The year is 1868 and the ships of all nations in the South Seas have been afflicted with a mystery force of destruction that has by now left barely any vessels making the journey across the ocean for fear of the crew and cargo being lost. What could be causing the shipwrecks? Maybe, as is suspected, some hitherto unknown species of sea monster? Whatever the reason, willing sailors are hard to find, as is the case in San Francisco where a certain Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) marches up to a street speaker who is declaiming the shipping companies and starts a fight with him. His path is about to cross with that of Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) on an adventure into the unknown.
Of course, the reason Kirk has that scene where he has a brawl with a girl on each arm was to prove his character wasn't a homosexual. Not something Jules Verne, author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea might have worried about, but we were dealing with stars here to bring the famous story to life in a version that has still yet to be bettered. Adapted by Earl Felton, it was a live action Disney epic supervised by Walt himself, and one of the finest live action movies the studio ever produced (although when the competition is the likes of Herbie Goes Bananas and Superdad, that might not mean as much as it should).
Of course, if you know anything about this story then you'll be well aware that it is no leviathan from the deep that is causing the sabotage, but the submarine Nautilus of one Captain Nemo, essayed to perfection by a haunted and enigmatic James Mason. He ends up smashing his craft into the ship which the investigating Professor, Conseil and Ned are on, and they would have been set adrift if it had not been for the chance that Nemo would pick them up and take them aboard. The three men are treated as prisoners, but tolerated by the Captain who is intrigued by the Professor's learning, though rebellious Ned is skating on thin ice (and Douglas can be an acquired taste here).
Nemo's motives for his campaign of large scale violence is a reaction against the evils of war: he believes that if he destroys the machines of conflict and the ships that carry the raw materials for making them then he will end all world war. The fact that many die as a result is of no consequence to him, as he thinks he has to take lives to save many more, a fascinatingly twisted view that is never less than convincingly brought to life by Mason. The Professor tries to reason with him as much as Ned rejects him, but really the three of them represent a Venn diagram of personalities, with Ned's selfishness connecting to Nemo's singlemindedness and the Professor's need to keep Nemo's scientific discoveries for his research.
And along with that the good folks at Disney cooked up some spectacular effects work and handsome production design: this is a very impressive-looking film indeed. Although some of the details may be a trifle lunatic, such as the cream made from sperm whale's milk (okay, how do you milk a sperm whale, then?) and the Captain's habit of playing a pipe organ to relieve stress, it's all part of the fun. This may have a grave, even portentous, air in spite of Douglas' comic moments (and song-singing), that not even the pet sealion Esmeralda can lighten, but it's a rare family film that opts for such gravity and succeeds so well, as this does. Leaving enough room for the philosphising in amongst the action sequences is an effective move, even if it's the action that sticks in the mind - the cannibal attack, and the thrilling giant squid that threatens the Nautilus being highlights. So well regarded was this that Disney remade it as The Black Hole. Music by Paul J. Smith.