a century of violence. Nevertheless, these films - Amicus' included - had the ultimate effect of heralding the death of Scientific Romances for over a decade. It wouldn't be until the mid-late 1990's that a new "golden age" of retro-Victorian Sci-Fi movies, TV shows, comics, and video games would erupt. Besides, it was hard for anybody to compete with Star Wars (1977) and its progeny. The Eighties belonged less to Jules Verne than to Steven Spielberg. 



Thank you for joining us today for the 2nd Annual British Invaders Blogathon. This post is the kickoff for a summer series exploring each of these films - The Land That Time Forgot, The People That Time Forgot, At Earth's Core, and Warlords of Atlantis - in greater depth. Voyages Extraordinaires publishes biweekly, every other Wednesday, with our review of The Land That Time Forgot coming this week. Please join us!

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Cultural Appropriation, Manifest Destiny, and the New Moralists

Some time ago I wrote a piece on the New Moralists of the progressive Left and their campaign to police art for the "common good." While the row over the cover of the Batgirl comic that spurred on that piece was short-lived, the controversy itself is not. Comedy has become a high profile front of the debate, with no less than Jerry Seinfeld having come out - alongside the likes of Chris Rock, Larry the Cable Guy, and Bill Maher - to say that it is becoming impossible to perform stand-up comedy for the shockingly conservative, reactionary, prudish, and too-easily offended moralists of the Left, especially on college campuses. It is not only art that these New Moralists apparently want to police, but even the cultures of other people. In an ironic recapitulation of the 19th century White Man's Burden, there seems to be a prevalent attitude that the rest of us "savages" outside of the United States of America need to be saved by the wisdom of America's progressive Left. Two incidents, spaced several months apart and seemingly antithetical, provide sad examples of this attitude.

The first was the release of the video game The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. I've made reference to it before, and will summarize it again here. Coming under fire by video game journalists, "cultural critics" and other assorted moral busybodies, this Mediaeval Fantasy game became a touchstone in the issue of minority representation in video games against the still-raging backdrop of GamerGate. The player character and non-player characters were overwhelmingly white, which led to criticism over the lack of people of colour - African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans - being represented. One major argument was the apparent incongruity of saying that people of colour would make a Mediaeval Fantasy unrealistic when there are already dragons and magic in it. Were The Witcher 3 just any random Fantasy game a la Fable this would be a valid criticism. But The Witcher 3 is not.

Here is what The Witcher 3 is: a video game designed by the Polish studio CD Projekt RED, directed by Polish directors Konrad Tomaszkiewicz, Mateusz Kanik, and Sebastian Stępień, written by Polish writers Marcin Blacha and Borys Pugacz-Muraszkiewicz, based on a series of books by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, featuring themes and ideas drawn from Polish culture, Polish history, and Polish mythology, set in a Fantasy version of Mediaeval Poland. It doesn't just have dragons and magic: it has Polish dragons and Polish magic. It is a Polish Mediaeval Fantasy. Speaking as someone who is not an American, this is how I see the controversy: a bunch of Americans telling Polish people that they are not entitled to their own culture.



Wednesday, 22 July 2015

20,000 Leagues Under New Fantasyland

In 1994, Walt Disney World unceremoniously closed its classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Submarine Voyage attraction. Though popular, it was expensive to maintain, and we all know which of those two variables the pencilpushers pay most attention to. The lagoon which formerly saw Nautilus submarines sail was drained and filled with earth. The first attraction to occupy the green space left behind was "Pooh's Playful Spot," a playground opposite the Winnie the Pooh ride (that itself replaced the even more popular Mr. Toad's Wild Ride). Then, in 2011, Disney announced plans for New Fantasyland, an expansion program that included a restaurant and character greet based on Beauty and the Beast, a roller coaster themed to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and an import of the ride based on The Little Mermaid that was originally built for Disney's California Adventure theme park.

All along the way, Imagineers placed small nods to the beloved attraction that once occupied the spot to be taken over by New Fantasyland. Inside Pooh's home in Pooh's Playful Spot, a knot in the wood that resembled the Nautilus was sculpted over the door. This still exists, though the tree was displaced by the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and can now be found at the entrance to the Winnie the Pooh ride.



