Classic Film Review – Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

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Brenda Fellman

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a fantasy adventure film. The film stats when Edinburgh university professor Sir Oliver Lindenbrook believes he has found a very old message from a long-lost scientist. The message says that the scientist may have found the way to the center of the Earth. With his assistant, student Alec McKuen, he sets off for Iceland where the entrance is said to be found in a volcanic mountain. They are soon joined by Carla Goetabaug, whose scientist-husband was recently murdered along with Icelander Hans Belker and his duck Gertrude. The group then proceed to descend into the bowels of the Earth. There they will find bizarre creatures, striking plants, the lost city of Atlantis and a rival who wants to keep knowledge of this underworld to himself.

This film is based on Jules Verne book of the same name. There are no hidden agendas here nor are there any cynical social commentaries. Journey to the Center of the Earth is pure fantastical entertainment that follows the group into the wondrous unknown. Though, the film’s writers did take some liberties as the character Carla Goteborg was not in the book. They also changed the leads from German to Scottish and Swedish to Icelandic as it was only 14 years after WW2 and must of the world would not have excepted a Germen hero at that time.

It’s method of storytelling gives us a clear sense of dignified life above which is more tuned down and less fantastical, but the minute they get into the cave the world comes to life with amazing caverns, caves, crystals, prehistoric lizards, an underground ocean, surprising sand pits, mushroom forest and the lost city of Atlantis.

Most of the characters are indeed merely serviceable, but the most important ones are well-drawn and well-acted. James Mason is amazing as the irritable Edinburgh University scientist whose devotion to his quest never overshadows his obligation to social proprieties. Pat Boone is not especially believable as the supposedly Scottish young lead, but he is appealing and lively enough that he passes. Additionally, he gets to sing a bit in this film, so all his talents are used. Thayer David is dastardly good as the villain, if not just a tad overboard. Arlene Dahl’s strong personality makes an uplifting change from the usual submissive, bubble-headed blonde seen in films of this era. Peter Ronson is great as the Icelandic guide/muscle and he is great while acting closely with Gertrud the duck (his constant companion throughout the film). Let’s not forget the Gertrud who is adorable.

It was lovely to see that the two main romantic leads are middle aged (something that was rarely done back then) and wonderful to watch a “mature” woman like Dahl being sexy and interesting. When she and James Mason get together in the end it feels real like they really did fall in love over the many month they spent underground. It should be mentioned that the love between the young couple isn’t done well. Its not badly acted though. In my opinion, it’s just that the couple isn’t on screen together expect a for a few scenes at the start and end of the film.

The sets, the sound, and the special effects were all nominated for academy awards. The fact is that the sets are amazingly well made and are better than many films made today. Its astounding to see that they managed to accomplish what they did without the safety net that CGI gives modern films. The special effects are out-dated, especially with the film’s monsters. The creatures are depicted in that old-fashioned technique of sticking a fin to a lizard and enlarging them. The monsters also pose little threat and sadly are given little screen time, though their appearance makes way for one of the most shocking moments in the film. The way the film portrayed the lave was inventive as they used porridge. Bernard Herrmann’s score is striking and perfectly captures the wonderful spirit of the adventure.

The start of the film is a little slow, but it helps the fleshing out of the characters and locations that the start of the film is still enjoyable. As the world underground opens it becomes a feast for the eyes as the scenery is beautiful. In all the movie is an enjoyable trip from start to finish.

Journey to the Center of the Earth – Cast

James Mason – Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook
Pat Boone – Alec McEwan
Arlene Dahl – Carla Goteborg
Peter Ronson – Hans Belker
Thayer David – Count Saknussemm
Diane Baker – Jenny Lindenbrook
Gertrude the Duck – Gertrude + her stand ins (uncredited)

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Classic Film Review ̵…

by Brenda Fellman time to read: 3 min
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