“I ran away from a battle. I’ve been running ever since. I got caught running away,” says Herbert Brown. Sergeant Pencroft responds, “Son, your whole Union Army’s been running from mine for the last three years. Now we’re running away from you. You needn’t feel special about it.”
Jules Verne’s classic novel The Mysterious Island was actually the third in a trilogy of books that included In Search of the Castaways and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Film adaptations of those first two books would be made by Walt Disney Pictures in 1962 and 1954, respectively. Ray Harryhausen, creator of the Dynamation stop-motion animation process, saw Verne’s third novel of the trilogy as another opportunity to bring more exotic creatures to life using his animation process (like he had previously with such films as It Came From Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and The Three Worlds of Gulliver). I recently saw Cy Endfield’s Mysterious Island recently on the big screen, and it was an exciting experience. This review of Mysterious Island is my entry in the Ray Harryhausen Blogathon hosted by Wolffian Classics Movies Digest.
1961’s Mysterious Island follows a small group of Union soldiers (and one Confederate soldier) during the American Civil War as they make their escape from a Confederate prison camp via a gas balloon, only to crash land on an island in the Pacific Ocean filled with bizarre creatures and other surprises. Endfield brought together a terrific ensemble that included Michael Craig (as Captain Cyrus Harding), Joan Greenwood (as Lady Mary Fairchild), Michael Callan (as Herbert Brown), Gary Merrill (as Gideon Spilitt), Herbert Lom (as Captain Nemo), Beth Rogan (as Elena Fairchild), Percy Herbert (as Sergeant Pencroft), and Dan Jackson (as Corporal Neb Nugent). Craig is commanding as the Union captain trying to keep everyone alive, and Greenwood offers class, elegance, and resourcefulness as Lady Fairchild. Lom brings a strong presence late into the film as the infamous yet mysterious captain of the Nautilus. Callan and Rogan shine as the young Union soldier and niece of Lady Fairchild who eventually fall in love.
The screenplay by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, and Crane Wilbur loosely adapts the Verne novel in order to showcase Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation work while slowly building suspense for the wonders and dangers encountered on the island. Wilkie Cooper’s cinematography is crisp, reflecting the tone of the film, and William C. Andrews’ production design is top-notch (the Confederate prison, the various cave interiors, the interiors of the Nautilus, and the underwater sets were among my favorites). Harryhausen’s imaginative stop-motion animation effects are quite effective and entertaining (my favorites included the giant crab, the volcanic eruptions, and the underwater sequences), and should have been nominated for an Academy Award (the fact that he was never even nominated for a competitive Oscar is shameful). Frederick Wilson’s editing keeps the film moving at a great pace, and Bernard Herrmann delivers a thrilling, adventurous score full of wonder and excitement. Endfield’s Mysterious Island is a thrilling adventure filled with breathtaking special effects, strong performances, and a solid story based on a popular Jules Verne fantasy novel.