Scientific Romances in the Atomic Age
How the Golden Age of Sci-Fi Film Rediscovered the Victorian Era
The resolution to the War in the Pacific in 1945 threw a wholly new anxiety onto the shoulders of the world: the heretofore impossible spectre of actual global annihilation. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki culminated a trend begun with The Great War. In that first conflict, the "Christian Century" of infinite moral progress was crushed beneath the violence of technological warfare predicted by the likes of H.G. Wells, George Tomkyns Chesney, and the other 19th century writers of doomsday invasion stories. Often they predicted an apocalyptic outcome to the oncoming war, but humanity's execution was blessedly stayed in 1919. Even with advances in tank, aeroplane and explosive technologies, truly obliterating humanity was beyond humanity's power.
Then along came The Bomb.
To make the situation that much more dire, the end of the War in Europe also furnished a new and powerful opponent. No sooner were Germany and Japan brought to heel than the Soviet Union filled the vacuum, being a more expansive and more horrific regime than the two villains of World War II combined. Furthermore, Stalin also possessed The Bomb and, under Khrushchev (with help from Castro), the animosity between the USSR and the USA nearly led to Armageddon. While both sides built up their capacity for mutually assured destruction, proxy wars were held in Southeast Asia and in the ideological realm of outer space.
Our ability to smash atoms and potential to harness them for a new technological age, as well as the Space Race and its naive utopian promises, formed the perfect backdrop for what would later be recognized as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in film. The Great War that closed out the Victorian-Edwardian Era also closed out the genre of Scientific Romances; stories of adventure in far-flung places that shared the thrill of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and colonial exploration to a pre-film society, written by the likes of Jules Verne, Garrett P. Serviss, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Camille Flammarion, Edward Everett Hale, and Edward Ellis. Between the wars, the only books of Verne's that were adapted to film were his spy adventures like Michael Strogoff, with a solitary exception in 1929's The Mysterious Island that had more in common with its own time period than Verne's original novel. Science Fiction, properly speaking, took over during the interwar period, in everything from serious meditations on how science and technology may affect society in such works as Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936) down to the Pulpy action-adventure of Flash Gordon (1936) and The Phantom Empire (1935). This nascent realm of Art Deco and radium transformed into the world of Googie and the atom after the Second World War.
Nevertheless, people old enough to beget the Baby Boom were themselves old enough to remember those years before the First World War, or remember the stories told by their own parents. The Gay Nineties re-surged as a reassuring nostalgia in film and places like Disneyland. One user of the Tiki Central forum referred to Tiki lounge culture as the "emotional bomb shelters of the Atomic Age," and the same could be said of retreat into bygone days of bustled ladies in feathered hats and suffragette sashes, men in seersucker and handlebar moustaches, horseless carriages, pennyfarthing bicycles, Queen Anne revival architecture, barbershop quartets, and marching bands playing in town square. The authors of the Victorian-Edwardian Era came along with it. In particular, those writers of Scientific Romances became suitable for reinterpretation as modern Science Fiction.
The first film of the time period to retread the Scientific Romances of the Victorian Era was The War of the Worlds in 1953. It did, however, make a fundamental break with its source material. This alien invasion from the planet Mars took place in the present day of the early Fifties. The powers of the invaders were suitably enhanced, the flying machines described only briefly by Wells became their chief technology in Technicolor. It was notable for having demonstrated that there was still life to breathe into those tales from half a century before.
The biggest gamble was taken by Walt Disney in creating The Mightiest Motion Picture of Them All. Disney's studios had been trying for some time to film a wholly live-action feature after reaching Hollywood's heights with animation. So Dear to My Heart, a conceptual sequel to Song of the South, was intended to be live-action, but the security blanket of animation was grasped at the last second. On the other side of the Atlantic, Disney used up funds frozen in England during the war to film its first live-action features in British studios. Treasure Island, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, The Sword and the Rose and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue were sufficiently successful that they prompted Disney to finally take the plunge and build a soundstage for a Hollywood production.