The next most logical place to put references to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was around the queue for Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid. When the attraction opened, Disney orchestrated a "passing of the torch" ceremony using water kept in flasks since the closing of the previous attraction:
 
 

A reference to the Nautilus was also placed into the rockwork of the queue and castle. It actually took a bit of searching, since I didn't know exactly how big it was or where in the queue it could be found. Roundabout instructions from one of the castmembers neglected to mention that it's huge and right down at the waterline of the tidal pool that runs alongside the outdoor section of the queue. A keen listener will also notice "Whale of Tale" as part of the area's background music loop.




Me being sad that this is all that is left of the 20,000 Leagues ride.
Across from the ride is a tiny "fishing village" that currently houses a Disney Vacation Club timeshare sales desk. Imagineers also managed to pop a few references in here as well: namely, the squid weathervane and "H. Goff Cartography." The cartographer's sign is itself a Hidden Mickey.




Right beside Under the Sea is a character meet and greet with Ariel. As you can see below, she was taken with my pin collection that mashed-up 20,000 Leagues with The Little Mermaid (including a pin of her).



It's nice to see some references to one of the greatest of Disney's extinct attractions. My feelings wouldn't have been hurt at all by them having a Little Mermaid ride alongside the 20,000 Leagues one, though. It's not like Walt Disney World is really hurting for space.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969)


Coming out at the tail end of the Atomic Age's explosion in Jules Verne films, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City has some interesting variations on the theme that may be more in spite of itself than what it actually sets out to accomplish. In many places it hews too closely to its predecessors, though it offers a much different take on the Nemo character... If indeed we really consider him to be Captain Nemo at all.

The story begins with a ship sinking in the midst of a terrible storm. Something goes awry with one of the lifeboats and a group of passengers begin sinking to the murky depths. But lo! A troupe of mysterious divers pluck them from the ocean and deliver them to the luminous underwater city of Templemir: an undersea civilization built by none other than Captain Nemo himself! Soon the survivors realize that their rescuers are also their captors, as they will never be permitted to leave.

Taking their cue from the novels upon which they were based, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Ray Harryhausen's Mysterious Island present us with Captain Nemo as the isolated figure with a grave social concern for humanity in general but little concern for specific human relationships. In the former he is waging his war on the machinery of war (in what is, when all is said and done, a rather pedestrian act of revenge) and in the latter he is bioengineering his way into solving the resource shortages that cause war.

In Captain Nemo and the Underwater City he is taking on a far different project: trying to build his own utopian society under the waves. He is surrounding himself with people, deliberately attempting to foster those human relationships that his other persona eschews. That might also explain the diminishing returns we see in this portrayal of Nemo. It is, granted, hard to compete with the intensity of James Mason's stellar performance. However, Robert Ryan's performance lacks anything distinguishing. His attempts to be enigmatic are more just annoying and contradictory. If he is supposed to be the same tragic figure then none of that comes across to the viewer. He's not especially nice, or personable either, with little real screen presence.

We do get the "jail break" plot that is fairly standard by this point. Among the survivors are Senator Robert Fraser, a claustrophobic engineer named Lomax, and a pair of swindlers named Barnaby and Swallow Bath. Each has their own motivations for returning to the surface (though neither Lomax nor his ill-fated attempt last long). Senator Fraser is on a mission to report back some key intelligence concerning the American Civil War. The Bath brothers find themselves mightily interested in the machine that distills air and fresh water from the ocean, along with pure gold as a byproduct. Even then, Swallow finds that he could grow to like life in Templemir rather than "dying in an alley." More inclined to stay peacefully are the widow Helena Beckett and her son, both of whom endear themselves to Nemo.

There cannot be an Eden without its serpents. Though Senator Fraser gyrates wildly between being best buddies with Nemo and swearing himself to escaping the city, he incurs the jealousy of Nemo's right-hand man Joab. Fraser also manages to steal his girl, which adds some impetus to getting rid of these newcomers. In an added bit of kaiju action, the construction of Templemir created a huge, mutated ray named Mobula that the Nautilus has to engage several times through the film. Though he's rather indifferent about the whole affair, it seems as though Nemo must learn the rule that no society built of human beings will be perfect. That's a bit of an inference though... The movie doesn't appear to do anything deliberate to build on that idea.

