Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, June 04, 2020


"We know less about the deep oceans than we know about the surface of the moon!"
There's never any question of getting the bends in the fun and oceanic quasi-sci-fi adventure film Around the World Under the Sea. In fact it's the one element that seems the most unscientific about this charmingly odd duck of a movie, produced by the ever-adventurous Ivan Tors and ably achieving just what it wants to do, i.e. pleasurably evoking the previous nine or so years of ocean-related TV adventure series, Irwin Allen sci-fi films, and Jacques Cousteau documentaries; and I say that as someone who is totally fine with the uncommented on presence of a macro-scoped moray eel doing the duty as the requisite giant sea monster (ala what kept us kids watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea reruns). In fact, I love it. I wish there were more (no giant squid or octopus) but what can you do? There's a deep-breathing Shirley Eaton, so it skews slightly older, and that's cool, too.

Lloyd Bridges (from TV's Sea Hunt) co-stars with Brian Kelly (from TV's Flipper) as two divers on a mission to assemble a team of the leading oceanographers, tech gurus, oxygen mixers (Shirley Eaton), and undersea miners (dull as dishwater William Thompson) to travel the oceans deep and plant seismographic detection devices around the 'ring of fire' and other places via an experimental yellow submarine, the Hydronaut ("she can circle the globe on one cartridge of nuclear fuel!") Are you down for the trip yet? Or would you rather slog through another week of CNN watching the world above you burn, like it does in Irwin Allen's movie version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea?

Along the way there are rescues (the best one being early on when Bridges dives down to help his sinking buddy with no oxygen tank, and swims 100 feet or so down -doing no real good except to bang on the top of the window). I love it, as no one is perfect. The steam heat of Eaton almost crashes the sub as McCallum is busy trying to woo her and nearly collides with an undersea cliff.

Keenan Wynn co-stars as one of the breathing mixers. And I am fascinated by his bachelor pod under the sea (he lives in a giant NYC studio apartment-sized diving bell several thousand feet down). I have had dreams about just such a place; in these apocalyptic times it's looking better than ever! The only difference is that his lacks a VHS player and TV, instead has an LP player and a nice stack of records, and an ongoing chess game via shortwave. That's OK, too.  Lloyd Bridges dives down there and tries to convince him of all the lives he'll save by helping install a chain of underwater earthquake detectors along the Pacific 'ring of fire': "I don't care - let 'em all go." Wynn fires back. "I got it made down here! I got my research, my books, my music!"

Bridges and Kelly, reminding us of a time when men looked like men. 
To provide evidence, he shows a shark hatching from its egg: "He's trying to free himself from his nourishing egg yolk! He wants to be born!" The analog is clear. Wynn doesn't want to, preferring to stay in his nourishing egg under the sea. Like I say, I relate to his churlish disposition; it doesn't seem quite fair to drop in and guilt trip him like some crafty Greenpeace canvasser.  So he's going to leave all his lab animals to just die in his undersea cave because some scientist wants to save Asia? To prove Wynn's misanthropy is just a lazy doge, Bridges leaves the pod without the right oxygen mix to get back to the surface alive, banking on his old pal coming to the rescue. 

Another of my favorite crew, Eaton has that wry knowing look--both haughty and turned-on, dismissive of your interest in her yet intrigued, steaming up the cramped ocean spaces, and throwing the alpha male young buck Kelly into a state of mating season heat; and vexing the Metalunan forehead of David McCallum as the wizard at communications and computers. (Meanwhile dull as dishwater Marshall Thompson occasionally puts his arm around her, presuming she'd marry him in a minute if he asked). I'm no fan of McCallum (he's like Klaus Kinski without the froth) but I like the way the he and Keenan begin their ongoing chess game (magnetically attached to the side of the sub so as not to take up space) without a single word but he's way better an option for Eaton than Thompson, who'd be more believable as her father, even in the 60s. (though he's only 12 years her senior). Luckily, providing handsome manly gruffness as the guy who gets Eaton into whatever bed there is onboard, because he treats her the worst, Kelly beats them all.

