by Guest Contributor Pamela Vetter
Jules Verne’s novels were required reading when I was in high school. It marked my first exposure to literary exploration. As the words transported the reader Around the World in 80 Days or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, it’s no wonder studios jumped on board the sci-fi train. These were money-making properties for fans of the novels; a virtual built-in audience. Today, we call them tent pole movies.
In 1959, Twentieth Century Fox’s Journey to the Center of the Earth was just such a tent pole. With an adapted screenplay by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett, and directed by Henry Levin, Journey to the Center of the Earth was filmed mostly on sound stages, but no expense was spared with exteriors shot everywhere from New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns doubling for the “center of the earth.” Other locations ran the gamut from Edinburgh, Scotland to California’s Amboy Crater. In fact, anyone who lives in SoCal will recognize Sequit Point at Leo Carrillo State Park, with both tide pools and a memorable open cave.
The story opens with Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason), an Edinburgh scientist, in consideration for knighthood. He’s serenaded by his students, with an additional musical interlude from none other than Pat Boone as “science student” Alec McKuen to his love, Jenny (Diane Baker). After discovering a map, the Professor encourages his colleagues to join him in exploration, specifically to an extinct Icelandic volcano at the center of the earth.
After delays, drama, and being saved by a duck (!), the assembled expedition, including a widow in heels (Arlene Dahl), takes the explorers and said mascot duck to the depths of the center of the earth. The group encounters treacherous cliffs, dangerous flooding, wind tunnels, lack of oxygen, quicksand, gunfire, the Lost City of Atlantis, falling rocks, giant mushrooms, violent whirlpools, and a volcanic eruption. There are so many challenges our protagonists overcome it’s a marvel they survive.
While some people might dismiss the film as corny, kitschy, or hokey, Journey to the Center of the Earth remains a respected part of film history. In fact, Hollywood tried to recapture the film’s success with a 2008 remake starring Brendan Fraser. Receiving mixed reviews, it still took in a worldwide box office of nearly $242 million. Obviously, there’s still money to be made from novelist Jules Verne, especially when there’s the opportunity for some dazzling production design.
Anyone who works as an art director or set decorator knows that realism comes from layering, going as far back as George Méliès. The Professor’s library, for instance, is a visual masterpiece of detail. 1959 audiences must have been in awe that filmmakers were able to deliver on the visuals so well as described in the novel. The matte paintings almost seem like an additional character. With no such thing as CG, those visuals had to be hand painted and built for each scene, representing depth, height, and background. The only way to capture the visual of the cast inching along a cliff’s edge, for instance, was to paint a glass matte, which created an in-camera optical illusion of the dangerous drop off below, similar to what you may see in today’s sidewalk chalk paintings. The matte seams of the paintings are blended so well, it’s difficult to even distinguish the live action vs. the painting. Without these matte paintings, it would have been a very different film.
The editor also worked wonders because none of the shots linger too long, so they can’t be studied. When Journey to the Center of the Earth was produced for the big screen, there was obviously no option to pause a scene for review. Technology has changed that option, perhaps to its detriment. Shots that could previously wash over the viewer can now be picked apart, frame by frame.
In 1960, Journey to the Center of the Earth deservedly received Oscar nominations for Art Direction (Color), Sound, and Special Effects. But in a clean sweep, Ben-Hur took all three.
The film’s budget was reportedly $3.44 million and grossed $10 million in the box office. Adjusted for inflation, that would translate into nearly $82 million today.
Journey to the Center of the Earth remains a classic by any standard. For that reason, it’s no longer available on Blu-ray, but can still be streamed through Amazon Prime.