The standout piece of the film is the underwater city itself. Templemir is a rather handsome domed structure, though the interiors are a bit heavy on the Star Trek-quality fiberglass rocks and plants. The exterior is perfect, only the interiors wanting a bit of improvement by a more ingenious set designer. The city's bar - which appears to be constructed from a sunken pirate ship - and its TARDIS-like control room are very well done. The Nautilus is one of the ship's more original designs. Rather than the usual riffs on Harper Goff's design for Disney, it flares out in a shape resembling a manta ray. Also of note, for the wrong reasons, are the costumes. Again, these are pure Sixties Star Trek type material.

Reportedly the idea for Captain Nemo and the Underwater City began with Roger Corman and a film entitled "Captain Nemo and the Floating City." This prospect by the B-movie genius behind American International's series of Poe-inspired films would likely have amalgamated ideas from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island (and could you imagine if it starred Corman's regular collaborator Vincent Price as Nemo?). By some circuitous route it evolved into this picture, which came out about a decade too late. Earlier on, and by Corman, it might have stood well against other Vernian films and Victorian Sci-Fi fantasies of the late-Fifties and early-Sixties. At this point, in the midst of mass social upheavals and a year after 2001: A Space Odyssey, it was just out of date... A whimpering swan song after the big bang made by Captain Nemo in 1954.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Scientific Romances in the Atomic Age


Today's special post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Movies SilentlySilver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Click on the banner above to see the line up for today's line-up of classic film posts from across the blogosphere. Thanks for letting us be a part of this great event!




The resolution to the War in the Pacific in 1945 threw a wholly new anxiety onto the shoulders of the world: the heretofore impossible spectre of actual global annihilation. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki culminated a trend begun with The Great War. In that first conflict, the "Christian Century" of infinite moral progress was crushed beneath the violence of technological warfare predicted by the likes of H.G. Wells, George Tomkyns Chesney, and the other writers of doomsday invasion stories. Often they predicted an apocalyptic outcome to the oncoming war, but humanity's execution was blessedly stayed in 1919. Even with advances in tank, aeroplane and explosive technologies, truly obliterating humanity was beyond humanity's power.

Then along came The Bomb.

To make the situation that much more dire, the end of the War in Europe also furnished a new and powerful opponent. No sooner were Germany and Japan brought to heel than the Soviet Union filled the vacuum, being a more expansive and more horrific regime than the two villains of World War II combined. Furthermore, Stalin also possessed The Bomb and, under Khrushchev, the animosity between the USSR and the USA nearly led to Armageddon. While both sides built up their capacity for mutually assured destruction, proxy wars were held in Southeast Asia and in the ideological realm of outer space.

Our ability to smash atoms and potential to harness them for a new technological age, as well as the Space Race and its naive utopian promises, formed the perfect backdrop for what would later be recognized as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in film. The Great War that closed out the Victorian-Edwardian Era also closed out the genre of Scientific Romances; stories of adventure in far-flung places that shared the thrill of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and colonial exploration to a pre-film society, written by the likes of Jules Verne, Garrett P. Serviss, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Camille Flammarion, Edward Everett Hale, and Edward Ellis. Between the wars, the only books of Verne's that were adapted to film were his spy adventures like Michael Strogoff, with a solitary exception in 1929's The Mysterious Island that had more in common with its own time period than Verne's original novel. Science Fiction, properly speaking, took over during the interwar period, in everything from serious meditations on how science and technology may affect society in such works as Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936) down to the Pulpy action-adventure of Flash Gordon (1936) and The Phantom Empire (1935). This nascent realm of Art Deco and radium transformed into the world of Googie and the atom after the Second World War.

Nevertheless, people old enough to beget the Baby Boom were themselves old enough to remember those years before the First World War, or remember the stories told by their own parents. The Gay Nineties resurged as a reassuring nostalgia in film and places like Disneyland. One user of the Tiki Central forum referred to Tiki lounge culture as the "emotional bomb shelters of the Atomic Age," and the same could be said of retreat into bygone days of bustled ladies in feathered hats and suffragette sashes, men in seersucker and handlebar moustaches, horseless carriages, pennyfarthing bicycles, Queen Anne revival architecture, barbershop quartets, and marching bands playing in town square. The authors of the Victorian-Edwardian Era came along with it. In particular, those writers of Scientific Romances became suitable for reinterpretation as modern Science Fiction.

The first film of the time period to retread the Scientific Romances of the Victorian Era was The War of the Worlds in 1953. It did, however, make a fundamental break with its source material. This alien invasion from the planet Mars took place in the present day of the early Fifties. The powers of the invaders were suitably enhanced, the flying machines described only briefly by Wells became their chief technology in Technicolor. It was notable for having demonstrated that there was still life to breathe into those tales from half a century before.