The reason for Kelly's gruffness is clear: once they're all submerged on this groovy experimental vessel, the steam rises. You can feel Eaton's pheromones oozing off of her into the mix of sweat and salt water steam. What makes her allure so unique is her rather harsh face --she's not afraid to keep those jet black roots and big black eyebrows, with wide, cunning eyes (as she showed in the The Million Eyes of Sumuru), that devouring face, those gnashing teeth. She's from a brand of mid-60s Bond girl that includes Honor Blackman that, with the era's preference for inch-thick eyeliner, could be seen staring at you with a wolfish smile from a mile away without binoculars. "I've caught them all," is her first line of dialogue, seen on land, after rounding up escaped guinea pigs. But by the end, it's clear who she really means is the entirety of the Hydronaut crew. "You're a lot on a man's blood pressure," admits Bridges. But he also notes she's excellent at her job and men are going to have to get used to women like her being around, i.e. it's not her fault, and she's not just here as eye candy, or a secretary. She's the leading expert in her field and we regularly see her proving it. There are a few shots of her bringing orange juice in and out of rooms on a tray, as if the filmmakers felt the need to satisfy some archaic gender typing; but we also see her injecting the men with chemicals that will help them absorb more oxygen from the limited air, and keeping an eye on her guinea pigs for signs of changing in the breathing. She's a great one for oxygen.

The climax involving a last minute extra sensor right at the foot of an underwater volcanic eruption includes lots of great, albeit unconvincing, miniatures and colors as the bright orange light of the magma creates deep blue dark shadows on the sub and its interiors, evoking Suspiria and early two-strip color films like Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum, with the ship balanced on the lip of a volcano, then sliding vertically so that they're all trying to work while literally falling on top of each other.  and the last minute plan to blow the sub in half to rocket the top half straight up to the surface ensures the framing gets understandably messy--even Twister-esque--in the interiors but man the exteriors look gorgeous in this big climax, with the deep volcanic stock footage and model work casting a cool contrasting blue and orange lattice of shadows as the colors filter through the dark ocean water.

 It's not for everyone, and I'm no specific fan of underwater TV shows from the 60s, but I have warmed up on movies where the sea monster is a normal-sized predator in an aquarium battling a tiny model and there's something downright Hawksian about these professionals all working together and the slow burn romance bathed in steam.

Truth be told. Not even sure why I like this movie, its title seems designed to weld Around the World in 80 Days to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and it sure is derivative of a lot of different TV and movies like Fantastic Voyage as well. But that's all okay. One amazing element is just how little the film seems to care about the usual oceanography documentary stuff. We see the Great Barrier Reefs and so forth but only in passing. The only dolphin is one programmed to attach magnetic mines to ships.Clearly most of this was filmed on the dry dock or with miniatures in big tanks but I love that. In CGI or life-size 'reality', with endless digressions on the wonders of aquatic life, it would be a snooze (or more of a snooze than it is). Instead, it's almost Hawksian. And in these trying times, regardless of whether you think, like Wynn's salty dog, we should "let 'em all go" or be like Kelly and Nolan and "want to be born," getting far under the sea away from the dizzy situations back on land seems hard to resist. I know a lot of harried dads would love this movie with a few cocktails after their nagging wives go off to bed. Submarine movies work a special kind of magic for us air-conditioning-dependent summertime older males, and provide the ultimate metaphor for late night viewing itself, that special privatized sphere of buzzed insomniacs, when the lack of prying eyes frees you to unfurl all your hidden tentacles, and--even if it's all too dark to see except through a single glowing window--the world is yours.


  1. This movie sounds like my Nirvana! I have always loved underwater adventure movies, but I have never cared for Submarine Crew War Movies, or war movies in general. I have been watching the original Man from U.N.C.L.E. lately, and you are right about David McCallum's head. Good lord. He had a combover/toupe' thing going on even back then, which maybe made it look bigger and more disproportianate? Can't get enough of Shirley Eaton in this lifetime. Keenan Wynn in a diving bell bacholer pad sounds like heaven, the ultimate fort. The quote that opens this write up is appropriate. I took up scuba diving two summers ago and felt like an astronaut as soon as I got under water. It's an amazing process to endeavor in. Great write up, Erich!

    1. Thanks Johnny - There's definitely something in that fascination - i.e. Howard Hughes and Ice Station Zebra, or my friend Max's dad with Das Boot (which he'd watch every night drinking brandy to after Max's mom went to sleep). I've had nightly bouts with Moby Dick (the Huston version) and Treasure Island which are in the same vein. No sense getin' too deep analyzing it, it's too primal for that!


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