Journey To The Centre Of The Earth


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Journey To The Centre Of The Earth
"A ripping yarn of the finest sort with good work all round."

Back in 1864, when men were real men and weren't afraid to descend through miles and miles of caverns with no hope of rescue or try to pronounce the names of Icelandic volcanoes (in this case Snæfellsjökull), legendary science fiction writer Jules Verne envisioned an expedition into a land then widely rumoured to be real - a hidden place inside the centre of the Earth. Although many scientists dismissed the idea at the time, and Verne himself fortified his tale with numerous caveats and qualifiers (not to mention jokes), belief was sufficient that 50 years later the Nazis made plans to try and find it. Made in a rather more sober 1959, Henry Levin's film adaptation treats its material purely as fantasy but grounds it in 19th century ambition and a spirit of adventure that still echoes through our culture today.

James Mason plays Professor Lindenbrook, an Edinburgh academic who unexpectedly comes into possession of a clue which, he is convinced, proves than an earlier explorer actually reached that hidden land. Taking along excitable student Alec (Pat Boone), he heads for Iceland to find out more, but all is not well, as he has a rival, Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), who will stop at nothing to get ahead and claim the discovery for himself. Taking on local strongman Hans (Peter Ronson) to help, Lindenbrook discovers that this means they will also be accompanied by Hans' beloved duck, Gertrude. Worse, from his perspective, accessing the equipment he needs means having to accept the company of a woman, Carla (Arlene Dahl), whom he is convinced will ruin everything. The fact that she sometimes proves more adept than he is only adds to the humiliation.

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Mason is a treat in one of his most interesting roles, clearly relishing his character's deeply unsympathetic moments as much as the witty dialogue. He makes a great deal out of what might easily have been a shallow character (one need only watch the remakes to see evidence of that) and has great chemistry with Dahl, who can give as good as she gets but does her best to resist being drawn into his games. He was 55 and she 39 at the time: both convince as people who have a good bit of life experience behind them, and this gives their interaction a depth that's missing from most Hollywood pairings.

Curiously, the centre of the Earth is presented in a slightly less sensational way than in Verne's novel. There are fewer monsters (though the encounter with dimetrodons is not to be missed) but there are more substantial subplots, giving the story a stronger narrative structure. It's well paced and benefits from inventive set design that's really quite impressive given the materials available at the time, with some of it still fully convincing today. Away from the action scenes, laboratories and hotels are beautifully detailed, and the costumes are superb, although Boone and Ronson soon lose most of theirs. Even Gertrude sheds a few feathers.

A ripping yarn of the finest sort with good work all round, Journey To The Centre Of the Earth has stood the test of time and retains its power to entertain today. With a smörgåsbord of adventure favourites running from volcanoes to whirlpools to lost Atlantis, it can't help but delight fans of the genre, and Mason and Dahl's wonderful rapport provides the finishing touch.

Reviewed on: 15 Sep 2017
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Rival expeditions set out to try and reach the centre of the Earth via an extinct Icelandic volcano.
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Director: Henry Levin

Writer: Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett, based on the book by Jules Verne

Starring: James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, Thayer David, Peter Ronson, Diane Baker

Year: 1959

Runtime: 132 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US


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