Trailer for War of the Worlds.

The biggest gamble was taken by Walt Disney in creating The Mightiest Motion Picture of Them All. Disney's studios had been trying for some time to film a wholly live-action feature after reaching Hollywood's heights with animation. So Dear to My Heart, a conceptual sequel to Song of the South, was intended to be live-action, but the security blanket of animation was grasped at the last second. On the other side of the Atlantic, Disney used up funds frozen in England during the war to film its first live-action features in British studios. Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue were sufficiently successful that they prompted Disney to finally take the plunge and build a soundstage for a Hollywood production.

A suitable subject was hunted down. Through the mists of Walt's boyhood, a single name was lit upon: Jules Verne. Disney took the zeitgeist of atomic anxiety and the potential of adapting Scientific Romances to bring 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to theatres. A new soundstage was built on the Disney lot to accommodate the full-size deck of the ship designed by Harper Goff. Unlike War of the Worlds, the conscious decision was made to retain the mid-Nineteenth Century setting of the novel. Though Verne's literary Nautilus was a sleek, hydrodynamic vessel, Goff's was cast-iron and rivets to put the exclamation point on this being a Victorian submarine. This choice to set it 100 years in the past helped to provide a safe ideological distance from which to discuss the pressing concern of atomic power, which forms the philosophical underpinning of the film. The original style might also have been a little too close to the design of the USS Nautilus: the world's first nuclear submarine, launched in 1954. Still, Disney couldn't have bought publicity that good.

Trailer for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Disney trusted his instincts as a filmmaker, altering the novel substantially. It's worth keeping in mind that Verne has suffered from notoriously poor English translations, and the translation that Disney was working off of would have itself been missing about 20% of the original material. The film slimmed it down even more, though it did retain that key sense of wonder that is ultimately what the novel is about. Many scenes were excised that would have made for a phenomenal film in their own right, such as a trip to Atlantis that was, ironically, used for both Walt Disney World's and Tokyo Disneysea's 20,000 Leagues attractions. Robust characters portrayed by charismatic actors James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas carried a fairly standard "jail break" plot against a high-stakes philosophical backdrop about how ultimate power should be used. It also had a song and a funny animal, and it was a major hit. Disney has gotten mileage out of 20,000 Leagues for decades, from cinematic re-releases to comic books to children's records to theme park attractions in Disneyland and Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneysea. It has surfaced again most recently as a drink at the new Trader Sam's Grog Grotto bar in Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort (pulling together two "emotional bomb shelters" in one). It also inaugurated the rehabilitation of Jules Verne and Scientific Romances.

It no doubt helped that Verne's work officially entered the public domain in the early Fifties. Here was an author that Disney proved was bankable, and his works were available at no cost! The next to exploit this fact was Michael Todd, whose 1956 adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture for that year, beating out the likes of The Ten Commandments and The King and I. Not an Atomic Age Sci-Fi film, Todd's Around the World in 80 Days still interpreted Verne's globe-trotting adventure in epic form. To wrangle over 40 listed Hollywood stars for cameo appearances and to film on location everywhere from the bull rings of Spain to the the Great Buddha of Kamakura was a major feat in itself. Around the World in 80 Days was a huge Hollywood event and Todd treated it as such, from the film's introduction by Edward R. Murrow to a first anniversary party in Madison Square Garden. Despite, or even because, it is not a Sci-Fi film, Around the World in 80 Days is one of the best films from a Hollywood studio at the time to capture the true essence of Verne's books. What differentiated Scientific Romances from Science Fiction, and Jules Verne's books in particular from what would come later, was their romantic, pedagogical quality that captured the imagination with both a stirring adventure plot and an educational foray into the wilderness and cultures of far-flung, exotic places. In the words of his publisher, Jules Hetzel, Verne's purpose was "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe."

Trailer for Around the World in 80 Days.

The decade rounded out with two more Verne adaptations: From the Earth to the Moon in 1958 and Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1959. The former ponderously belaboured the theme and threat of atomic power, without any notable attempt at levity and only a slight romance. The latter hewed more closely to Disney and Todd, including a funny animal, a song by teen idol Pat Boone and hiring James Mason for his second dance with Verne. Journey is one of the more entertaining of the period and has a wonderfully idealistic moral about the progress of science and the adventure of discovery. Fans of the genre often joke that there is a difference between Science Fiction and Anti-Science Fiction, and Journey to the Center of the Earth has a nuanced, positive view towards what science is and how it is performed, amidst trick photography of pet iguanas in rubber frills.

