Journey to the Center of the Earth


PreCommentary: From the 1864 Jules Verne novel, with filming done in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. This tale was first filmed as a French one-reeler in 1909. The 1977/1978 version, called Where Time Began, is worth mention, but the 1988/89 version of Journeyto the Center of the Earth focuses on the lost city of Atlantis instead of any dinosaurs. A Saturday morning cartoon series on ABC aired from 1967-1969.

Notes: Twentieth-CenturyFox. 129 min.
Professor Oliver Lindenbrook: James Mason
Alec McEwen: Pat Boone
Carla Goetheberg: Arlene Dahl
Count Saknussemm: Thayer David
Jenny: Diane Baker
Hans: Peter Ronson
Dean: Alan Napier (Alfred, BatmanĀ¹s butler)
Groom: Robert Adler
Professor Bayle: Alex Finlayson
Paisley: Ben Wright
Kirsty: Mary Brady
Chancellor: Frederick Halliday
Rector: Alan Caillou

Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Henry Levin
Screenplay: Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Songs: Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen
Special Camera Effects: L.B. Abbott, James B. Gordon, Emil Kosa, Jr.

Summary: Edinburgh 1880, rife with bagpiping, honors Professor Oliver Lindenbrook and there are rumors of knighthood. At the Universityof Edinburgh, a male glee choir sings his praises. His students give him an inkwell and are dismissed off to the playing fields. A star pupil and M.A. student, Alec, stays behind and gives him another gift: an unusually heavy chunk of lava he negotiated for on Good Friday, to be used as a paperweight perhaps. Alec is invited to dinner at 8:00 and shows up in borrowed clothes, wooing Miss Jenny, the Professor’s niece. While Alec sings “My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose” (from the poem by Robert Burns) to Jenny, Lindenbrook is experimenting and missing dinner. They find him in his lab, babbling about the lava coming from Italy but essentially being Icelandic. An accidental explosion reveals a plumb bob with Nordic writing by explorer Arne Saknussemm, who theorized about Atlantis early in his career, then became interested in volcanoes, and ultimately disappeared. This dying message suggests that Sneffels in Iceland provides a passage into the earth when Scartaris casts its shadow on the last day of May. The University officials say Lindenbrook should consult other scholars and write a paper. He writes to a fellow scientist, Goetheberg in Stockholm, but receives no answer and suspects claimjumping. Lindenbrook bemoans the fact that we know less about earth than about the stars and galaxies. Alec, on the verge of declaring his feelings for Jenny, instead volunteers to journey with the Professor. Jenny faints.

Lindenbrook and Alec go to Iceland. At the peak of Sneffels, Alec admits to a fear of heights. Lindenbrook realizes Goetheberg has been there, but doesn’t realize that he’s posing as the coachman, and Lindenbrook is kidnapped. Shoved down a chute, he finds Alec, who similarly has been imprisoned in an eiderfeather storehouse. Alec has not been able to buy supplies. A duck pecks at the other side of the wall, and the two try to contact what sounds to themlike “a female prisoner and her lover”– actually Hans and his love-duck Gertrude.

They all break into the room of Goetheberg and find all manner of equipment: self-generating lamps and breathing devices. Alec discovers his corpse, and Lindenbrook declares it justice, soon discovering that the thief/scientist was killed potassium cyanide poisoning. Goethebergs’s widow, Carla, arrives and is told by the innkeeper of her husband’s death. Lindenbrook learns that a descendant of Saknussemm ate with Goetheberg on the day of his death. When the widow reads her late husband’s journal she finds that Saknussemm was pressuring Goetheberg and that Lindenbrook had the rights to the discovery, so she agrees to back up Lindenbrook’s expedition. Lindenbrook pitches a fit on finding that she intends to go too and he calls it “stupidity” to burden himself with a “female.” She owns all the supplies they need, so she’ll go, but she’ll get no special consideration.

On the peak of Sneffels, a beam of light through a chink of Scartaris hits an opening, but a hidden Saknussemm also sees it. Rockclimbing, downward, begins. Lindenbrook, Alec, the widow Goetheberg, Hans, and the duck Gertrude “Now … descend into oblivion or … enter the great book of history.” Alec has brought his accordion. They do not realize that Saknussemm, the murderer, is also journeying centerward. Back on the surface, the University Dean has translated a report for Jenny. A woman has gone with them!

The adventurers duck the falling rocks from a tremor and flee from an Indiana-Jones-esque runaway boulder. They discover three notches from the ancient Saknussemm that point the way. Carla hears human footsteps at night but is dismissed by a cranky Lindenbrook. Saknussemm sneaks by and chisels bogus marks to derail the expedition. The next morning the duck knows better but the rest fall for it. Alec falls down a hole and is hoisted up, and Carla discovers the hoax. Hans thinks they should proceed this new way, though. Down the hole the cavern is bejewelled.

Alec takes a bath while Lindenbrook advises Carla against wearing stays because of the coming heat and breathing difficulties. Alec drops something in a hole and follows it, getting lost. Lindenbrook yanks a gem out of a wall and starts a flood. As the water rises, they climb through a hole in the cavern ceiling. Now they are separated from Alec, who meanwhile takes off some clothes and falls through salt sinkholes. All grow exhausted and hot.

