1001 wonders! 1001 thrills! Henry Levin’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)

1001 wonders! 1001 thrills! Henry Levin’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)

Jules Verne’s classic science fiction adventure novel Voyage au Centre de la Terre has been adapted many times for screens both large and small, most often quite badly, but despite some considerable liberties taken with the source material this big-budget adaptation from 20th Century Fox remains the best of the bunch. The (very) big brother to Irwin Allen’s alternately lamentable / lovable sci-fi fiasco The Lost World, Fox’s 1959 production of Journey to the Center of the Earth fills the CinemaScope screen with vivid color spectacle and A-list talent while one of Bernard Herrmann’s best fantasy scores rumbles forth in 4-track stereo. It remains a damn fine show more than half a century on, bolstered by an intelligent, often playful screenplay that still holds up (from Charles The Lost Weekend Brackett and Walter Gaslight Reisch) – it’s no surprise the film made a small mint upon release, and continues to generate royalty checks for its then-young star Pat Boone.

Though substantially altered in its details the narrative here is familiar enough: When the recently-knighted Professor Lindenbrook (James Mason, displaying the same charismatic misanthropy that would mark his performance in Kubrick’s Lolita) receives a celebratory paperweight – an unusually heavy chunk of igneous rock – from his star pupil Alec (Pat Boone, whose heart-throb appeal is plundered early and often), he suspects there’s more to the thing than meets the eye. A chance encounter with an overfed laboratory furnace reveals the suspicious rock’s secret. Within lies a plumb-bob upon which is etched the last words of explorer Arne Saknussem, who therein claims to have reached the center of the Earth!

Thus is launched the Lindenbrook expedition, an effort by the Professor and his loyal underling (Boone is, amusingly, billed above Mason) to follow in Saknussem’s footsteps and reach the furthest recesses of the inner Earth. After joining forces with Madame Carla Göteborg (the lovely Arlene Dahl as the freshly widowed wife of a rival scientist), Icelandic strongman Hans (legitimate Icelander Peter Ronson), and his devoted duck Gertrude, the expedition makes its way down into an extinct volcanic crater and through the cavernous interior of the Earth, threatened all the while by hazardous geology, dinosaurs, and a devious heir to the Saknussem legacy who wishes to claim the center of the Earth as his own

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a matinee-style programmer done in atypically grand style, and one of the few honestly BIG science fiction spectacles of its day (along with Forbidden Planet and the productions of George Pal). While some of the set design is suspect (director Henry Levin and director of photography Leo Tover keep those early cavern interiors dark with good reason) the overall scale of the thing, particularly when the ruins of Atlantis and the expansive mushroom forest make their appearances, and the caliber of the talent involved more than make up for it. Boone no doubt set his young idolaters’ hearts a-twitter, both with his early crooning and later clothing-impaired antics, but for me this has always been Mason’s show. The actor was arguably at the height of his potential here, with Hitchcock’s North By Northwest under his belt and Kubrick’s Lolita within sight, and had already proven his Verneian mettle as the quintessential Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just a few years earlier. Perhaps more important than Mason alone is the convincing tit-for-tat relationship that develops between him and his co-star Arlene Dahl (one of Minneapolis’ own, for any locals reading) – this drama has always worked for me, even as a kid who was accustomed to patiently waiting out the “boring parts” to get to the sensational trappings.

Of course Journey to the Center of the Earth has sensational trappings in spades, including such suspense staples as the ledge walk (soon to be appropriated by Irwin Allen, who evidently thought it the epitome of screen thrills), the giant rolling boulder, and the collapsing rock bridge – this was one of the earlier big-budget efforts to co-opt such B-grade cliffhanger devices, before Lucas and Star Wars made the practice an industry standard. The special effects production is top-notch throughout, with the matte artist(s) proving especially deserving of commendation (the early vistas of Icelandic mountains and later revelation of a vast underground sea are both breathtaking stuff), though, as ever, there is at least one point of contention. Like One Million B.C. and the Flash Gordon serials before it, Journey to the Center of the Earth relies on the deservedly criticized slurpasaur technique to bring its various dinosaurs to life. In this case its a gaggle of rhinoceros iguanas and one rather irate tegu pulling monster duty, though at least the former are cast as morphologically similar Dimetrodons – in the annals of slurpasaur history they are easily some of the most convincing. Fox obviously deemed the monster efforts of Emil Kosa Jr., James B. Gordon and L. B. Abbott to be “good enough” in this respect, as the trio were tasked with the process again just a year later, for Irwin Allen’s The Lost World.

Slurpasaurs or no, Journey to the Center of the Earth‘s tremendous entertainment potential remains, and with a host of wonderful performances, a taught script, and superb production design on its side it stands firmly as one of the best of its type. This is a film that’s captivated me since before I can rightly remember, Pat Boone, dinosaurs, ducks and all, and is more than worthy of recommendation if for that reason alone.

The screenshots for this article were gleaned from Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth, a welcome reissue that benefits very nicely from 20th Century Fox’s fresh 4k restoration of the film. The new master loses the considerable noisiness of Fox’s first HD attempt (the same used for their DVD more than a decade ago), and adds substantially more information at the edges of the CinemaScope frame as well (AR is spot on at 2.35:1). The overall appearance is darker and richer, with precise, saturated colors and subtle grain textures, and in motion it can be very impressive indeed! The matte work and trick photography play better than ever here, even as a wayward technician’s hand or two find their way into the iconic Dimetrodon scene, and that old school Fox production value shines. Technical specs appear sound – Journey to the Center of the Earth receives an Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average video bitrate of 29.3 Mbps, and unlike the reissue of Fright Night, I noted no significant encoding artifacts.

A very brief comparison between the two discs, old above and new below:

Audio is offered up in two flavors, 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround, both in DTS-HD MA (for whatever reason the film’s 4.0 mix is missing in action). Herrmann’s bellowing score fares well across both, and the extra LFE bump it receives in the 5.1 rendering gives it a positively otherworldly presence. Dialogue and effects can sound quite flat at times in comparison, though that’s endemic to the original production. A set of optional SDH subtitles support the dialogue, and are a welcome addition – I don’t believe Twilight Time’s original release had them. Supplements get a bit of a boost by way of a fresh commentary track, featuring actress Diane Baker as well as historian Steven C. Smith (author of A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann) and filmmaker and TT co-founder Nick Redman. Otherwise the disc sports a theatrical trailer (in standard definition) and a robust isolated score track, accessible through the “setup” options or from your remote. The dual-layer BD50 disc appears to be all region compatible (it played just fine on both my Region A PS3 and Region B secondary deck), and arrives with newly commissioned booklet art and a set of reprinted liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

One would love to see this restoration trotted out again once native 4k discs arrive, but barring that, it’ll be tough to top this edition from Twilight Time. It looks great and sounds pretty damn good as well, and fans of the picture are encouraged to indulge. Journey to the Center of the Earth is a limited production run of 5,000, and is available now through ScreenArchives.com.

Note: Unlike the other shots which accompany this article, the menu image below was taken with my digital camera during playback, and not captured directly from the Blu-ray disc.