Trailer for Journey to the Center of the Earth.

H.G. Wells did not rear up again until 1960 with an adaptation of The Time Machine. As Wells was not in public domain at the time (and his novels considerably more pessimistic in general), he was not as fertile a source for films. His heyday was between the wars, with The Invisible Man (1933), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and Things to Come. The only other adaptation of his work from this time - First Men in the Moon - came out in 1964. Between them was a golden year in 1961. Growing legions of children infatuated with Verne were treated to Master of the World starring Vincent Price, Ray Harryhausen's The Mysterious Island, Valley of the Dragons (adapting Off on a Comet), Flight of the Lost Balloon (adapting Five Weeks in a Balloon) and the American import of Czech auteur Karel Zeman's astonishing 1958 artistic masterpiece The Fabulous World of Jules Verneas well as George Pal's comparable historical fantasy Atlantis, The Lost Continent. A properly-titled adaptation of Five Weeks in a Balloon came out the following year, along with Disney's In Search of the Castaways. Never since has Verne's name meant so much. It was so substantive that when the 1954 Japanese Atomic horror film Gojira was brought to America in 1956 as Godzilla, the trailer declared it to be "more fantastic than any [tale] written by Jules Verne!"

Trailer for The Time Machine.

By 1961/62, the formula of Disney's 20,000 Leagues was tested, approved and casting its long shadow. Master of the World, written by Richard Matheson, regurgitated the same plot of unwilling captives on the craft of a genius waging war against war but did so more convincingly than Disney despite the much poorer budget. Whereas Disney's Nemo was driven by conventional revenge, Matheson's aeronaut Robur was a true political visionary ultimately at war within himself. Harryhausen basically replicated Goff's Nautilus for Mysterious Island, which served as an unofficial sequel to Disney's film. This Nemo, played by Herbert Lom, has decided to attack the causes of war rather than the machinery of it, by genetically engineering gigantic crops and livestock to satisfy humankind's hunger for resources. Irwin Allen's Five Weeks in a Balloon had the inventor, a funny animal, a teen idol, a song, several love interests, Peter Lorre, and stock footage of Africa. In Search of the Castaways dispensed with the seriousness in favour of outlandish family musical adventure with Haley Mills and Maurice Chevalier. It was as much a film in keeping with Verne's popularity as it was an heir to Disney's Swiss Family Robinson and Pollyanna (both 1960) and preamble to Mary Poppins (1964).

Such an incredible span of only a few years ultimately served as a climax. Harryhausen supplied the second Wells adventure in 1964 and Vincent Price returned in War-Gods of the Deep in 1965. Diverging and deferring to Verne's idol, Edgar Allen Poe, War-Gods was part of the chain of horror films vehicles for Price that were produced by American International Pictures. The studio enjoyed a great deal of success with the collaboration between Price, Poe and Roger Corman, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). War-Gods of the Deep allowed them to parley the cachet of Verne-type films into their Poe cycle, melding the wonder of the Scientific Romance with the rich atmosphere of Gothic Horror (despite it's visibly low budget). A similar film to AIP's Poe series, and starring Vincent Price, was United Artists' Twice-Told Tales (1963). This time based on the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, two of its three anthologized segments feature science gone awry.

Trailer for War-Gods of the Deep.

More notable in 1965 were a pair of "caper" comedies, stemming from the same tradition as 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Blake Edwards, recently enjoying acclaim for Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and The Pink Panther (1963), directed The Great Race starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon. The Great Race, based on an actual auto-rally in 1908, was a studious homage to silent films but is dated far more for its awkward gender-based humour. It was also, unintentionally, the most expensive comedy made to that point, tallying up a cool $12 million (approximately $90 million today). Worse yet, it was a critical and commercial flop at its time. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, directed by Ken Annakin and based very loosely on a 1910 air race from London to Paris (using real working aeroplanes), fared much better with a larger share of the box office and more positive acclaim. An additional British farce was released in 1967, titled Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon. Diverging greatly from the eponymous Verne novel in its plot but not its satirical tone, Rocket to the Moon centres on P.T. Barnum (played by Burl Ives) and his attempt to dodge creditors by commissioning a rocket expedition around the moon. Lionel Jefferies (First Men in the Moon) and Terry-Thomas (Those Magnificent Men) were cast as the bumbling villains, and Gert Fröbe (also of Those Magnificent Men) played the also-bumbling explosives expert whose genius would make the launch possible. Jefferies and Fröbe would go on to star in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang alongside Dick Van Dyke, a conceptual follow-up to Mary Poppins released in 1968. Set in the Edwardian Era, based on a book by Ian "James Bond" Fleming, with a script co-written by Roald Dahl and music by the Sherman Brothers, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang somehow never quite caught the same fire as its Disney predecessor (no doubt because Walt Disney was not at its helm).