A suitable subject was hunted down. Through the mists of Walt's boyhood, a single name was lit upon: Jules Verne. Disney took the zeitgeist of atomic anxiety and the potential of adapting Scientific Romances to bring 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to theatres. A new soundstage was built on the Disney lot to accommodate the full-size deck of the ship designed by Harper Goff. Unlike War of the Worlds, the conscious decision was made to retain the mid-Nineteenth Century setting of the novel. Though Verne's literary Nautilus was a sleek, hydrodynamic vessel, Goff's was cast-iron and rivets to put the exclamation point on this being a Victorian submarine. This choice to set it 100 years in the past helped to provide a safe ideological distance from which to discuss the pressing concern of atomic power, which forms the philosophical underpinning of the film. The original style might also have been a little too close to the design of the USS Nautilus: the world's first nuclear submarine, launched in 1954. Still, Disney couldn't have bought publicity that good.
Disney trusted his instincts as a filmmaker, altering the novel substantially. It's worth keeping in mind that Verne has suffered from notoriously poor English translations, and the translation that Disney was working off of would have itself been missing about 20% of the original material. The film slimmed it down even more, though it did retain that key sense of wonder that is ultimately what the novel is about. Many scenes were excised that would have made for a phenomenal film in their own right, such as a trip to Atlantis that was, ironically, used for both Walt Disney World's and Tokyo DisneySea's 20,000 Leagues attractions. Robust characters portrayed by charismatic actors James Mason, Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas carried a fairly standard "jail break" plot against a high-stakes philosophical backdrop about how ultimate power should be used. It also had a song and a funny animal, and it was a major hit. Disney has gotten mileage out of 20,000 Leagues for decades, from cinematic re-releases to comic books to children's records to theme park attractions in Disneyland and Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris and Tokyo DisneySea. It has surfaced again most recently as a drink at the new Trader Sam's Grog Grotto bar in Walt Disney World's Polynesian Village Resort (pulling together two "emotional bomb shelters" in one). It also inaugurated the rehabilitation of Jules Verne and Scientific Romances.
It no doubt helped that Verne's work officially entered the public domain in the early Fifties. Here was an author that Disney proved was bankable, and his works were available at no cost! The next to exploit this fact was Michael Todd, whose 1956 adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture for that year, beating out the likes of The Ten Commandments and The King and I. Not an Atomic Age Sci-Fi film, Todd's Around the World in 80 Days still interpreted Verne's globe-trotting adventure in epic form. To wrangle over 40 listed Hollywood stars for cameo appearances and to film on location everywhere from the bull rings of Spain to the the Great Buddha of Kamakura was a major feat in itself. Around the World in 80 Days was a huge Hollywood event and Todd treated it as such, from the film's introduction by Edward R. Murrow to a first anniversary party in Madison Square Garden. Despite, or even because, it is not a Sci-Fi film, Around the World in 80 Days is one of the best films from a Hollywood studio at the time to capture the true essence of Verne's books. What differentiated Scientific Romances from Science Fiction, and Jules Verne's books in particular from what would come later, was their romantic, pedagogical raison d'être that captured the imagination with both a stirring adventure plot and an educational foray into the wilderness and cultures of far-flung, exotic places. In the words of his publisher, Jules Hetzel, Verne's purpose was "to outline all the geographical, geological, physical, and astronomical knowledge amassed by modern science and to recount, in an entertaining and picturesque format...the history of the universe."
The decade rounded out with two more Verne adaptations: From the Earth to the Moon in 1958 and Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1959. The former ponderously belaboured the theme and threat of atomic power, without any notable attempt at levity and only a slight romance. The latter hewed more closely to Disney and Todd, including a funny animal, a song by teen idol Pat Boone and hiring James Mason for his second dance with Verne. Professor Lidenbrook (Mason) makes a chance discovery that opens his mind to the possibility that the Earth's subsurface may be riddled with great chasms sheltering subterranean fungal forests and prehistoric monsters. It is not only those dangers Lidenbrook and his expedition must look out for, but the race to claim these wonders against competing scientists. Journey is one of the more entertaining of the period and has a wonderfully idealistic moral about the progress of science and the adventure of discovery. Fans of the genre often joke that there is a difference between Science Fiction and Anti-Science Fiction, and Journey to the Center of the Earth has a nuanced, positive view towards what science is and how it is performed, amidst trick photography of pet iguanas in rubber frills.
H.G. Wells did not rear up again until 1960 with an adaptation of The Time Machine. As Wells was not in public domain at the time (and his novels considerably more pessimistic in general), he was not as fertile a source for films. His heyday was between the wars, with The Invisible Man (1933), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and Things to Come. The only other adaptation of his work from this time - First Men in the Moon - came out in 1964.
