JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH—-for camp’s sake, an all-time howl sounds here, when Pat Boone falls naked out of a tree in front of a group of nuns and then clutches a sheep to his lions before scampering away. A priceless moment: maybe it was the giant mushrooms he dined on earlier in the movie? Along with tree-sized shrooms, an array of marvels await the heroes of this classic Jules Verne fantasy-adventure, a trove of what-if’s that have held their appeal over the decades.
Salt slides, crystal caverns, underground rivers, the lost city of Atlantis and massive flesh-eating Dimetrodons are spaced along the footsteps of ‘Arne Saknussemm’, blazer of the trail into the planet’s core. Hissing about impossibility is pointless: in stories like this just open your eyes wide and if you have any imagination at all you’ll come out buoyant.
James Mason offers one of his most enjoyable performances as Prof. Lindenbrook, getting with the spirit of old-time make believe, and the scripting has the right amount of portentous pronouncements and droll repartee to allow the actor to extend and inflect delightfully. Boone is just fine as his hardy helper, it’s easily the best role of his abbreviated movie career. Arlene Dahl spars engagingly with Mason. The old “a woman on an expedition!?” outrage adds a mature touch to the female-in-danger angle, gratefully not portrayed as a dimwit like The Lost World‘s Jill St.John (and thankfully not played by her). Nordic prototype Peter Ronson flexes as Hans, the loyal Icelander, and Thayer David is educated menace at its ruthless best as villain of the piece, rasping “I never sleep. I hate those little slices of death.” Which is good, because if I’m going to have a guy try to crush me with a boulder, I at least want him to be not just pompous but articulate.*
A $3,440,000 budget was a lot of money in 1959: topside locations include Edinburgh in Scotland, Lone Pine in California (doubling as nicely for Iceland as it had often done for India) and some cave interiors courtesy of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. The 20th Century Fox art directors went wild on stunner sets, showcased in sparkling color by Leo Tover’s cinematography, and the sound crew evidently enjoyed their assignment. That vista of the domed underworld ocean is just Too Cool. Those roaring dimetrodons (unforgettable witnessed as a young’n on a big screen, we attest) are fin-bedecked Rhinoceros Iguanas, also known as ‘Goliath Dragons’, native (and endangered) to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. All are perfectly accentuated by Bernard Herrmann’s score, an earful of the awesome and mysterious.
“A field of force that snatches gold away! This is it, this is it! The junction of magnetic forces from the North Pole to the South Pole – the center of the earth!”
A big hit, taking in $14,290,000, collecting Oscar nominations for Art Direction, Special Effects and Sound, it runs a comfortable 132 minutes and co-stars Diane Baker, Alan Napier and Ivan Triesault. Grand family entertainment—-and lets not forget ‘Gertrud’: she’s part of the expedition, too!
*Inimitable nastyman Thayer David (so fun as the ‘Reverend Silas Pendrake’ in Little Big Man and on the old TV series Dark Shadows) only lived to be 51. Writer-director Frank D. Gilroy called him ” the most widely educated and best-read actor I’ve ever encountered.”