Under the Seas


Georges Méliès third science fiction epic (1907) is the first film based on Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, even if it is rather “inspired by” and not so much “based on”, retelling the dream of a fisherman in which he has adventures with mermaids and sea monsters. Half of the film is lost and what remains is badly damaged.

Under the Seas (Deux Cents Milles sous les mers ou le Cauchemar du pêcheur). 1907, France. Directed by Georges Méliès. Inspired by Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. Starring: Manuel, Georges Méliès. IMDb score: 6.1. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Yves (Manuel) fighting off an octopus.

In 1907 French film pioneer Georges Méliès was at a crossroads in his career. The father of the visual effects film, the science fiction film and more or less every type of fantastical film genre, was being challenged by new filmmakers, an ever growing global film industry, monopolistic measures by studio giants Edison and Pathé, as well as a changing taste in film and a more demanding audience. In 1899 Méliès had started making fantasy films inspired by the epic and feerie stage plays popular in period – some of them written by author Jules Verne himself. But in the latter years of the 1900’s, taste in film was starting to change. More realistic productions with a new sense of editing and cinematography were taking hold of the audience, and the stage-based extravaganzas that had made Méliès the most popular filmmaker in the world started to seem quaint and out of mode. But Méliès, ever the auteur, refused to change the way he made movies.

It was customary for Méliès to make at least one big production each year, starting with Cinderella in 1899, and including A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), Kingdom of the Fairies (1903), The Impossible Voyage (1904, review), The Palace of the Arabian Nights (1905) and The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906), the latter of which was partly made for stage by Méliès, as a special effect for Théâtre du Châtelet, a theatre which he often collaborated which, and stole his ideas from.

A promotional picture featuring the dancer from Theatre du Chatelet.

For 1907 this production was Under the Seas, in French Deux Cents Milles sous les mers ou le Cauchemar du pêcheur, literally “Twenty thousand miles under the sea, or the fisherman’s nightmare”. It was, of course, an adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. Over the years there has been some confusion regarding the title. The original French title of Verne’s book used one of the many French leagues, but the one Verne used was the metric league, which was derived from the post league, and was 4 kilometres long. So one 20,000 leagues would have been 80,000 kilometres. The circumference of the Earth is 40,000 km, and the title refers to the long journey that the Nautilus made beneath the surface of the oceans. Not, as some would claim, the depth that the Nautilus travelled to. Verne was obsessed with geography, and would have been acutely aware that if you would go 80,000 kilometres straight down, you would be halfway to the moon. Méliès probably changed the title of the film to point out that his movie was not really a literal adaptation of the novel, but rather inspired by it. The title of the film was thus “200,000 miles under the sea”, and Méliès could either be referring to the English mile, which was used internationally, or the nautical mile. The English mile is around 1,6 km, whereas the nautical mile, derived from the meridian minute, is around 1,8 km. Whatever the case, the title of Méliès’ film should probably be understood metaphorically rather than as any real measurement of either length or depth.

Georges Méliès.

Only about half of the film is said to have survived, and what remains is a very badly deteriorated black-and-white clip of about eight minutes. It is at places so blown out that you can’t really see what’s going on. Thus, we have to rely on the existing synopsis from Méliès’ film company Star Film to get the whole plot, here copied from Wikipedia:

“Yves, a fisherman, comes home after a tiring day of fishing and soon falls asleep. In his dream, he is visited by the Fairy of the Ocean, who leads him to a submarine. Yves is made Lieutenant-in-Command and sets off on a submarine voyage.

A panorama of undersea views follow, including shipwrecks, underwater grottoes, huge shellfish, sea nymphs, sea monsters, starfish, mermaids, and a ballet of naiads. The ballet is interrupted by Yves, whose inexperience with submarines leads him to run his craft aground on a rock. Yves leaves the wrecked submarine and chases after the departing naiads, but is attacked by huge fish and crabs. He escapes and travels past further underwater marvels, including underwater caves, anemones, corals, giant seahorses, and an octopus that attacks him. However, in vengeance for all the fish Yves has caught in his career, goddesses of the sea trap the fisherman in a net and let him fall into a gigantic hollow sponge, from which he struggles to escape.

Waking up from the dream, Yves realizes that he has fallen from his bed into his bathtub, and is entangled in his own fishing net. His neighbors and friends free him from the confusion, and he treats them all to drinks at the nearest café.”

Crab men and naiads.

At least the beginning of the film is lost, and judging from some of the stills remaining, some parts of Yves’ underwater adventures have also gone missing. But enough remains to get the basic outline of the story, the look of the film and a sense of the direction. In style the film is similar to that of Méliès’ previous fantastical journeys, with an emphasis on practical effects and impressive scenery. Visual effects like stop tricks, mattes and double exposures are used sparingly. There are some superb practical effects on display, such as a giant crab and an octopus, both of which attack Yves at some point during the movie, and Méliès uses his fishtank-in-front-of-the-camera shot much better here than in A Trip to the Moon.

Since the film uses the dream frame, I’m not going to complain about the fact that Yves is able to breath under water, but I will say that his acting as if submerged is at best inconsistent, and at worst plain bad. It starts out like a sort of pantomime, as you do, “swimming” with your arms in slow motion, but both Méliès and actor Manuel soon forget all about it, and the character starts acting just as if he was on dry land.

A reproduction of one of the lost scenes, as seen in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo (2011) and a colourised still from the original film.

