20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916)

“Captain Nemo, having built and launched the ‘Monster,’ followed the path of vessels for 20,000 leagues in search of vengeance…”


Director:  Stuart Paton

Starring:  Allen Holubar, Matt Moore, Jane Gail, William Welsh, Dan Hanlon, Curtis Benton, Noble Johnson, Edna Pendleton, Lois Alexander

Screenplay:  Stuart Paton, based upon the novels of Jules Verne




Synopsis:  During the 1860s, shipping is threatened by what people come to believe is a sea monster, with a wave of wreckings and sinkings occurring across the oceans. The United States government mounts an expedition to track and kill the monster. The distinguished French scientist, Professor Aronnax (Dan Hanlon), who is visiting New York, is invited to participate: he accepts and, with his daughter (Edna Pendleton), boards the Abraham Lincoln. The two are introduced to Ned Land (Curtis Benton), a harpoonist who hopes to kill the creature. The ship sets out, sailing for the area of the monster’s last sighting… On a submarine called the Nautilus, Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar) pursues a mission of revenge. He and his loyal crew travel the oceans of the world, never touching land, hunting relentlessly for Nemo’s enemy… As Nemo broods over the past, the Nautilus crosses paths with the Abraham Lincoln. Upon their first glimpse of the submarine, those on the ship do indeed believe they have found a monster; but Land’s harpoons cannot harm it, and nor does cannon-fire. Remorselessly, Nemo orders his crew to ram the ship: the vessel is damaged, losing its rudder and left adrift and unable to steer; while Aronnax, his daughter and Land are thrown into the water. On impulse, Nemo orders his men to rescue them. Unconscious, they are lifted from the water and taken into the depths of the Nautilus, where they are imprisoned… As the Civil War rages, Union scouts led by Lieutenant Bond (Matt Moore) are carried over the ocean in an observation balloon. Eventually they are thrown into the water, but manage to struggle onto the shore of a tropical island. Unbeknownst to the men, the island is already inhabited by a mysterious woman (Jane Gail)…

Comments:  As we have seen in other contexts, in the early days of silent film it was common for popular novels to be transferred to the screen not just because of their popularity, but because the audience’s familiarity with the material allowed for adaptations only one or two reels long that tended to skip from highlight to highlight in a manner bewildering to anyone who didn’t already know the plot.


Among the earliest authors to be transferred to the screen was Jules Verne—sort of. We may or may not consider Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans La Lune a legitimate adaptation of Verne; while even further from its source was Méliès’ 1907 short film, Deux Cents Milles sous les Mers, ou le Cauchemar du Pêcheur, a parody of Verne about a dreamy fisherman and his underwater adventures. Unfortunately, only just over half of the original footage of this short still survives, and good prints are very hard to find.

When people starting filming Verne seriously, it was to Michael Strogoff that they turned, with a flurry of versions starting in 1908. This may seem an odd choice, until it is considered that this historical novel could be treated as a standard costume drama, without any need to tackle Verne’s technology. Subsequently, Verne’s son, Michel, became his father’s leading film translator, overseeing several productions from 1914’s Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant onwards.

It isn’t altogether clear who first had the idea to do a serious, feature-length version of Verne’s 1872 novel, Vingt Mille Lieues sous les Mers, but its 1916 adaptation brought together – fittingly enough – two groups of people who were the leading exponents of the two different types of technology that were necessary to get it made.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea trumpets itself as “The First Submarine Photoplay Ever Filmed”, and it prefaces its film with a tribute to John Ernest and George Williamson, whose technical breakthroughs in the realm of underwater photography allowed the Universal Film Manufacturing Company – soon to be known as “Universal Pictures” – to give American cinema-goers something no-one had seen before.

We touched upon the careers of the Williamson brothers when we dealt with their troubled and truncated involvement with 1929’s The Mysterious Island. While there was initially a partnership, John Ernest – sometimes called “J. Ernest”, often just “J. E.” – was the prime mover. He continued working in this area for many years after the departure of George, finally building a decades-long film career.

