The word "classic" gets thrown around quite a lot when it comes to film, but here is one piece of cinema that is truly worthy of the moniker.
Based on the classic Jules Verne novel – and made at a time when filming Verne's work was all the rage – the 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth is a thrilling adventure starring one of the biggest (and best) actosr of his day, James Mason. He plays Sir Oliver Lindenbrook, a geologist and professor at the University of Edinburgh. One of his students, Alec McEwan (Pat Boone), gives him a volcanic rock, and inside they find a plumb bob bearing a cryptic inscription – a plumb bob that belonged to a scientist named Arne Saknussemm, who 300 years earlier had allegedly found a passage to the centre of the Earth inside the Icelandic volcano Snæfellsjökull. The two head off to follow in Saknussemm's footsteps, and are joined by Carla Göteborg (Arlene Dahl), the widow of a rival of Lindenbrook's, and Icelander Hans Bjelke (Pétur Ronson) and his pet duck, Gertrude.
For me, Journey to the Center of the Earth is the best of the Verne adaptations from the time – I certainly enjoy it much more than Around the World in 80 Days and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. When I was a child, Journey was frequently on TV (probably every couple of years) usually as a Saturday afternoon matinee, and would always sit down and watch it – usually running close to three hours what with all the commercial breaks. In fact, this new Blu-ray release is, I think, the first time I have seen the film without adverts ruining it. It's also the best that I have ever seen the film look – the restoration for this Blu-ray release is nothing short of stunning, with a clear, sharp picture and vibrant colours.
For a film released in 1959 but set in the late-1800s, Journey is surprisingly feminist Dahl's Carla Göteborg is a strong, independent woman who doesn't let Lindenbrook or the other blokes tell her what to do. A more conventional young woman is Lindenbrook's neice, Jenny, played by Diane Baker – who is terrific in the film but barely used, only appearing in a couple of scenes. It is very much a boys'-own adventure, with American pop star Pat Boone ostensibly in the lead role (these days it would probably be someone like Zac Efron or Harry Styles) but as you would expect he is acted off the screen by the great James Mason. Strangely, though, for a film that is partly set in Edinburgh, there is a real lack of Scottish accents. Boone makes a bit of an attempt, and while is not quite at the same leve of awful as Dick Van Dyke's version of cockney in Mary Poppins, you do have to wonder why he bothered; why didn't the filmmakers just make him an American exchange student or something? mason also neglects the Scottish accent for much of the film, finally remembering the slip into the brogue towards the end (which makes me thing those scenes may have been shot first).
Dodgy accents aside, Journey to the Center of the Earth is great fun and a joy to watch – even though they don't actually get the expedition under way until almost an hour in to the film, it's hugely entertaining, well paced and often quite funny. The special effects may look dated by today's standards - especially the goannas with fins glued to their backs portraying dinosaurs at the film's climax – but that is all part of its charm. It features a wonderfully moody score from Bernard Herrmann, a great turn as the university dean by Alan Napier (who later went on to find global fame as butler Alfred in the 1960s Batman TV series) and Thayer David is suitably mustache-twirling evil as the villainous Count Saknussemm. For modern audiences, this film is probably a little too clunky, too cheesey and too slow; but for those of us who have fond memories of Saturday afternoons enjoying this particular Journey on TV, this is a definite must-have.
EXTRAS: There's a new 32-page booklet that features film stills and posters from all over the world, plus and original (not very glowing) review of the film from 1959; a fascinating audio commentary from one of the film's stars, Diane Baker (who played Jenny Lindenbrook), plus film historians Steven Smith and Nick Redman; a great interview about the film with novelist and film critic Kim Newman (22:06); a short featurette about the film's 4K restoration (3:47); and the Theatrical Trailer (3:21).