Alec runs into Saknussemm who seems to have burdened his servant to death and wants Alec to take his place. Alec refuses, so Saknussemm shoots him in the arm. The others hear the echo and find Alec. Count Saknussemm emerges, pulls a gun on them, and calls them trespassers. With a quick fling of salt to the Count’s eyes, Lindenbrook is able to snatch the gun and hold a quick trial in which all declare Saknussemm guilty of murder and mayhem. But no one wants to shoot him and Alec declares them all too civilized to inflict the death penalty. Saknussemm explains that their lamps are going out because of the corrosive salt, so they reluctantly let him join them, even though he tends to wander off from the group. It grows cool but dark. Fortunately, soon no lamps are required thanks to luminescent algae. After a windy day #256, Lindenbrook and Carla argue, pointlessly. Alec discovers a cave of the giant mushrooms: cause for a jig. But the camera reveals a giant iguana licking its lizardine lips at the sight of humans.

After Alec hits on Carla unsuccessfully, Lindenbrook joins Saknussemm who looks out upon an underworld ocean. Saknussemm doesn’t sleep, he says, because “I hate those little slices of death.” They jabber about naming geographical sites. As they turn, they see a giant iguana (with glued-on fins) looking at them. Lindenbrook: “A dimetrodon!” Saknussemm: “If I had my gun we’dhave fresh meat for dinner.” L: “That’s what he’s saying. He’s a flesh-eater.” S: “Can he swim?” L: “No, thank God.” They wade out into the water as the dinosaur roars. Other lizards emerge from caves as the two men return to the cave to get the raft Hans has built. The dinosaurs threaten their escape and seem to be after Carla. Alec throws a spear into the leg of one, which accomplishes nothing. Ah, but a spear in the mouth! Down he goes. Other “dinosaurs” then eat him.

Back home Jenny pines; it snows. The subterranean humans raft onto the ocean and hit a “junction of magnetic forces” which causes a whirlpool, apparently the so-called “center of the earth”–go figure. The experience is harrowing and violent. At home, Jenny has a nightmare. The explorers land on another beach exhausted and hungry again. As the others sleep, Gertrude wanders off with Saknussemm following. When Hans awakens, he finds feathers and begins to choke Saknussemm. The others irrationally pull him off. But an arrogant Saknussemm starts a rockslide and falls to his death.

We get over the pointlessly cruel loss of the duck immediately. The lost city of Atlantis is revealed after 5000 years, but it yields no food — only oyster shells and stale crumbling bread. The skeleton of ancient explorer Arne Saknussemm, who seems to have dragged himself here with a broken leg, is found pointing his bony finger towards an air shaft — a “volcanic chimney” to serve as an escape route. But a boulder blocks the escape. They decide to blow it up and hope they don’t destroy the passage. They light the fuse and take cover in a gigantic bowl-shaped altar stone. The fuse goes out and Lindenbrook must relight it. At the climactic moment of potential salvation, a giant red salamander wraps its tongue around Lindenbrook’s leg and Alec drives a stake into its tongue to encourage release. The explosion goes off and the salamander looms one last time before being overtaken with lava. The adventurers ascend the shaft and Atlantis crumbles in an avalanche/earthquake/volcano/orgasm.

News reports note the eruption of the Stromboli volcano and that “rocks of extraordinary size are being spewed into the sea.” Lindenbrook, Carla, and Hans are pulled aboard a boat. Alec lands naked in a tree and uses a sheep to cover his genitals in front of nuns.

At another celebration, Lindenbrook is modest. They all “returned by the grace of God and a heathen altar stone.” He can’t prove he was to the center of the earth, but “This I know: the spirit of man cannot be stopped.” Alec is laid up and fans coo, but it turns out he just fell down at his wedding to Jenny. Coy crap between Carla and Lindenbrook regarding his need for her to jog his memory and to take dictation for the memoirs of the journey — all suggests another marriage.

Commentary: The film has been called “Good, clean, gaudy fun without a brain or a message in its pretty little head” (Films in Review).

The transferral of the Verne story to Edinburgh and the changes to less Germanic names of the characters are, one supposes, logical enough, given the cast. Nevertheless, the film is frequently annoying, primarily because of the smarmy gender politics and because Alec is such an embarrassment, not unlike in the Verne novel, admittedly.

Regarding herpegeschriftestudien: what better modern counterpart to the medieval saint spearing dragons in the mouth than megabland born-too-many-times-Christian Pat Boone darkening up our lives by spearing an iguana in the mouth and driving a stake into the tongue of a salamander?!

That “dinosaurs” turn on their own — by eating the wounded one, transgressing the cannibalism taboo — presumably justifies our ranking them as offensive in light of our self-appointed superiority. Saknussemm commits a sin by eating Gertrude, but only because she is a pet; one hears no objections to the meat or fowl industries elsewhere here.

Then there’s this exchange: Lindenbrook: “A dimetrodon!” Saknussemm: “If I had my gun we’d have fresh meat for dinner.” Lindenbrook: “That’s what he’s saying. He’s a flesh-eater.” Now is this a logical reaction to seeing suddenly a large reptile? It’s not as though hunger is warping their thoughts–after all, we just emerged from the cave of the giant mushrooms. Yet instead of “Aaaaaaaa!!!” or maybe running like hell, these two exchange culinary considerations. So here is another, and an excellent, example of not just the “kill or be killed” paranoia so rampant in dinosaur films, but of the perverse “eat or be eaten” ideology. [See the Dino Abstract and the Dragon Abstract.]