Twilight Time has released the 1961 film adaptation of Jules Verne's classic adventure Mysterious Island as a limited edition (3,000 units) Blu-ray. The story was Verne's sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, although the only recurring character is the reclusive genius Captain Nemo (played in this version with great dignity and charisma by Herbert Lom). Nemo doesn't appear until late in the movie and to say too much about how he fits in with the story would spoil the film's many delights. The movie starts with a daring escape by Union POWs from a Confederate prison during the final days of the Civil War. The escapees utilize a hot air balloon, that they successfully launch under gun fire in the midst of a hurricane. The newly-freed men are Capt. Harding (Michael Craig), fellow soldiers Herbert Brown (Michael Callan) and Neb Nugent (Dan Jackson), as well as a war correspondent, Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill). They are also accompanied by an unwilling passenger, Pencroft (Percy Herbert), a Confederate guard who knows how to operate the balloon. The disparate group endures the savage winds of the hurricane and fly for thousands of miles over a period of days before crash landing near a remote tropical island. They all survive the ordeal and discover their new home affords them to opportunity to avail themselves of food and water. As in the tradition of most castaway movies such as Swiss Family Robinson, the survivors manage to use crude tools to outfit themselves with the comforts of home, virtually overnight. Providence also provides a solution to the lack of female companionship when two attractive British women wash ashore from a convenient shipwreck. They are the aristocratic Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her gorgeous niece Elena (Beth Rogan). The two seem rather undisturbed about the predicament of being trapped on a remote island with a group of desperate men. Before long a social order is formed with the women doing womenly things while the men hunt and gather. Lady Mary also manages to whip up a gift for Elena: the first mini-skirt in history, much to the relief of her new beau Herbert (as well as every teenage boy in the audience).
As the group explores the island, they must endure an attack by a pirate ship and an even greater threat: inexplicably gigantic animals and insects that pose a constant hazard. (In one memorable sequence, Herbert and Elena find themselves imprisoned in a gigantic honeycomb by colossal bees, thus making this the biggest "Bee" movie in history.) More immediate danger comes from a volcano is on the verge of erupting, thus blasting the small island into oblivion. It's at this point where Captain Nemo makes a dramatic entrance and his presence on the island is related to the large animal life.
The film was shot entirely in England, mostly at Shepperton Studios, and represents a teaming between producer Charles H. Schneer and SFX master Ray Harryhausen, who employed his SuperDynamation stop-action animation process. Compared to their other collaborative efforts, the matte paintings and rear screen projection effects in this film look cheesy, though apologists point out that Harryhausen may have made them that way intentionally in order to convey the sheer fantasy of the storyline. (Hitchcock fans often cite the same theory for the poor effects in Marnie). Where Harryhausen lives up to expectations is in the realm of the exotic creatures, which are magnificently rendered. The set designs are also impressive, especially in sequences showing Captain Nemo's legendary vessel, The Nautilus. This leads to an underwater sequence where our heroes are attacked by a giant squid. (Verne was not adverse to using elements of his previous stories.)
The performances are all satisfactory, with Percy Herbert's British accent occasionally slipping through his Southern drawl. Refreshingly (for the era), the role of Neb presents a rare black character who is heroic, intelligent and not compromised by stereotypical humor. One of the most impressive "stars" of the film doesn't even appear on screen: composer Bernard Herrmann, who provides a suitably ominous and bombastic score that elevates the movie on every level.
Mysterious Island is a consistently entertaining fantasy film and Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation looks great. This release includes the original theatrical trailer with the type of over-the-top narration typical of a Charles H. Schneer production. A cool B&W TV spot is also featured and Herrmann's score is presented on an isolated track. As usual, film scholar Julie Kirgo provides interesting facts in the illustrated collector's booklet.