Trailer for Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.

While audiences of 1965 had to go to theatres to see spectacles like Those Magnificent Men, they could see another variation on the Scientific Romance right at home. In that year, The Wild Wild West television series debuted on CBS. Satirizing and paying homage to Western TV shows and the "Spy-Fi" genre, Robert Conrad played the American Secret Service agent Jim West who worked with the inventor Artemis Gordon to protect the Union from dastardly, moustache-twirling villains in the years following the Civil War. Unfortunately it was cancelled after four seasons, not for any notable lapse in quality or ratings, but as a concession to concerns over television violence in the wake of the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. James Bond had already come to define the Spy-Fi genre by the mid-Sixties (and The Wild Wild West was sold as "James Bond on horseback"), but perhaps the most Spy-Fi show was England's The Avengers. Beginning in 1961, series lead John Steed - played by the recently deceased Patrick Macnee - evolved into the archetypal Saville Row, bowler-hatted, Neo-Edwardian English gentleman that re-emerged after World War II. One of the arguably best TV shows ever produced - The Twilight Zone - also dipped into the Victorian setting periodically, in such episodes as the Buster Keaton time-travel comedy Once Upon a Time and the examination of modern angst and nostalgia escapism titled A Stop at Willoughby.

The first episode of The Wild Wild West.  

On the dark side of the Iron Curtain, the mantle of Vernian film was picked up by Karel Zeman, whose first film in the series was his aforementioned Fabulous World of Jules Verne, released in Czechoslovakia in 1958 as The Deadly Invention. Prior to this, he filmed Journey to Prehistory in 1955 (released in the West as Journey to the Beginning of Time in 1966) which was based loosely on the little-known 1915 Russian "lost world" novel Plutonia and the prehistory paintings of Czech artist Zdeněk Burian. Fabulous World was an adaptation of Verne's Facing the Flag but drew its biggest inspiration from Édouard Riou's engraved illustrations for Verne's novels. Zeman employed every style of animation and special effect known at the time to achieve this look, to dazzling result. He resumed the style in 1961's Baron Munchausen, which took the German character and mixed him in with Cyrano de Bergerac and Jules Verne. For Baron Munchausen, Zeman took to the style of Riou's teacher, Gustave Doré, who did illustrate a volume of Rudolf Erich Raspe's Baron Munchausen. His final two Verne adaptations came in 1967 with an ode to children's imagination in The Stolen Airship and 1970 with On the Comet.

Trailer for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.

The last American film that could be said to fall within this time frame is Ray Harryahusen's 1969 Weird Western The Valley of Gwangi. The concept originally came from Willis O'Brien, as one of his many ill-fated potential follow-ups to King Kong. As realized by Harryhausen, it features cowboys down in Mexico attempting to rope stop-motion dinosaurs for a travelling circus. It was also Harryahusen's final film involving prehistoric life. The era was finally closed out by the 1969 British film Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (released in the US in 1970). Though miscast and a decade late, this production did have some good ideas and an underlying question of whether Captain Nemo's utopian dreams ever could translate into a functional society.

Trailer for Captain Nemo and the Underwater City.

After Gwangi, The Underwater City and the Summer of Love, atomic anxiety began to mellow out. The world came close to annihilation in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis and thereafter proxy wars became the preferred field of combat. Lydon B. Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War was reaching its bloody climax and the Space Race effectively ended with the moon landing in 1969. At home, new social movements and a broadening idea of justice began to emerge, including the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, American Indian Movement and Native American rights, Second Wave feminism, the Sexual Revolution, Stonewall, the anti-war movement, and the wake of Vatican II. Cinema moved on to the very serious, de-romanticized space of spectacles like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Once more Jules Verne - or what had been made of him and his kin during the Atomic Age of Sci-Fi - had become outdated.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (2014)

When the album La Mécanique du cœur was released by the French rock group Dionysos in 2007, its stunning music videos begged for a feature film rendition. After the financial hiccups of the company producing it, Jack et la mécanique du cœur was finally projected on the silver screen in late 2013. Only recently has the DVD made its way to international shores.


