Written by C. Courtney Joyner
My first glimpse of a cinematic Captain Nemo was at a funeral. That beautifully staged ceremony from Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, with Nemo leading the procession, holding aloft a cross made of shells.
On board the Nautilus, when James Mason reveals himself to intruders Kirk Douglas, Paul Lucas, and Peter Lorre, he decides to drown them, with Verne’s famous, “I am not what you would call a civilized man,” as his reasoning.
Mason, buttoning his coat over a turtleneck that has him resembling a U-boat commander, instantly became the bitter genius in that moment. Like Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster, Mason’s incarnation is the Nemo that jumps to memory whenever the character is mentioned.
Also like the monster, many others have taken on Nemo, from Lionel Barrymore to Michael Caine, but only Herbert Lom in 1961’s Mysterious Island ever cut as deep an impression on this eight year-old, watching from the first row of a kiddie matinee.
Of course, Lom’s Nemo was surrounded by Ray Harryhausen’s animated creatures, which left me goggle-eyed. But when he strode out of the sea with a giant shell strapped to his back (as an oxygen tank), a shock of white hair, and that commanding voice, Lom was Nemo, no doubt.
The Charles Schneer/Ray Harryhausen production was green-lit by Columbia in 1960, when films based on Verne’s work, like Around the World in 80 Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth consistently reaped profits. The studio already had a history with Mysterious Island, as “B” movie king Sam Katzman (The Giant Claw, Rock Around the Clock, and hundreds more) had produced a ragged serial in 1951, with hero Richard Crane battling Leonard Penn’s Nemo and Katzman-style aliens.
A decade later, Schneer wisely decided to adjust the story to take advantage of his and Harryhausen’s success with creature-driven fantasy, but still honor Verne by following the novel’s structure, from the prisoner escape by balloon, to the crash-landing on the island. Then, they were in monster-land, complete with giant bees and crabs.
But if Harryhausen seemed to be steering away from Verne’s original, he was in good company. The author himself hadn’t included Nemo in his first manuscript until told by his publisher to put the Captain into the final chapters; an old man dying, confessing his sins.
That inclusion from the novel was a master-stroke that brought Nemo and the Nautilus fully into the screenplay, tying the film forever to 20,000 Leagues.
Once-blacklisted Cy Endfield’s sure direction puts adventure at the forefront, with the creatures a wondrous addition to the story, but not the focus, until Nemo appears from the sea, and then the film belongs to Lom and his performance. Unlike Mason, Lom’s complexion is darkened, to hint at Nemo’s Indian heritage as Verne intended, without overtly stating it.
Lom’s Nemo is disillusioned, and no longer the angry genius. Endfield, who was soon to make his own masterwork, Zulu, gives Nemo the voice of a man who tried to help mankind but was rejected. Now, all he wants is his solitude, with the now-disabled Nautilus as his eventual coffin.
Lom’s performance is a perfect continuation of the Nemo from 20,000 Leagues. World-weary and living with his past, but willing to give mankind one last chance by saving the castaways if they promise to share his best scientific discoveries with the world. A promise ended by a volcanic explosion.
Among the monstrous Harryhausen wonders, Jules Verne’s original messages in Mysterious Island still ring clear, and delivered by a favorite Captain Nemo of the long-gone kiddie matinee.
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