In the beginning, however, it was their father, Charles, a sea captain, who invented a tube that could be suspended and extended from a ship to provide an air supply and a means of communication at depths of up to 250 feet, and which could be attached to a diving apparatus to assist with salvage and underwater repair work.

J. E. then found a way to adapt his father’s invention for photography, placing a camera within a chamber at the bottom of the tube and lighting its surrounds from above. After carrying out his initial experiments with still photography, and thrilled by the clarity of the images he was able to achieve, J. E. adapted his mechanism still further: he added to it a larger steel chamber with a five-foot-wide glass window, designed to house a motion-picture camera, and suspended his tube from a specially-designed barge – dubbed, appropriately enough, the Jules Verne – from which the equipment was operated; with a series of mirrors placed within the tube allowing the operator to “see” what the camera was seeing. J. E. tried out his so-called “photosphere” in the Bahamas, where the light and water clarity allowed photography at depths of up to 150 feet.

A move into documentary-making was the next step—and this is where the story gets depressing: J. E. raised money for his project by having himself filmed by George killing a shark on camera. The pair baited their waters with a dead horse, waited for a shark to show up and, when it did, J. E. went for it unarmed except for a knife.

Sadly, J. E.’s calculation that people would pay to see an animal killed rather than to see beautiful shots of underwater life proved exactly correct: having exhibited his footage, he returned to the Bahamas with sufficient funds to make an hour-long documentary, one which climaxes with the original footage, dead horse, dead shark and all. Under its original title, Thirty Leagues Under The Sea, the documentary was long believed a lost film; however, under its alternative title, Terrors Of The Deep, a print was recently found and preserved.

It isn’t clear whether the Williamsons then approached Universal or whether, on the strength of their documentary, Universal approached them; but in 1914, a partnership formed for the production of a feature-length version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

From a technical standpoint, this is altogether a remarkable piece of film-making. Costing half a million dollars, an unheard-of sum at the time, it offers location shooting, real ships (one of which gets destroyed during its climax), a convincing Nautilus, extended underwater photography, adventure sequences with the cast in early diving equipment—and something else, which we’ll deal with when the time is ripe. Its second half also offers some exotic adventures on land, however I remain unconvinced that (given how costs were spirally out of control) the sets and costumes for this footage were created specifically for this film. More likely, I think, they were recycled from some other production.

Released in December of 1916, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a hit with the public and the critics alike; though it did not, and realistically could not, recoup its expenses: ominously setting the tone for the rise and fall of Carl Laemmle over the next twenty years.


Not unexpectedly, the underwater scenes were what everyone wanted to talk about—and it is absolutely vital that we keep in mind throughout our consideration of this film that, in 1916, this film was literally showing people things that they had never seen before. It is easy enough now to be blasé, or even bored, as the Williamsons’ camera wanders across the sea-bottom off Nassau, or actors (or stunt-people) struggle against a current, making their scenes longer than they needed to be; but this was epoch-making stuff at the time, and we must never forget that.

The film is also a breakthrough work of science fiction, at a time when anything not realistic – or at least, not capable of being “explained away” – was still being viewed by American critics, if not audiences, with grave suspicion. Granted, by 1916, nearly fifty years after the novel’s publication, Verne’s technology may have been deemed sufficiently “realistic” to avoid such criticism: one aspect of it in particular. It has been suggested that the “submarine consciousness” of war-time audiences may have contributed to the film’s success.

Today, however, the main reason that we have to keep the technical achievements of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in the forefront of our thinking is that, as a film, it’s not very good.

You could argue, in fact, that this film was ahead of its time in another way: a blockbuster production with all the effort put into the special effects, and scant attention paid to the plot and the characterisations—sound familiar?