I've previously reviewed both the concept album and the book written concurrently by Dionysos' frontman Mathias Malzieu. The adaptation for feature films hews closely to the source material, as Malzieu wrote both. We pick up the story in 1874, in Edinburgh, on the coldest night of the year, when the baby Jack is born with a heart that is frozen stiff. Thinking quickly, the midwife replaces it with a cuckoo-clock that both blesses him with life and curses him with being unable to withstand emotional stress, lest its delicate gears and strings burst. Unfortunately, he eventually meets a pretty little dancer who challenges the cardinal rule never to fall in love, which is the greatest stress of all.

The main alteration happens at the end: whereas La Mécanique du cœur told the background of one of the characters from Dionysos' previous album Monsters in Love,  Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is obligated to stand on its own as a self-contained story. Allusions to "Giant Jack" are absent, replaced with a more suitably tragic ending. This alteration to the ending, bizarrely enough, forced out the song whose video inspired the movie. Tais Toi Mon Coeur, the standout single with a very Tim Burton-style pseudo-stop motion video, was the emotional climax of the book and album in its original ending. By changing that conclusion, the song no longer had a place.

Most of the other songs are present in the film, however, in one way or another. In some cases they form leitmotifs, while in others they become full musical set-numbers and music videos. Flamme À Lunettes, L'Homme Sans Trucage, La Panique Mécanique, and King Of The Ghost Train retain their key parts in the story, and the song Whatever the Weather becomes the new climax. If one felt the need to fit Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart into a convenient genre, it would be an animated rock musical.

The style of animation does not retain the pseudo-stop-motion employed in the Tais Toi Mon Coeur video, which really is too bad. If you have seen other French computer generated films, like A Monster in Paris, then you will be familiar with the style of Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. Both were, in fact, produced by Luc Besson, the genre favourite who also wrote and directed The Extraordinairy Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, The Fifth Element, The Messenger, The Transporter, Léon: The Professional, and most recently, Lucy. Despite lacking an especially appealing aesthetic, it still played delightfully with abstracted visuals. The comparison to music videos is sound: quite often these scenes break out from the film into arresting, nearly self-contained vignettes. There is also much nice visualization of the characters' emotional states, as when Jack's paramour - Miss Acacia - is enwrapped with thorns whenever she is cold towards him. That in itself is one of the charming (and sometimes raucous) double-entendres that come up frequently for fluent French speakers.

As a film in its own right, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart is tragic and delightful. It does not, I think, reach its fullest depth unless one is also familiar with the album and book on which it is based. The three interplay, giving familiarity and flicking on lightbulbs as each progress, recollecting things from the other versions.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Next Week: Classic Movie History Project Blogathon!


Next Sunday, Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age will be participating in the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon! This great event will feature blogs from across the Internet sharing informative and thought-provoking posts on the history of film from the Silent Era through the Seventies. To see the full line-up, click here. And join us back here on Sunday, June 28 for our contribution!

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World: Man's Genesis and Brute Force

Over on our companion weblog today, we're taking a look at one of the first dinosaur movies (in an oblique reference to one of the most recent, which debuted this weekend). Check it out: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World: Man's Genesis and Brute Force.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Cirque du Soleil's Kurios - Cabinet of Curiousities



An aged inventor, surrounded by his cabinet of curiousities, is convinced that another world lies somewhere beyond our own. Unfettered imagination reigns there, which he hears in short bursts of sound and static from his alpha wave transceivers. What is this world? Can he ever find it? A flick of a switch and suddenly a trio of characters descend from the portal. Who are they, and can they take him back to where they are from?

This is the story of Cirque du Soleil's show Kurios - Cabinet of Curiousities, currently touring North America. Cirque du Soleil is the famous circus arts troupe that began in Quebec, Canada, in 1984 out of a roving group of French Canadian street performers and silt-walkers. After their initial performance for the 450th anniversary of Jacques Cartier's voyage of discovery up the St. Lawrence Seaway, the newly formed company kept moving forward and today employs 4000 people from 50 nationalities across 100 different artistic and technical disciplines in its 18 different shows around the world. These range from big top shows like Kurios, Koozå and Ova, to resident shows like the seven performed in Las Vegas including Mystère and O, and La Nouba at Walt Disney World.

