Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Genre: Fantasy Running Time: 2 hrs. 12 min.

Release Date: December 16th, 1959 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Henry Levin Actors: Pat Boone, James Mason, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker, Thayer David

 


 

A

n adventurous science-fiction film, 1959’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is a competent adaptation of the salient Jules Verne novel of the same name (technically, “Voyage au centre de la Terre”). With Academy Award-nominated special effects, stunning sets, and monstrous prehistoric creatures, the production is smartly balanced, nicely paced (though overlong), and essential viewing for fans of the story. Much of the dialogue attests to its age, and the many excuses to squeeze star Pat Boone’s singing into the film might lessen its chance of appealing to newer audiences, but as a nostalgic Harryhausen-esque venture, it rarely disappoints.

In 1880 Edinburgh, Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason, who takes second billing) discovers a plumb bob buried in a piece of lava rock, with a written clue from an Icelandic scientist who believed that a world existed within Earth. He sends it away to an expert for closer examination, only to discover that that expert, Professor Goteborg, has scurried away to Snaeffels to begin a journey to reach the center of the earth on his own. Intent on besting his competition, Lindenbrook embarks on his own mission of discovery, taking his good friend and student Alec McEwen (Pat Boone) along for the ride.

Before their descent into a vast crater gateway even begins, murder and deception lash out, revealing a traitorous competitor also vying for the discovery. Goteborg turns up dead, and his widow Carla (Arlene Dahl) demands to accompany the group. Joined by trustworthy muscleman Hans (Peter Ronson) and his pet duck Gertrude, the foursome sets out to retrace a vanished scientist’s steps to making history.

The movie is not a musical, but Boone quickly starts things off with the love song “Red Red Rose” for his bride-to-be Jenny (Diane Baker). There’s even singing to Lindenbrook as he is congratulated for his recent knighthood. And never is the opportunity missed for a short brief composition, such as when the group gradually descends into the volcanic pit. Seemingly misplaced humor and ample reserves of romance are also thrown in. Is any of this in the novel? But when the characters finally get to the world within the world, it’s solid science-fiction and action. Despite capitalizing on crooning talents, this Henry Levin-directed project follows more closely to the source material than any other filmed version.

The sets are impressive and memorable (Carlsbad Caverns served as many of the backgrounds), with giant mushroom forests, an ocean of the underworld, and the crumbled lost city of Atlantis. More exciting still is the inclusion of towering lizards and dinosaur-like gargantuans. Rather than stop-motion, the special effects include adding prosthetics to real reptiles and superimposing their humongous images over the wide shots of our tiny heroes.

With this group, there are always opportunities for tea, moments for carrying a tune, terribly annoying sound effects and booming music (especially when chased by iguana-like horrors), unexplainable conveniences for survival, and an Indiana Jones boulder chase (though this predates Spielberg’s adventurer). Also, stereotypically, a fleeing woman can’t seem to stay on her feet during an escape. But “Journey to the Center of the Earth” is nevertheless (at times) entertaining fantasy, crucially bringing to life the profound ideas put forth in the Jules Verne classic.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10