Written by producer-director Stuart Paton, although without credit, the screenplay of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is a strange piece of work indeed. It mixes chunks of Verne’s L’Île Mystérieuse (the original novel’s semi-sequel) into its plot, it features characters who literally contribute nothing to the story, and others who come and go, it rarely bothers to introduce anyone—and it finally offers up an explanation for its protagonist’s actions that differs from his creator’s…or as an intertitle puts it in a bizarre, fourth-wall-breaking touch, which Jules Verne never told.


Be all that as it may, the film starts quite well. The opening credits are lengthy, praising both the Williamson brothers and Jules Verne – the former perhaps a little more fulsomely than the latter – before we are told via intertitles that a “sea monster” is wreaking havoc across the world’s oceans, with many ships sunk and all hands lost. The United States Government, despite (we later gather) having a Civil War to run, mounts a marine expedition to track and kill the monster.

The “distinguished French scientist”, Professor Aronnax, happens to be visiting New York at this time, and he accepts an invitation to make one of the expedition.

Inviting herself along is his daughter—a character so entirely superfluous, they didn’t even bother to give her a name. In the early sequences she’s set up as a love-interest for Ned Land – “famous”, if you please, as “the prince of harpoonists”; but then the script pretty much forgets about Land, too. Nor does Aronnax himself – a marine biologist in the novel – ever react to his surroundings or the underwater marvels that he sees. All of these people are just sort of there.

(Noting that a fourth person is rescued from the Abraham Lincoln. On my first viewing I thought it was the ship’s captain, who we see several times with the others, but I now realise it’s Aronnax’s assistant, or secretary, who may be glimpsed at the hotel, and onboard the ship wearing a suit and a boater hat. He has no name, and contributes nothing. Most of the time he has his back to the camera.)

The film then introduces Captain Nemo, “a man of mystery”.


Nemo is played, rather bizarrely, by twenty-six-year-old Allen Holubar in his first starring role. This is an unusual adaptation of the novel in that it acknowledges the fact that – at least once Jules Verne had finished rewriting his manuscript to his publisher’s satisfaction – Nemo was Indian; and while the role was never going to be played by a person of colour (has it ever been?), the brown-face makeup here is particularly jarring.

Furthermore, Holubar’s Nemo wears a hip-length jacket with white trim that, in conjunction with his white beard, wide belt, black knee-boots and trailing bandanna, makes him look disconcertingly like a skinny Santa Claus.

(Holubar is today little remembered as an actor, but rather as the man who directed Erich von Stroheim in The Heart Of Humanity; though perhaps it would be more correct to say that he stood back and let von Stroheim happen.)

On a brighter note, we are also introduced at this point to the Nautilus; and whatever the shortcomings of the film that contains it, this is a marvellous creation. Above the water the vessel is full-sized, with a platform on top upon which its crew can gather; another such mock-up permits people to emerge from its underside; while the underwater scenes are accomplished via model-work, allowing the submarine to “free swim”. (It wobbles a little bit while doing so, but we won’t be churlish.) In some of these shots, we can see that the vessel is shaped something like a fish – it even has eyes – presumably accounting for the “sea monster” legends.

It is clear, too, that all of the scenes involving the Nautilus, and those on the film’s sailing-ships, were shot out on the ocean, and not in a tank.


So the viewer, at least, is not surprised when, the Abraham Lincoln having encountered its quarry, Ned Land’s harpoons and – rather more improbably – the ship’s cannon-balls have no effect upon the supposed sea creature.

Nemo orders his crew to ram the ship. It is left adrift, while “the Professor and his party” fall overboard. No explanation whatsoever is provided for why Nemo leaves the Abraham Lincoln afloat, when evidently the Nautilus has been sinking ships all over the world – and particularly in the wake of Nemo’s declared concern over “the secret of his submarine” being revealed – nor for why he goes out of his way to rescue the people in the water. Whatever his reasons, Nemo has the Nautilus brought up under the four, so that they are lifted from the water on its platform. They are then brought below—and thrown into prison.

Later, confronting the four, Nemo declares angrily, “You will never leave this ship as long as I live!” – which seems a silly thing to say when you’re alone with your four captives – but the next thing we know, Nemo’s lieutenant (unnamed / unidentified; Ole Jansen?) is “pleading for leniency”, which results in a change of clothing into something more practical for Mlle. Aronnax and the freedom of the ship for all, in exchange for a promise they won’t try to escape.

And then without warning the film drops us into the middle of The Mysterious Island—or vice-versa.

This novel begins with four Union Army prisoners escaping during the Siege of Richmond by hijacking an observation balloon. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea gives us, rather, a few seconds of confusion followed by, Lieutenant Bond and four Union scouts frustrate an attempt to destroy their balloon and are carried out to sea.


The lack of introductions on the Nautilus is bad, but here it’s even worse. Only two of these characters are given a name, and we are left to infer that the one upon whom the next subplot focuses is Bond, simply because he is given a name.

Furthermore, one of these characters is black—and the film does all it can to pretend he isn’t there at all: he is present during the survivors’ swim to shore, but then absent from most subsequent scenes involving the white characters. (And when we do see him, he is waiting on the others, sigh.)

In the novel, this was Neb – short for “Nebuchadnezzar” – a former slave and now manservant of one of the prisoners. Here we’re not, of course, introduced; though it does seem that he and a second black character, who appears from no-where later on, are indeed two different people. According to the film’s inadequate cast-list, Neb is played by one Leviticus Jones – which may have been a stage name – and the latter – in an “undetermined secondary role”; really!? – by Noble Johnson; but I think it was the other way around.

Anyway— Brace yourselves: the men’s balloon eventually carries them near to “Mysterious Island”, and we learn that “Mysterious Island” is already inhabited by “a child of nature”.

This would be a female in a rough dress of animal skins, who exhibits her child-of-nature-dom by leaving her hair loose, sleeping in a tree, and doing a great deal of what we can only call “cavorting”—thus giving us the opportunity to observe that she’s not so au naturel as to be undepilated.

On the other hand, we can also see quite clearly that she’s supposed to be not-white, with brown-face extended to brown-all-over.


(Somewhat ironically, this mysterious female is the film’s one readily recognisable face, at least for some of us: she’s played by Jane Gail, who three years before was the female lead in the King Baggot version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.)

The cavorting comes to an abrupt halt when the C-o-N observes a strange object in the sky…

As it nears the island, the basket parts company with the balloon for some reason, and four of its five passengers are dropped into the water; they manage to struggle ashore. The fifth man is tangled in the ropes or something, and falls into the water some distance away.

By now the Nautilus is in the vicinity; and again for no particular reason Nemo decides to rescue the man, who floats unconscious nearby: a couple of his crew haul him ashore and leave him in a cave.

The next morning, the exhausted survivors wake to discover they are one short, and search until they find their missing comrade (who therefore gets a name, “Harding”). Nemo is watching and, having no intention of bringing these additional strangers into the Nautilus, instead sends ashore a chest of supplies via a barrel-raft. The puzzled men seize avidly upon this mysterious bounty—and our last glimpse for a while of the black character is him taking a frying pan and other such items, which of course he will need to cook for the rest…

The white guys, meanwhile, grab the guns—and one of them starts stupidly wasting ammunition by gleefully firing off a few celebratory shots.


The C-o-N has been an interested spectator of all this, and has drawn so near that one of the shots hits her. Upon hearing her cry of pain, the men exchange startled looks before Bond – I think – runs into the surrounding jungle to seek out its origin. However, the wounded C-o-N staggers away and manages to hide from him.

(Again, I think: there is no subsequent sign that she was hurt.)

On the Nautilus, Nemo invites Aronnax and the others into his cabin, to look out upon the ocean floor through what he calls his “magic window”.

Here the Williamsons’ underwater footage is fully deployed: commonplace to us in these spoiled times, magical indeed to audiences in 1916: Scenes which you might think God never intended us to see, comments Nero. As sunlight glints through the crystal-clear Bahamian waters, we see the sandy bed covered by seaweeds, sponges and coral, through which dart fish of many kinds…including, sigh, sharks.

(And barracudas—which, all the eek-sharks! stuff notwithstanding, were what really gave the film-makers trouble.)

There is also – everyone forgetting for the moment when this film was supposed to be set, I guess – the wreck of “an old blockade runner”.

The scene ends with Nemo promising Aronnax “a hunting trip on the ocean floor”, which apparently he considers “more wonderful” than the scenes they’ve been observing.


Back on the island, the men have constructed a camp, and work on defending it from wild animals. (We’ve seen a couple of tame-looking leopards by now.) This includes building a covered pit—which, one day, catches a strange animal indeed…

We cut without explanation from Bond carrying the terrified and struggling C-o-N away from the pit, to him teaching her about white-guy stuff like ladders and pants while they make goo-goo eyes at each other. (Given everything else, this film seems weirdly unbothered by the prospect of an interracial relationship.) It isn’t quite clear how Bond communicates to the C-o-N that she needs to step behind a barrier-rock and change her clothes, but from this point on she wears a shirt and trousers.

And then Bond takes her to the others.

Uh, yeah: let’s reveal this young woman’s presence on the island to a group of men who have just accepted that they’re probably never going to get rescued. THAT should end well.

And yup, when the C-o-N leads Bond through the jungle to her own roughly constructed retreat, one of the others secretly follows…

Back on the Nautilus, Nemo and the others prepare for their hunting-trip.

This is another of the remarkable touches in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. While it isn’t clear who exactly is in the gear (though I imagine J. E. Williamson was one of them), here we follow four individuals as they leave the submarine not only in a lighter variant of the familiar diving-suit of the time, but breathing underwater not via air-hoses from above, but via a still-experimental type of self-contained breathing-apparatus carried with them, using small tanks and a valve system by which “bad air” could be expelled.


(Some historical accuracy here: a lot of work was being done in this area in the 1860s, most of it in France. And of course submarines were in use during the Civil War.)

All that said, a scuba-diving scene is still a scuba-diving scene; and this one doesn’t unfold any more rapidly than its descendants do. On the up-side, though the men go out with the declared intention of “hunting”, and though they carry with them a form of air-rifle that works underwater, nothing is actually killed here despite pot-shots taken at some passing sharks. (Land, or his stand-in, carries a harpoon, but ditto.) One shark gets poked from underneath, and another is bonked on the nose—all of which is, of course, presented as the men being in danger from the sharks, rather than the other way around; and of course the sharks are designated “man-eaters” despite, you know…

During the original release of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which may then have run for around two hours, a very long film for its time (most prints now are about 100 – 105 minutes, though shorter ones can be found), there was an intermission at this point; and when the film resumes we are abruptly introduced to a person – we can hardly say “gentleman” – called Charles Denver, who is plagued by nightmares about, even literally haunted by, a woman who, years before, he cruelly wronged.

This was “the wife of Prince Daaker, of India”, upon whom he “forced his attentions”. Isn’t that a delightful euphemism? And so determined was the princess not to allow those attentions, she stabbed herself to death. Even more horrifyingly, the princess’s young daughter was present for all this; and Denver, to prevent his villainy being revealed, abducted her.

(Princess Daaker is – ah-HA! – also played by Jane Gail; as are her ghost / nightmare versions.)


To escape his “mental torture”, Denver sets out in his yacht; although this only reminds him of his subsequent cruelty to the young girl, who he treated so badly one of his crew angrily intervened. Long story short, the child was finally marooned on an island…

The belatedly remorseful Denver decides to discover if “the child still lives”, and sails his yacht towards that island. He has his crew set him ashore with orders to come and find him if he isn’t back by nightfall, and then promptly gets “lost on Mysterious Island” and has some kind of breakdown.