Regarded as something of a minor classic of Science Fiction film, The Time Machine was the brainchild of George Pal, who burst onto the scene in 1950 with his film Destination Moon and proceeded to make a bevy of films that helped define the genre during the Atomic Age. His first round with H.G. Wells was in 1953 with his modernized version of War of the Worlds. The novel's original themes were necessarily supplanted with ideas that resonated more strongly with mid-century ambitions and anxieties. Therefore the old origin of the Morlocks as the blue-collar underclass forced to live underground, ironically consuming the bodies of those who previously consumed their labour and spirits, is long gone. Pal replaces this with a meditation on the futilities and inevitabilities of war. Wells (played by Rod Taylor), reacting to reports of the Boer War in South Africa, bemoans to his friend David (Alan Young) that mankind only seems interested in developing newer and more horrible ways to destroy one another. Hopping into the Time Machine, each stop the temporal explorer makes in his quest for a peaceful age brings him to yet another war: 1917, 1940, and a monstrous atomic war of 1966. The violence of nuclear holocaust begets geologic upheavals that trap him inside a mountain until the distant year of 802,701. In this mind-bendingly distant future, Wells sees a lush utopia occupied by an infantile race of people called Eloi. Humanity has finally found peace, but at the cost of any kind of intellectual pursuit. Our drive for violence has been cut off at the root, by extinguishing our drive for anything. But the cannibalistic Morlocks lurk beneath, and to stop this horror, Wells must do the instinctive thing in recreating war.
Ray Harryhausen's First Men in the Moon is not merely an Atomic Age adaptation of one of H.G. Wells' most celebrated novels. It is also an interesting piece of Retro-Futurism purporting to show a lunar landing five years before it happened in fact. The world is rapt with awe as a United Nations lander touches down on the moon. An international crew of Americans, Russians, Japanese and other astronauts steps foot on the orb, celebrated as the first humans to do so. That is until one of them makes a startling discovery. Within a boulder's crevice is ensconced a small Union Jack and a sheet of paper claiming the moon for Queen Victoria in the Year of the Lord 1899. Trying as they might to keep this discovery a secret, earthbound agents of the UN space administration follow clues on the piece of paper that lead the to the home of the aged Mr. Bedford, who relates the tale of his meeting with the eccentric Dr. Cavor and their journey to the moon, whereupon they run afoul of the insectoid Selenites. The highlights of Wells' novel are touched on, from the hunt of the mooncows to the trial of humanity before the Grand Lunar. Coming on the heels of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Three Worlds of Gulliver, First Men in the Moon is all about Harryhausen's special-effects adventurism.
Between The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon was a golden year in 1961. Growing legions of children infatuated with Verne were treated to Master of the World starring Vincent Price, Ray Harryhausen's The Mysterious Island, Valley of the Dragons (adapting Off on a Comet), Flight of the Lost Balloon (adapting Five Weeks in a Balloon) and the American import of Czech auteur Karel Zeman's astonishing 1958 artistic masterpiece The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, as well as George Pal's comparable historical fantasy Atlantis, The Lost Continent. A properly-titled adaptation of Five Weeks in a Balloon came out the following year, along with Disney's In Search of the Castaways. Never since has Verne's name meant so much. It was so substantive that when the 1954 Japanese Atomic horror film Gojira was brought to America in 1956 as Godzilla, the trailer declared it to be a story "more fantastic than any written by Jules Verne!"
By 1961/62, the formula of Disney's 20,000 Leagues was tested, approved and casting its long shadow. Master of the World - written by Richard Matheson, directed by B-movie maestro William Witney, and released by drive-in-theatre darlings American International - regurgitated the same plot of unwilling captives on the craft of a genius waging war against war but did so more convincingly than Disney despite the much poorer budget. Whereas Disney's Nemo was driven by conventional revenge, Price's aeronaut Robur was a true political visionary ultimately at war within himself. His plot to use violence to end war once and for all weighs heavily on the Bible-quoting visionary, sowing the seeds of his own mental and physical destruction. The story is ambitious, undermined by American International's notoriously low budgets, but elevated again by Vincent Price's captivating performance.