Always seeking out new inspiration, Cirque du Soleil and writer/producer Michel Laprise turned to a Steampunk aesthetic for Kurios. Of the grand set, themed on the interior of the curiousity cabinet of a kindly but mad inventor, Set Designer Stéphane Roy said "It's like Jules Verne meets Thomas Edison in an alternate reality, out of time." This was the aspect that most piqued and provoked my curiousity when the show came to Calgary in April. Astonishingly I had never seen a Cirque du Soleil show before, and Kurios seemed both the most logical and most offensive place to start. Longtime readers of this weblog are well aware of the extent to which I find Steampunk revolting, in a laundry list of complaints ranging from most Steampunks I've met being not very nice people to Steampunk itself being a cliché-riddled counterfeit of the actual Victorian-Edwardian Scientific Romances, history, and aesthetics that I actually am interested in. So on the one hand, Kurios is about a 19th century world of invention and fantasy. On the other hand, Steampunk.

Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

Steampunk aesthetics aren't wholly irredeemable, in small doses and given an appropriate context. The benefit of Cirque du Soleil is that it is so quintessentially French that my mind easily shifted from the feelings one might have at having stepped in something to the delight in the sorts of worlds found in films like City of Lost Children and Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. The sheer spectacle of a Cirque du Soleil performance carries the viewer away to whatever world they want to take you, regardless of your own philosophical misgivings. And as I've said aeons ago, the best Steampunk is generally done by people who aren't Steampunk, because they're not weighed down with the need to socially conform to the clichés.

Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

Kurios begins with a train rolling through the audience, a puppet hoisted by the resident band fusing Folk and Electro-Swing composed by Raphaël Beau and the duo of Bob &  Bill. On stage, the train disgorges Chaos Synchro 1900, a flurry of activity, juggling and acrobatics that astonish The Seeker, the mad scientist who dreams of another world. Turning on his machine, three strange beings float from the portal to that other world: Mr. Microcosmos, Nico the Accordian Man, and Klara the Telegraph of the Invisible. Unleashing their powers, objects in The Seeker's curiousity cabinet spring to life in a series of beautiful circus acts of athleticism and acrobatics.  

Nico, Mr. Microcosmos, and Klara.
Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca
Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

Eventually The Seeker builds a contraption to take him to that other world of the subconscious run free. He sees the three characters in their true forms as they wheel about the sky. Mr. Microcosmos, for example, doffs his self-contained metallic casement and flies freely with a group of fish-like beings loosely inspired by the Martians of Georges Méliès' films. The fish-like acrobats and contortionists give a nice splash of colour to an otherwise sepia-toned palate. I'll leave the question of how The Seeker grows from this experience, or if it all even happened, for you to find out if you're lucky enough to see the show.

Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

The circus acts are remarkable in their own right, and there in no sense in which I would want to downplay them. Performers with Cirque du Soleil are the best in the world at what they do. What truly makes the show, however, is the artistry around the performers... The story, the characters, the sets and props, the music. My favourite of the three main characters, and their leader, is Mr. Microcosmos. He is the archetype of the 19th century, the self-contained man in his iron shell. Within his pot belly is not a fire in the traditional sense though, but rather, a diminutive woman who acts as his subconscious, poetic, intuitive inner self. Mini Lili is her name, and she is played by the one metre tall, 18Kg Antanina Satsura from Belarus. One of the things I greatly appreciated about Kurios was the tastefulness with which they brought Satsura into the performance without an impression of sideshow exploitation. Mr. Microcosmos, played by Karl L'Écuye, looks serious but is actually a rather jovial fellow. His name recalls Voltaire's Micromégas and some of the overt naming of Georges Méliès' characters.

Mr. Microcosmos and Mini Lili.
Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca
If you would like to let your imagination soar along with The Seeker, Kurios is currently en route to Denver, Colorado for performances through June and July, then to Chicago for August and September, and finally Costa Mesa and Los Angeles, California through the remainder of 2015. The official website, with ticket sales, can be found here. Pre-sales and special content can be obtained by joining the Cirque Club.

Photo © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca