Ray Harryhausen-themed review! Master of pre-computer and CGI effects, Harryhausen is a legend and for good reason. He did for movies what had previously seen impossible, bringing creatures -- real and otherwise -- to life, meant to impress, terrify and produce wonder and scale. Though I've long been aware of it, having seen bits and pieces here and there, I'd never seen in its entirety 1961's Mysterious Island, until now!
It's late in the Civil War in 1865 in Richmond and a small group of Union prisoners, led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig), is plotting an escape from Libby Prison. Their means of escape? A hot air balloon tethered near the camp. The group manages to let the balloon loose but it gets caught up in a horrific storm unlike any ever seen before. Harding's men drift through the air for days and days until finally they discover there's no land beneath them. Finally after many days in the balloon, the escaped prisoners crash in the ocean somewhere and manage to survive by reaching a nearby island. Everyone survives as they explore the island that seems to offer at least somewhat abundant supplies of food and water. Can they be rescued? That may not be the biggest of their concerns. This island has some secrets waiting to be revealed.
What a fun movie. In the vein of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, 'Mysterious' plays on that shipwrecked backstory and throws some twists into the movie. Director Cy Endfield brings to life Jules Verne's novel of the same name (a sequel to two previous Verne novels), a story full of the unknown and crazy prehistoric creatures and one of my favorites, a great sense of foreboding and hanging doom in the air! What exactly do the island's secrets hold? The island/beach scenes were filmed in Castel-Platja d'Aro in Catalonia, Spain, a suitable replacement for a Pacific island supposedly ignored by passing time. Throw in a score from composer Bernard Hermann and you've got a winning formula.
By 1961, Harryhausen was an established effects man with movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and 20 Million Miles to Earth to his name. If there's a weakness in 'Mysterious,' it's that there's not enough of Mr. Harryhausen's work! What's there is excellent, but I wish there was more. Our intrepid heroes on the island must battle a giant crab, an immense prehistoric bird, and a gigantic cephalopod as they explore their new surroundings. The stop-animation technology stands out like a sore thumb with an almost washed out, grainy look in the background now, but it's crazy to know the depths Harryhausen went to in bringing these impressive creatures to life. I just wish there was more of them! Still, what's there is excellent (with some other surprises along the way) and should definitely be entertaining, enjoyed and appreciated!
Now how about are characters who could potentially be fodder for these giant creatures? Along with Craig's heroic Captain Harding, look for fellow prisoners, cowardly Herbert (Michael Callan), heroic soldier, Neb (Dan Jackson), and war correspondent, Spilitt (Gary Merrill), with a Confederate prisoner in tow, Pencroft (Percy Herbert). For good measure, our heroes are joined by two shipwrecked ladies, the very lady-like Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece, Elena (Beth Rogan). A good ensemble, nothing flashy without any huge star power, but some fun characters trying to piece together the island's secrets and mysteries.
Verne's most memorable character in his stories is the iconic Captain Nemo, a brilliant man capable of inventions far ahead of his time, and an extremist idealist at the same time. His hatred? He wants the world to be at peace. Totally at peace. Here, he's played by Herbert Lom who shows up in the third act with a potential rescue but with some secrets of his own up his sleeve. Lom is excellent as the iconic Nemo, bringing a sense of menace and calm all mixed into one. We're not always sure what to think of him or what his intentions are because he's so eerily calm. The problem is that when he arrives, out goes the mystery. The payoff simply isn't as good as the build-up. By the finale, things seem a little rushed and then it just ends. A somewhat disappointing finale to an otherwise enjoyable flick. A bit of a measured recommendation, but definitely still worth seeking out.
Mysterious Island (1961): ** 1/2 /****