One thing that separates this film from Méliès’ other science fiction epics is that this one follows a single protagonist instead of a group of explorers, which gives the movie a sharper focus. A pet peeve of mine is the use of dance numbers, and I concede that the dancers of Théâtre du Châtelet are much better (choreographed by the theatre’s own choreographer Madame Stitchel) than the dancing girls of rivaling studio Pathé. But I personally find these dance numbers to be an unnecessary archaism, holding up the story and disrupting the pace of the film.

I would have loved for Méliès to actually take on the story of the book, or even present the film in a more serious way, since I’m sure he could have done wonders with it, had he tried. Instead, the dream frame feels old and worn even for 1907, having been a standard cop-out ever since Méliès’ 1897 film The Nightmare. Méliès loved these dream frames, and they quickly spread to other filmmakers, Edwin S. Porter’s and Wallace McCutcheon’s Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) being one of the greatest examples. But Méliès had already showed us that he could take us to marvelous fantasy worlds without the dream as a crutch, and I don’t quite see why felt the need to use the dream frame in this film – even if the joke at the end is rather fun.

A detail from Alphonse de Neuville’s original drawings for Jules Verne’s novel from 1867.

Tristan Ettleman writes that Under the Seas “has the potential to be one of Méliès’ greatest major epics”, and it’s hard to disagree with that notion. However, I personally prefer a number of other films, at least on the basis of what remains of Under the Seas. Would I rate it, it would probably get 5 or 6 stars out of 10, but I don’t feel comfortable rating a film of which almost half is gone and what remains is barely watchable. No doubt it was a great success when it was released, judging from the fact that Pathé kept making imitations of Méliès’ epics all the way up to 1910, when Méliès himself joined Pathé.

1907 was the year when Thomas Edison formed a cinema trust in the US, partly with the intent to shut out French films from the American market. By this time French movies accounted for 60 percent of all films showed in US theatres. This partly had to do with the fact that most major US film companies had a business model focused on selling copies of positive prints, rather than making their own movies, because the profit was greater from distributing than from creating films at this point in time, when ticket prices were still low and film was considered a cheap and disreputable medium. Under the Seas was one of the last of Méliès’ films that both had a major impact on US markets and gave Star-Film a decent profit. The new model created by Edison could in the future effectively block foreign films from the market and if they were shown, the profit went to the distributor rather than the producer, thanks to a film exchange system were middlemen bought films priced on the length of the movie, and rented them to Nickelodeons, the new exhibition halls which were booming in 1907.

Another reproduction shot from Hugo (2011).

In 1909 international film producers gathered in Paris, where a similar system was devised for Europe, although the meeting was also called to prevent Pathé from forming an Edison-like monopoly in France. But the film renting system meant studios now made money based on how much physical film they produced, so they had to make longer films, more films and make them quicker. Georges Méliès’ Star-Film had no chance of keeping up with this pace of production, so he more or less merged with Pathé in 1910, ruining him financially and giving final say on his movies to Charles Pathé and Ferdinand Zecca, with whom he clashed several times. He made his last films in 1912 (including Conquest of the Pole), and with WWI France’s film industry ground to a halt. He never returned to it.

Jules Verne.

There’s some question whether this is the first film based on Jules Verne’s famous novel, and for a long time it held that title. However, there emerged from the archives of the Biograph company in the US an entry which pointed to an 18 minute epic called 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (review), produced in 1905, two years before Méliès’ movie. It was supposed to have been directed by film pioneer Wallace McCutcheon, but production was probably halted by McCutcheon’s jump from Biograph to Edison the same year, and there is no real evidence that the film was ever made. For more on this, see my article on the film.

One sign of how fast movie technology was changing was that a mere nine years after Méliès’ film, one no longer had to create the illusion of underwater photography, as Stuart Paton actually took the cameras down beneath the surface in his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916). The film was a huge hit, but disregarding a few animated comedy shorts, no more attempts at adapting the book were made until Disney’s blockbuster 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, review) came along and blew everyone away. To date, that is the best adaptation not only of this particular novel, but perhaps of any Jules Verne novel. With that in mind, it is perhaps no great surprise that no-one has yet released an actual big-budget adaptation of the book since then.

A few very loose adaptations have been made for cinematic release, including the Vincent Price effort City Under the Sea (1965, known as War-Gods of the Deep in the US), and Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969), a loose amalgamation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas and another Verne novel, The Floating City. Captain Nemo has also popped up here and there, most notably perhaps in the critical flop The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). There has been quite a number of straight-to-TV adaptations, of which the best remembered is probably 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1997), starring Michael Caine as Captain Nemo, and the mini-series The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978) starring Jose Ferrer.

Promotional art for Disney’s 1954 film.

In 2007 the exploitation company The Asylum made a super-cheap straight-to-video film called 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which reads more like a loose remake of Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, and which was universally panned by even the most passionate friends of straight-to-video monstrosities and mockbuster films. An actual remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has been in the making for close to ten years now. At least three different projects are currently under way (as of March 2018), but all seem to have got stuck in preproduction hell. Disney has been peddling a remake of their own for years, first with director McG at the helm. This fell apart, and David Lynch was hired, but quickly thrown out over artistic disagreements (apparently he had the audacity to insist that Prof. Aronnax should be French, as in the novel). James Mangold is currently the director attached to the project. Bryan Singer of X-Men fame announced in April 2017 that he had a Chinese-backed project in the pipeline, but little has been heard of the project since. A third independently made version going by the alias 20,000 Leagues of Badass also seems to be in trouble, as it’s official Facebook page has disappeared and the film doesn’t seem to have gotten past the pitch.

Janne Wass

Under the Seas. 1907, France. Directed by Georges Méliès. Inspired by Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas. Starring: Manuel, Georges Mélies. Produced by Georges Méliès for Star-Film.

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