Mysterious Island (DVD)

“Contact with my own species has always disappointed me.”

Jules Verne’s novel “Mysterious Island” (his sequel to “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”) has been the basis or inspiration for a dozen film or television versions, the earliest of which was 1929’s Mysterious Island starring Lionel Barrymore. The master of stop-motion special effects, Ray Harryhausen, turned his hand to the story with the 1961 British production Mysterious Island. For this version, much of Verne’s story was retained with the main alteration being the inclusion of gigantic animals. Filming was done principally at Shepperton Studios with the island exteriors being created from a combination of location shooting on a Spanish beach and matted background paintings. The film was popular upon its initial release and still provides solid entertainment today. Columbia has now released it on DVD as part of its Ray Harryhausen Signature Collection.

A group of Union soldiers, headed by Captain Harding and held captive in a Confederate prison, escape and steal a hot air balloon in order to evade their pursuers. A severe storm is in progress and the balloon is soon blown far out to sea. When the balloon begins to fail, the men try to keep it aloft, but eventually it crashes and the men find themselves washed ashore on an uncharted island. They are soon joined by two women who become shipwrecked when their boat is also destroyed in the storm. The group struggles to survive, but find themselves battling with a succession of giant creatures that inhabit the island. Always hopeful of being rescued by a passing ship, one day the group spies an approaching vessel, but it turns out to be a pirate ship that begins to fire on them. Just when the ship seems to be getting the upper hand, it is sunk by a mysterious explosion. The person behind the explosion turns out to be none other than the famous Captain Nemo, who has been carrying out research on the island for a number of years. Nemo has his ship, the Nautilus, with him, but it is no longer capable of traveling the sea, so the whole group is still faced with finding a way off the island. Then the island’s volcano threatens to erupt.

Mysterious Island is one of those films that you may have seen as a child and enjoyed immensely because of the neat special effects. The good news is that even in today’s world of incredible FX wizardry, it is still an experience worth investing time in. Some of the giant creatures that Ray Harryhausen created continue to look very effective, but it is the fact that equal attention was paid to having a solid story with interesting characters (for the most part) that ensures that the film continues to entertain.

For the film, Harryhausen creates a number of giant animal sequences involving a crab, a prehistoric bird, a bee, and an octopus. Each of these has its interest, but the bee and bird ones are the best. The bee sequence involves two of the stranded characters being encased inside the cell of a honeycomb, with the effect of sealing the cell being achieved by filming the cell being unsealed and then running the film backwards. The bird sequence actually offers a measure of comic relief because although it’s meant to be menacing, the prehistoric bird looks more like an overgrown chicken, and the whimsical music that composer Bernard Herrmann uses enhances the comic overtone. While these animal sequences are effective, Harryhausen’s best work is associated with the hot air balloon. The beginning of the sequence with the balloon in the town square outside the prison is achieved entirely with miniatures of the balloon and its surroundings, with people added in later by means of traveling matte. The gradual failure of the balloon over the ocean and its eventual crash is an exciting sequence that builds real tension and looks very realistic. Also nicely done is the Nautilus design — a ten-foot “miniature” was constructed with background carefully crafted to scale. Traveling matte was again used to place people on top of the vessel and on the bridge connecting it to land.

On the human side, the characters of Captains Harding and Nemo are well portrayed. Harding is nicely underplayed by Michael Craig, and Herbert Lom gives a suitable air of gravity to Nemo, although he can’t quite match James Mason’s original portrayal. Joan Greenwood and her smoky voice is welcome as Lady Fairchild, and Gary Merrill has a few good moments as the reporter Gideon Spilett. Fortunately, a juvenile love interest between one of Harding’s group and Lady Fairchild’s daughter is given minimal screen time. Director Cy Endfield keeps the film moving at a good clip by maintaining a healthy balance between special effects and plot advancement.

Worthy of another mention is Bernard Herrmann’s score. Herrmann had become closely associated with Harryhausen’s films, having previously scored The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Three Worlds of Gulliver (and would later do Jason And The Argonauts). His work on Mysterious Island is considered one of his best efforts for a fantasy film. The main theme is very effective, combining ominous undertones with dramatic flourishes. Otherwise, the dying hot air balloon and giant bird sequences benefit most from Herrmann’s deft musical touch.

Columbia’s DVD release looks fairly decent. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer exhibits substantial visible grain (a bit more than one would normally expect), but certainly the indoor and outdoor sequences are quite clear and colourful. The effects sequences betray their age somewhat with variable colour intensity and edge effects sometimes apparent around the matted-in humans. The transfer does reveal that fairly dirty source material was used with substantial speckles and scratches noticeable. Still, this is certainly the best I’ve seen this film look on home video.

The sound is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mix that is adequate but no more. How wonderful it would have been to experience Herrmann’s music in at least a nice stereo mix. As it is, it just doesn’t have the majestic fullness that it cries out for. At least dialogue sequences are clear and free of age-related hiss. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided.

How you view the supplements depends on whether you have any of Columbia’s previous Harryhausen releases. It repeats two features that have appeared on the others — a “This Is Dynamation” featurette (about three minutes) and “The Harryhausen Chronicles.” The latter is narrated by Leonard Nimoy and at almost an hour long, is a meaty concoction on Harryhausen’s life with extensive footage from his various films and plenty of insight into his special effects methods. Special to this disc is a short featurette on the making of the film that is a little repetitive of some of the material in “The Harryhausen Chronicles.” A photo gallery, the film’s original theatrical trailer, and trailers for two other Harryhausen films (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) round out the disc.

Mysterious Island is a Ray Harryhausen film blessed with both fine special effects that are not allowed to overpower its story and a memorable Bernard Herrmann score. The film retains its entertainment value some 40 years after it first appeared despite the much more sophisticated effects it must contend with in today’s films. Columbia’s DVD is a more than adequate package that presents a reasonable transfer of the film with some very nice supplements (particularly if you don’t have any of Columbia’s previous Harryhausen releases). Recommended. (I should mention that my review disc had a tendency to lock up at a couple of spots in the film and in the “Chronicles” documentary. I haven’t heard that this is a common problem with this film, however, so I may just have gotten a bad disc.)


There’s no mystery about the verdict on this disc. Fully acquitted.

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