Harryhausen essentially replicated Goff's Nautilus for Mysterious Island, which served as an unofficial sequel to Disney's film. This Nemo, played by Herbert Lom, has decided to attack the causes of war rather than the machinery of it, by genetically engineering gigantic crops and livestock to satisfy humankind's hunger for resources. In the meantime, Nemo and a crew of escaped Union P.O.W.'s must avoid giant crabs, giant bees, giant ammonites, prehistoric terror birds, and a boatload of pirates on this isolated volcanic island. It was cheeky of Harryhausen and Columbia Pictures to make such a transparent sequel to a Disney film.
Renowned as the "Master of Disaster", Irwin Allen directed and produced a number of films and television series that are regarded as classics of a sort, despite not being particularly good: Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (a film in 1961 and series from 1964-68), Lost in Space (1965-68), The Time Tunnel (1966-67), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), The Towering Inferno (1974), and a modernization of The Lost World (1960). His adaptation of Five Weeks in a Balloon is calculated to have almost exactly everything required of a Vernian film of the period. Sir Cedric Hardwicke - who enjoyed a cameo in Around the World in 80 Days - plays Professor Ferguson, the Scottish inventor who develops a mode of aerostatic flight that does not require loss of either gasses or ballast. His assistant Jacques is played by the bepompadoured teen idol Fabian, echoing Journey's Pat Boone by singing the catchy but not especially good theme song. Comic relief is supplied by Richard Haydn as a stiff-upper-lipped British prig and Red Buttons as a incompetent, philandering American reporter. Thrown into the comedy team is Peter Lorre, who was in both 20,000 Leagues and Around the World, as a slave trader. The funny animal this time around is a chimpanzee. The bulk of Five Weeks in a Balloon's action takes place in the forbidden cities of Muslim Africa, in the palaces of Sultans and slave markets of Zanzibar and Timbuktu. Surprisingly not much time is granted to cross-African exploration, save for montages of giraffe, ostrich, and Victoria Falls by way of stock footage.
Disney's In Search of the Castaways (1962) dispensed with the seriousness in favour of outlandish family musical adventure with Haley Mills and Maurice Chevalier. Enlisting an entourage which includes Chevalier and Wilfrid Hyde-White (of My Fair Lady fame), Mills seeks her father shipwrecked somewhere along the 37th parallel. That sole scrap of information derived from a ruined note stuffed in a bottle found in a shark forces them to circumnavigate the globe, cross the Andes and of South America, and tangle with Maori in New Zealand. It was as much a film in keeping with Verne's popularity as it was an heir to Disney's Swiss Family Robinson and Pollyanna (both 1960) and preamble to Mary Poppins (1964).
Such an incredible span of only a few years ultimately served as a climax. Harryhausen supplied the second Wells adventure in 1964 and Vincent Price returned in War-Gods of the Deep in 1965. Diverging and deferring to Verne's idol, Edgar Allen Poe, War-Gods was part of the chain of horror films vehicles for Price that were produced by American International Pictures. The studio enjoyed a great deal of success with the collaboration between Price, Poe and Roger Corman, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), The Raven (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964). War-Gods of the Deep allowed them to parley the cachet of Verne-type films into their Poe cycle, melding the wonder of the Scientific Romance with the rich atmosphere of Gothic Horror (despite it's visibly low budget). A similar film to AIP's Poe series, and starring Vincent Price, was United Artists' Twice-Told Tales (1963). This time based on the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, two of its three anthologized segments feature science gone awry.
More notable in 1965 were a pair of "caper" comedies, stemming from the same tradition as 1963's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Blake Edwards, recently enjoying acclaim for Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and The Pink Panther (1963), directed The Great Race starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and Jack Lemmon. The Great Race, based on an actual auto-rally in 1908, was a studious homage to silent films but is dated far more for its awkward gender-based humour. It was also, unintentionally, the most expensive comedy made to that point, tallying up a cool $12 million (approximately $90 million today). Worse yet, it was a critical and commercial flop at its time. Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, directed by Ken Annakin and based very loosely on a 1910 air race from London to Paris, fared much better with a larger share of the box office and more positive acclaim. An additional British farce was released in 1967, titled Jules Verne's Rocket to the Moon. Diverging greatly from the eponymous Verne novel in its plot but not its satirical tone, Rocket to the Moon centres on P.T. Barnum (played by Burl Ives) and his attempt to dodge creditors by commissioning a rocket expedition around the moon. Lionel Jefferies (First Men in the Moon) and Terry-Thomas (Those Magnificent Men) were cast as the bumbling villains, and Gert Fröbe (also of Those Magnificent Men) played the also-bumbling explosives expert whose genius would make the launch possible. Jefferies and Fröbe would go on to star in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang alongside Dick Van Dyke, a conceptual follow-up to Mary Poppins released in 1968. Set in the Edwardian Era, based on a book by Ian "James Bond" Fleming, with a script co-written by Roald Dahl and music by the Sherman Brothers, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang somehow never quite caught the same fire as its Disney predecessor (no doubt because Walt Disney was not at its helm).
