The fifties enjoyed a mini-wave of Jules Verne tales, spanning Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), Michael Todd's Around The World In 80 Days (1956), and RKO's From The Earth To The Moon (1958). The combination of otherworldly / exotic travelogue tales with dabs of science-fiction and adventurous intrigue certainly made Verne's classic works suitable for the big screen, so it seemed natural that 20th Century Fox would deliver the underworld of planet Earth in multi-track stereo and Cinemascope.
At its core (ahem), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) is a high-concept production that took a beloved adventure classic for all ages, added crooner Pat Boone for the lucrative teen audience, and gave older folks plenty of witty banter between stalwart James Mason and shapely Arlene Dahl, plus a small role for Fox contract star Diane Baker, slowly being groomed for possible starring roles after prior appearances in The Diary of Anne Frank and The Best of Everything that same year.
Director Henry Levin, an experienced multi-genre veteran, was more adept with light comedies and melodramas - Where The Boys Are (1960), Jolson Sings Again (1949) – and he had already directed the studio's latest contract star, Pat Boone, in Bernadine and April Love (both 1957), so it seemed natural for Levin to direct Boon in Fox’s fairly grand film version of Verne’s literary classic.
Boone does get to sing, but he’s unusually good playing a naïve geologist who knows he’s a bit overwhelmed by mentor / professor Lindenbrook (James Mason) and Carla Goteborg (Dahl), the feisty widow of a rival professor (unbilled Ivan Triesault) – a situation not dissimilar to a singing star surrounded by established actors in a special effects extravaganza. Levin and Fox also recognized Boone would bring in young girls, so they made sure he had a few shirtless scenes to show off his buffed torso. (Baker, in turn, is stuck playing Lindenbrook’s whiny, wishy-washy daughter, and the screenwriters had to create a ludicrous ‘nightmare scene’ where little Jenny wakes up, terrified that her father and future fiancé are in danger. After this brief moment to remind audiences Jenny is still in the picture, she disappears until the finale.)
Fox’s production is a standard mix of studio and location sets, and while the otherworldly sections of the underworld are more fifties fantasy than vintage Verne – the colours and lighting resemble a Classics Illustrated comic book – the use of the renowned Carlsbad Caverns National Park is very inventive, and most of the studio sets blend well with the genuine cave locations.
The giant dinosaurs (good old macro lenses, slower camera speeds, and the use of contemporary lizards) are well intercut between the terrified explorers, and much like the film's sets and locations, the creatures make good use of the scope frame. Fans of Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) will also experience a mild cinephile eureka moment when Lindenbrook & Company must run for their lives when a giant round boulder threatens to mash them in a tunnel. (It’s that obvious.)
Perhaps the chief reason the film still eclipses the myriad remakes that followed is Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett’s script, which brilliantly maintains momentum and intrigue like a good comic. The scene in which Lindenbrook discovers a clue embedded in a chunk of lava easily hooks audiences into the mystery of What Happened to Arne Saknussem? and each scene is always part of an overall journey to the Earth’s core, rather than filler material. The only silliness is the inclusion of Gertrude the goose, but she kind of pays off in the end when filthy rotten swine Count Saknussem (gleefully slimy Thayer David) does a Bad Thing, which mandates appropriate payback from the Heavens. Even as pulp, some sophisticated wit is regularly allotted to Mason’s character, and Dahl seems to relish playing an assertive woman surrounded by chauvinistic eggheads.
Yes, the film looks fine in HD
Previously released on DVD by Fox using a restored print, Journey always had a peculiar look and peculiar flaws which are more visible in Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, but they’re not due to technical incompetence, as some critical fans have assessed in hasty, knee-jerk reactions. The HD transfer is clean and sharp, but the original cinematography has its shares of flaws, mostly tied to depth of focus in some shots which may have been due to the use of early CinemaScope lenses, or some experimentation by the filmmakers to soften the background details so interior and location sets blended well. Journey’s earthy tones are carried over in costumes and locations, muting the film’s colour palette so any unusual colour burst leaps from the screen – as in the pinkish gemstone grotto where the explorers bathe prior to a sudden flood.
The sound mix in uncompressed DTS is extremely robust, and one suspects had Bernard Herrmann been alive in 2012, he would’ve gone farther in selecting instruments and miking, and blown a few circuits in cinema sound systems. Right from the opening titles, Herrmann’s descending organ chords are monstrous, giving the A/V amp (and one’s ears) a bit of a workout, but the extreme low tones provide contrast to the ground-level world of the characters, with sweeter higher sounds and whole themes that add a deliberately saccharine undercurrent to the romances between the younger and older explorers. (Hans, played by one-time actor Peter Ronson, has Gertrude, and seems oddly content with a fowl partner rather than some Nordic babe – something the screenwriters never explain, and perhaps shouldn’t.)
The original Fox disc include a trailer and restoration comparison between the old TV prints, the 2000 laserdisc master, and the subtle digital cleaning for the 2003 DVD release. Twilight Time has included the trailer, and an isolated score track with Herrmann’s score, five organs and ‘emotionally disturbed donkey’ horn in full uncompressed glory.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes is less about facts and more about personal enthisiasm, and she's dead-on about the film's unwavering impression on youngers: once you've seen it as a kid, it never leaves the imagination. Crafted for the full family unit, there are little bits for every age group, but the film sense of wonder for the strange & fantastical is what keeps fans returning to the film again and again.
Jules Verne's novel has been adapted several times, including a 1967 animated series co-produced by Fox, Juan Piquer Simon’s embarrassing 1977 version, the wretched David Mickey Evans-scripted 1993 TV movie, another 1999 TV movie, and a direct-to-video quickie designed to ride on the publicity of the 2008 3D film. Perhaps the most interesting is Rusty Lemorande’s 1989 abomination which was never fully completed in spite of additional scenes by hack Albert Pyun and brutal re-editing by idiot studio Cannon.
© 2003, revised 2012 Mark R. Hasan