During the siege of Richmond in American Civil War, a group of Union soldiers escape from a Confederate prison by overpowering the guard and flying off in a hot air balloon. In a terrible storm, they are carried miles off course and are eventually washed up on a remote Pacific island. Settling down to a life on the island, they are soon joined by two shipwrecked English women. Having to contend with the giant monsters that live on the island is one thing but the group soon realise that they share the island with the infamous Captain Nemo who is still plotting to rid humanity of war.
Mysterious Island was French writer Jules Verne’s follow-up to his acclaimed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time and one which has been turned into a number of films over the years, most famously with Disney’s 1954 live action version with Kirk Douglas and James Mason. Mysterious Island has also received a number of film adaptations though none have been truly revered like Disney’s version of Verne’s famous story. This 1961 version is arguably the most famous of the story, though it’s loosely based upon the book.
Mysterious Island actually works better when looked at as another Ray Harryhausen special effects showcase rather than a faithful adaptation of a book. That’s basically the draw here as Verne’s story is cherry picked for certain ideas and other elements are expanded to provide more of a spectacle. At least that was the theory. Mysterious Island is a decent timewaster but never fully manages to engage with its audience. It’s rather routine and episodic – a problem arises for the main characters, they have to solve it, they do and they move on to the next problem. There’s no real sense of overall story present, only that these characters have to escape off the island, and the various obstacles that they face are never anything more than mild diversions between achieving that goal. Captain Nemo doesn’t even turn up until the final third and seems to be more of an afterthought rather than a main focus.
What Mysterious Island lacks in true excitement and narrative, it makes up for in the special effects department. You can’t argue that some effort has gone in to making this film look good and Ray Harryhausen’s creatures look great, if lacking the real sense of awe and wonder that his more famous works have shown. The giant crab looks the most realistic and that’s because it was the real shell of a crab that he used for the armature. The battle with the survivors is enthralling and the animation and interaction between men and monster is superb. Sadly none of the other monsters ever come close to matching this. The dino-bird fight isn’t as good as it could have been as the monster looks a little daft, the underwater squid scene is something we have seen before and the giant bee, whilst looking good in its animated form, doesn’t do an awful lot.
Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack is excellent, providing a perfect accompaniment to the action, fantasy and mystery on the screen. This was Herrmann’s third collaboration with Ray Harryhausen and it shows how confident he was in bringing these fantasy worlds to life. Herrmann clearly borrowed some cues from this film and expanded upon them for his soundtrack to Jason and the Argonauts a couple of years later. The similarities are evident and whilst there’s no truly standout track here (unlike his classic Scherzo Macabre theme during the skeleton fight), the score certainly adds a lot to the action sequences and gives some of the fantasy and mystery elements a little more suspense.
As for the human cast, they always come second best in Harryhausen’s effects-driven films. The main characters are decent enough in their roles, if somewhat forgettable. Only Beth Rogan provides any sort of memorable impact but that’s only for her appearance in a man-made bikini that she dons when she washes up on the island. It was pretty risqué back in 1961! Late veteran actor Herbert Lom takes over the Captain Nemo role and, whilst he’s no James Mason, Lom does what he can with the role. His take is very much different: Nemo is older, less hostile to humans and more reasonable to deal with. It’s a shame that his elegant persona doesn’t arrive until late in the film, though he’s rather irrelevant to the overall story as it stands.
Mysterious Island provides solid fun without reinventing the genre. Due to the disjointed narrative, the film needs a regular injection of monsters to keep audience interest from going and it does that to various levels of success. Whilst the quality of the effects isn’t in doubt, it’s the manner in which they’re wheeled out that is the problem and the uneven flow of the film stops this from achieving a greater cult status.