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November 11, 2011

‘Mysterious Island’: The past (and future) of Jules Verne classic

Posted in: It's Alive,Movies

It was 137 years ago that Jules Verne first took his readers to the strange South Pacific environs of “The Mysterious Island” but the bookshelf sensation still clearly casts a spell in Hollywood – just consider the upcoming “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” a liberal updating of the classic tale packaged as a sequel to the 2008 film “Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D,” which also mined Verne for adventure concepts.

Verne’s imagination has launched plenty of Hollywood projects — “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Journey to the Moon” and “Around the World in 80 Days” spring to mind — and “The Mysterious Island” has been visited often by studios in search of screen spectacle. Sometimes the actual novel itself doesn’t survive the trip to the screen — a 1929 part-talkie/part-silent film adaptation with Lionel Barrymore had almost had nothing to do with the original story save for the fact that it was indeed set on an island — but the best-known of all the adaptations was made in England and Spain in 1961 and will be screened on Sunday at  the American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre.

The 1961 “Mysterious Island,” a well-received box office hit, featured the stop-motion special effects of Ray Harryhausen (“The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad,” “Jason and the Argonauts”) and starred British actors Michael Craig, Herbert Lom, Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan as well as American actors Gary Merrill and Michael Callan.

A digitally restored, 50th anniversary edition of the film was released this past Tuesday on Blu-ray under the Twilight Time banner. The disc features DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 that gives proper due to Bernard Herrmann’s pulsating music (and presents it also in original mono version as well as an isolated score track). The new digital edition will be the one screened at 4 p.m. on Sunday and it will be followed by a discussion with Grover Crisp, vice president of Sony Pictures Restoration; Twilight Time’s Nick Redman, a filmmaker, historian and soundtrack producer; and Oscar-winning visual effects artist Randall William Cook (“The Lord of the Rings”), an expert on Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects “Dynamation.”

“I think I’m right in saying that it’s Ray Harryhausen’s biggest hit actually,” Redman said. “It starts in the American Civil War with a prisoner break. They get away in a balloon. Of course, a storm blows them off course and they end up on a remote island. Also washed up on shore, conveniently, are Joan Greenwood and Beth Rogan.”

They soon discover they are not alone on the island. None other than Captain Nemo (Lom) has been using the island to experiment on animals, such as crabs and chickens,  making them grow to an enormous size.

For the scene in which the giant crab attacks the survivors, a real crab covered the internal armature that Harryhausen used for his painstaking stop-motion work instead of the usual latex. Harryhausen acquired three live crabs for the sequences. A museum employee humanely killed the one crab, while the others were used for close-ups. The “stars” were later served up to Harryhausen and the film’s producer Charles H. Schneer for dinner.

Besides Harryhausen’s special effects, Redman believes a lot of the film’s success is due to the director Cy Endfield, who is best known for his 1964 Boer War film, “Zulu,” with Stanley Baker and a young Michael Caine.

“He was an interesting man,” Redman said of Endfield. “He was blacklisted [in the U.S. as a Communist] and went to live in the U.K. to revive his career, sort of like Joseph Losey. And he was able to fashion a career. He formed a relationship and a company with Stanley Baker and he directed several interesting and unusual films.”

The name of Jules Verne was also up in lights this week at the Arclight Hollywood, where the Jules Verne Legendaire Award event honored the late John Wayne with a screening of “True Grit” and ceremonies involving the legend’s family and friends. Patrick and Ethan Wayne accepted the award in the ceremony presented by the Jules Verne Festival.

– Susan King

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