Back on the Nautilus, another “magic window” interlude is interrupted by the sight of a pearl-diver – is it the black castaway? – or if not, who is he, and where did he come from!? – getting himself into serious trouble…

And here we have the real reason that 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is so historically imperative. Its photographic and technological marvels are all very well, but in addition to that the film gifts us—a Honking Big Octopus.

Apparently J. E. Williamson initially though of casting a real octopus here, some species of which (as we discussed re: Tentacles) do get large enough to be intimidating. But eventually accepting that this wasn’t going to give him what he wanted onscreen, instead J. E. set to work and built himself an octopus: one that he could operate from inside, while underwater, and which had the ability, courtesy of a compressed-air system, to extend and retract its tentacles.

The results are an admirable, and for its time rather extraordinary, creation—if not exactly convincing; its major shortcoming being its eyes, which make it look cartoonish.

But eyes are hard, as we know even now; so as I said with respect to the Nautilus, let’s not be churlish: let’s just enjoy it—


So, yeah: the pearl-diver gets grabbed; Nemo rushes into a diving-suit and leaves the sub; he takes an axe with him, with which he severs a tentacle; and he and the diver ascend in a cloud of ink, the latter being deposited in his boat. (And in case you were wondering, “the prince of harpoonists” watches all this from the safety of the magic window.)

On the island, Bond questions the C-o-N about her past – I wonder what language they’re speaking? – and she fills in some more of Denver’s back-story.

Then Bond’s stupidity in displaying the C-o-N to the others predictably leads to one of them – boy, this is just a checklist of euphemisms, isn’t it? – violating his honour; which is another way of saying he tries to violate something else; though thankfully the C-o-N is rescued in time. Instead of shooting the skunk on sight, as he should have done, Bond declares him “outcast”.

Meanwhile, Nemo becomes aware of a yacht in the Nautilus’s vicinity; he sends some men ashore to find out who commands it.

There’s a lot of wandering around on the island at this point; I’ll try to be brief. Denver’s men are looking for him: they find “the outcast” instead, who promptly declares himself “alone on the island” and begs for rescue. Nemo’s men overhear the other crewmen speak of Charles Denver as their commander. Denver himself is still having his extended breakdown, but his men find him just in time and carry him back to his yacht, along with the outcast.

An intertitle then informs us baldly that, The outcast plans to gain control of the yacht and abduct the island maid.


And he gets all the help he needs from Denver’s crew—presumably in exchange for the only thing he has to barter with…

Keeee-RIST. We’re certainly learning more about Stuart Paton’s psyche from this film than we ever wanted to know.

Anyway, the C-o-N is carried off in the yacht’s dinghy. Realising, the horrified Bond immediately dives in and swims after her. He manages to climb aboard just before “the conspirators” start the yacht moving. The outcast locks the C-o-N in a cabin, where in an adjoining room Denver lies either drunk or drugged. He does wake up at this point, and staggers out into the main cabin, where he discovers that he is not alone. And it seems the two captives recognise one another…

Nemo’s men then return to the Nautilus and report that the owner of the yacht is Charles Denver.

“At last!” cries Nemo.

Yyyyyeah. This is the film’s elephant in the living-room, not that it ever seems to realise it. We gather that Nemo has been travelling the oceans – 20,000 leagues of travel – searching for Charles Denver…but destroying every ship he encounters just in case, without bothering to find out in advance what ships they were or who was on board.

It’s interesting to compare this film’s attitude to that of The Mysterious Island, which takes a firm moral stance. The screenplay of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea never calls Nemo out on his conduct, or suggests that he should be held accountable for his actions. Nor does it provide answers for why Nemo suddenly starts rescuing people, when he’s been busy up until now slaughtering them indiscriminately; or why he bothers to find out who owns the yacht instead of just blowing it up like all the other ships. Perhaps he’s supposed to have been “softened”, or had his humanity “reawakened”, by his contact with Aronnax and the others, but if so we sure don’t see anything of it. (And besides, he rescued them first.)