While audiences of 1965 had to go to theatres to see spectacles like Those Magnificent Men, they could see another variation on the Scientific Romance right at home. In that year, The Wild Wild West television series debuted on CBS. Satirizing and paying homage to Western TV shows and the "Spy-Fi" genre, Robert Conrad played the American Secret Service agent Jim West who worked with the inventor Artemis Gordon to protect the Union from dastardly, moustache-twirling villains in the years following the Civil War. Unfortunately it was cancelled after four seasons, not for any notable lapse in quality or ratings, but as a concession to concerns over television violence in the wake of the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. James Bond had already come to define the Spy-Fi genre by the mid-Sixties (and The Wild Wild West was sold as "James Bond on horseback"), but perhaps the most Spy-Fi show was England's The Avengers. Beginning in 1961, series lead John Steed (Patrick Macnee) evolved into the archetypal Saville Row, bowler-hatted, Neo-Edwardian English gentleman that re-emerged after World War II. One of the arguably best TV shows ever produced - The Twilight Zone - also dipped into the Victorian setting periodically, in such episodes as the Buster Keaton time-travel comedy Once Upon a Time and the examination of modern angst and nostalgia escapism titled A Stop at Willoughby.
On the dark side of the Iron Curtain, the mantle of Vernian film was picked up by Karel Zeman, whose first film in the series was his aforementioned Fabulous World of Jules Verne, released in Czechoslovakia in 1958 as The Deadly Invention. Prior to this, he filmed Journey to Prehistory in 1955 (released in the West as Journey to the Beginning of Time in 1966) which was based loosely on the little-known 1915 Russian "lost world" novel Plutonia and the prehistory paintings of Czech artist Zdeněk Burian. Fabulous World was an adaptation of Verne's Facing the Flag but drew its biggest inspiration from Édouard Riou's engraved illustrations for Verne's novels. Zeman employed every style of animation and special effect known at the time to achieve this engraved look, to dazzling result. He resumed the style in 1961's Baron Munchausen, which took the German character and mixed him in with Cyrano de Bergerac and Jules Verne. For Baron Munchausen, Zeman took to the style of Riou's teacher, Gustave Doré, who did illustrate a volume of Rudolf Erich Raspe's Baron Munchausen. His final two Verne adaptations came in 1967 with an ode to children's imagination in The Stolen Airship and 1970 with On the Comet.
The last American film that could be said to fall within this time frame is Ray Harryahusen's 1969 Weird Western The Valley of Gwangi. The concept originally came from Willis O'Brien, as one of his many ill-fated potential follow-ups to King Kong. As realized by Harryhausen, it features cowboys down in Mexico attempting to rope stop-motion dinosaurs for a travelling circus. It was also Harryahusen's final film involving prehistoric life. The era was finally closed out by the 1969 British film Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (released in the US in 1970). Though miscast and a decade late, this production did have some good ideas and an underlying question of whether Captain Nemo's utopian dreams ever could translate into a functional society.
After Gwangi, The Underwater City and the Summer of Love, atomic anxiety began to mellow out. The world came close to annihilation in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis and thereafter proxy wars became the preferred field of combat. Lydon B. Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War was reaching its bloody climax and the Space Race effectively ended with the moon landing in 1969. At home, new social movements and a broadening idea of justice began to emerge, including the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, American Indian Movement and Native American rights, Second Wave feminism, the Sexual Revolution, Stonewall, the anti-war movement, and the wake of Vatican II. Cinema moved on to the very serious, de-romanticized space of spectacles like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Once more Jules Verne - or what had been made of him and his kin during the Atomic Age of Sci-Fi - had become outdated.
This article originally appeared on the Voyages Extraordinaires: Scientific Romances in a Bygone Age weblog.