Saturday, 24 September 2011

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Possibly the first book I ever read as a child was Jules's Verne's classic tale of underwater adventure and I remember finding it tedious and heavy going as an eleven year old. I can remember marvelling at Verne's imagination and descriptions of underwater life. This week being on holidays, I have started transferring old VHS tapes across to DVD and in that process watched old State of Origin matches, NRL GRand finals, art docos that will probably never be aired again and old silent films that I've collected on tape. Which brings me to the 1916 silent gem that I've been watching/listening to this morning. 

The film is actually a mixture of two Verne novels: 20000 Leagues Under The Sea, along with The Mysterious Island. The filmmakers for some unknown reason also decided to boost the plot and add in a jungle girl ("a child of nature"), a revolution in an unknown Indian kingdom, mermaids (were they in the original book?) and some sharks that seem to be swimming in circles in tanks. The actor playing Captain Nemo is obviously a caucasian in dark brown makeup (Nemo was Indian in Verne's book) and very dramatic with his gestures, as is the jungle girl who happens to be Captain Nemo's long lost daughter, (kidnapped by the villain of the movie who killed her mother and then sailed away with her to the mysterious island) with escaped civil war soldiers.... just a bit of a departure from the basic plot(s).

There are some gems in the midst of this very messy version of Verne's ideas and the film-makers built submarine type ships/sets and floated them, along with some underwater photography that was difficult to photograph in 1916. At the start of the film, they introduce the two men who have perfected the technique of underwater photography and the film must have been revelatory to audiences at the turn of the century. There are quite length scenes of underwater marine life, old wrecks and coral and somehow the men in diving suits with their precursors to scuba gear look quite realistic as they walk across the sea floor to save a man from a very fake looking octopus!

I have always enjoyed silent film and found it a unique form of story telling with some sort of purity as a form in film. This version does suffer from the title card telling the story and then showing the action - with exaggerated gestures and pantomimes retelling what we've just read on screen, or worse dialogue being spelt out when we've already guessed what was being said. Part of the problem is that we're watching the genesis of a new art form, as well as the audiences were still learning how to "read film" as they come to grips with a new visual language. Still for all its faults, this old 1916 tinted piece is one I want to hold onto and will probably watch again (in another 20 years when I transfer across to whatever the new media format is then, if I'm still around)

Burn brightly, Pete.

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