As the yacht moves away, the outcast descends to the cabin. Denver here tries to protect the C-o-N, but he’s no match for the ruthless outcast. Fortunately, Bond finds the cabin in time and, breaking through shipbuilding’s flimsiest door, grapples with his enemy.

Denver does end up helping, though: he grabs onto the outcast and holds him while Bond and the C-o-N escape to the deck—and just in time, since Nemo has had his crew prepare a torpedo…

Bond and the C-o-N jump overboard just before the torpedo hits, with the yacht – and its remaining occupants – going up in flames…

Even as he celebrates his revenge, Nemo sees two survivors in the water and – sigh – orders them rescued. And even without orders, the crewman also rescue the remaining two white castaways from the island.

Of the black castaway, there is no sign…

Overcome by these events, Nemo is resting in his cabin when the survivors of the yacht are brought to him—and there is an emotional reunion…

Nemo:  “Allah be praised—it is my child!”



Well, in fact, maybe; though I find it hard to believe that anyone concerned with this film was reading the fine print that closely: in the books (not this book), Nemo does finally reveal himself as “Prince Dakkar” (not “Daaker”), son of “the Rajah of Bundelkhand”, a Hindu; but also as “a descendant of the Sultan Fateh Ali Khan Tipu” of Mysore, a Muslim.

And though we know that it is supposed to be set in India, the flashback that follows is executed with the kind of all-purpose Hollywood exoticism that would, were we left to ourselves, make it hard to decide whether this is the Raj oppressing the Indians, or the Foreign Legion in Algeria, oppressing the Arabs. The military uniforms, for one thing, are all over the place (and when Daaker is arrested, there is absolutely a Legionnaire in the background); but on the other hand, there’s a brief snake-charming scene, and a glimpse of an elephant, too. (Oh! – and a map of India, now that I look quickly.)

Anyway, we hear about how Daaker was stupid enough to learn to trust Charles Denver, an “ocean trader”. We know how that ended for his wife and child; we now learn that Denver reported Daaker to the British, falsely claiming that he was behind recent native unrest and trying to start a rebellion; and that – because he was white? – they believed him, and Daaker was imprisoned. And that gave Denver the opportunity to force his attentions on the grief-stricken princess.

Anyway, if there wasn’t going to be a rebellion before, there is now. During the uprising, Daaker escapes from prison and returns to his palace—and we know what he finds there. But his wife lives long enough to tell him who was responsible…

So instead of an anti-imperialist rampage brought on by the fallout from the Indian Rebellion of 1857, and despite the fact that, My country had become a place of death and desolation, Nemo’s crusade is here – also in typical Hollywood style – reduced to purely personal revenge.


(All of which raises an interesting point: Nemo may be Indian, but his crew is all-white; so who are they, where did he get them, and why are they so down with his indiscriminate slaughter?)

Having finished his story, Nemo clears his cabin of everyone but Bond and the former C-o-N. He then shows the latter a portrait of her mother, which he has kept concealed all these years, shares one more tender moment with her, and then keels over and dies.

This paves the way for a final underwater scene: Nemo’s sea-bed funeral; before his crew obey his other last wish, and scuttle the Nautilus

Considering it simply as a film, the faults of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea finally overwhelm its virtues. The acting is uniformly poor, it’s far too long, and the pacing is terrible, particularly during the second half. (There’s a scene where two of Nemo’s men don their diving-gear and wade out to return to the submarine that almost plays out in real time.) In particular, the island stuff feels interminable—even if we recognise that it is basically there to replace the no-less gruelling biological cataloguing with which Jules Verne literally filled chapters. The final flashback is also unnecessarily protracted; though there they may simply have been trying to give more for bang for the audience’s buck.

But as I said at the outset—if we keep this film’s technical accomplishments before our mind’s eye, then we can appreciate what a marvel it is: a film that gave audiences many things that they had never seen before, and repeatedly broke new ground in doing so. Whatever we make today of the film’s lengthy, and leisurely, underwater scenes, it is absolutely vital that we remember that at the time of this film’s release, these were something unique, and extraordinary.


This is why it is so important to place 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in the context of its production history. It’s too easy, at this distance, to dismiss the achievements—certainly not of Stuart Paton – hardly! – but of the Williamsons, J. E. in particular if you like, though it was often George operating the camera. Though they may not have started out as film-makers per se, we must now rank the brothers amongst those individuals in the history of cinema who had both the skill and the tenacity to take what they imagined and find a way to make it real.

And, hey!—




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18 Responses to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1916)

  1. Craig McNicoll says:

    In the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie, Nemo was portrayed by a person of color. It’s not an adaption of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea granted but it’s Captain Nemo regardless, so I figure it counts.


  2. BeetleMan1979 says:

    My guess is they reduced Nemo’s quest to mere vengeance because they didn’t want to admit that an Indian man might have a valid grievance with white people.


    • lyzmadness says:

      When Verne first wrote the novel, Nemo was a Polish nobleman driven by Russian atrocities; but given the contemporary political situation – and the potential effect on the reading market – his publisher made him change it. So Nemo became an Indian nobleman driven by British atrocities, which apparently was all good. 😀

      It may have been something as simple as concern that American audiences wouldn’t understand the historical implications. Though it seems odd to me they’d leave Nemo Indian and then tamper with the context of it.


      • Aethelred the Unready says:

        Oddly, I have to agree with Verne’s editor here. Nemo being an Indian fighting the British actually fits the submarine plot far better, insofar as the Russians have never been a naval power, so a Polish prince wouldn’t likely build a nuclear submarine to fight them.

        Plus the whole Indian thing was a poke at the British, which would add a little amusement for French audiences.


      • Alaric says:

        I don’t think Verne’s editor came up with the “Indian driven by British atrocities” idea- I think he just nixed the “Pole driven by Russian atrocities” idea. My recollection is that the published book didn’t actually explain Nemo’s nationality at all- it was in the sequel, The Mysterious Island, that Nemo was revealed to be an Indian nobleman.


      • RogerBW says:

        Fortunately, everyone has reason to hate the British. 🙂 And I agree, using a submarine to go after the preeminent naval power is a sensible approach; Russia’s international trade would be affected by a naval campaign, but it never really had overseas colonies in a big way – yes, Alaska, California, Hawaii, and they all had some cultural influence, but the last sale (of Alaska) was in 1867, two years before the book started to come out.


  3. RogerBW says:

    Here’s some weirdness for you: there were indeed observation balloons in the American Civil War. There were also cameras. But no contemporary account mentions aerial photographs, and if there were any they haven’t survived to the historical record.


    • Alaric says:

      Didn’t the cameras of the time have very long exposure times? A hot air balloon doesn’t strike me as a very stable place to take long-exposure pictures from, at least without additional technology involved.


      • Kit Coyote says:

        If you are referring to the observation balloons used in the Civil War era, they didn’t take pictures. The observers would write a note on what they saw and drop them to the ground on a ribbon or signal using flags.


      • Alaric says:

        I’m responding to the “But no contemporary account mentions aerial photographs” part.


      • RogerBW says:

        Nadar was taking aerial photographs over Paris in 1858, though I believe they’ve been lost. James Wallace Black’s 1860 picture of Boston has survived. Fair points though; thanks.


  4. Kit Coyote says:

    Honking Big Octopus (HBO) makes everything good!


  5. Aethelred the Unready says:

    “J. E. went for it unarmed except for a knife.”

    Sick as it is to kill an animal for entertainment, I gotta give props to JE for going mano-e-sharko with just a knife, instead of drugging and torturing the thing the way the (much) later Italians did. The shark had a chance, at least. Still, pity he didn’t spend the time to make a HBS instead.


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