(5/10) The most accurate adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel Mysterious Island that has ever been put on screen was made in Soviet Ukraine in 1941. This doesn’t necessarily work in the film’s favour, as it is rather talky and static. Look out for Robert Ross, long-time leader of the African American community in Moscow.
Tainstvennyy Ostrov (Mysterious Island. 1941, USSR. Directed by Eduard Pentslin. Written by M. Kalinin, Boris Shelontsev. Based on novel by Jules Verne. Starring: Alexei Krasnopolskiy, Pavel Kiyanskiy, Andrei Sova, Igor Kozlov, Andrei Andrienko-Zemskov, Jura Grammatikati, Robert Ross, Nikolai Kommissarov. Produced by Odessa Film Studio/Gorky Film Studios. IMDb score: 7.0
As readers of Jules Verne will know, the 1874 novel Mysterious Island is science fiction only inasmuch as it is related to the earlier 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Captain Nemo and his submarine turn up briefly in the final chapters of the book. But I decided to include Tainstvennyy Ostrov, as it is known in Russian, as it is something as curious as a 1941 adventure/science fiction film from the Soviet Union with American protagonists, including a black man.
For people unfamiliar with the book, here’s a very short outline: A group of five imprisoned Southerners escape the American civil war in a hot-air balloon. These are engineer Cyrus Smith (Alexei Krasnopolskiy), journalist Gideon Spilett (Pavel Kiyanskiy), sailor Bonadventure Pencroff (Andrei Andrienko-Zemskov) and his protegé, the young Harbert (Jura Grammatikati), and Smith’s black manservant Nebuchadnessar/Neb (Robert Ross). In a storm their balloon crashes in the sea and they swim ashore an uninhabited island where they build a little society for themselves, taking advantage of Smith’s ingenuity and some help from a mysterious benefactor.
Along, they tame an orangutan (played here by Andrei Sova in a bad ape suit), battle pirates, grow wheat, build a windmill, invent nitroglycerine and meet a half-wild man called Ben Ayrton (Igor Kozlov), who goes from being an enemy to becoming a devoted friend. Ayrton, of course, ties in to Verne’s earlier novel In Search of the Castaways – he was the villain who was left marooned on the uninhabited island. In the end they meet their benefactor, Captain Nemo, aboard his fantastical submarine Nautilus, where he tells them his life’s secret, which was not revealed in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and then promptly dies. In the book, the survivors are then rescued by a passing ship, whereas in the film they sail away on a raft. And curiously enough, this is the one and only major deviation from the book I can find in this film.
Tainsstvennyy ostrov is probably the most accurate version of the story ever put to screen, but I have seen suspicions from other critics that the tamed ape and the kid are additions to the film. Well, that is not the case. The orangutan Jupe was indeed tamed in the book, and Harbert was indeed a young boy in the novel (although he doesn’t come across as quite as juvenile as in the film). Of course some things have been left out and simplified, but as far as I can tell without understanding all the dialogue, everything that happens in the film is present in the book – even the cave where the survivors set up their home matches the picture I created of it when I read the novel. In other words: there are no Venus girls or other half-naked native ladies, no cannibals, no underwater dwarfs, no dinosaurs or giant crabs, or other whatnots that were added to American film adaptations of novel.
It is a bit curious that this is the book by Jules Verne that was made into a film in the Soviet Union in 1941, as we are dealing with American heroes setting up on an island they call Lincoln Island (also present in the film). And as far as I can tell, the dialogue hasn’t been altered as to make it an explicit communist propaganda film, although there are some stretches where my rusty Russian isn’t quite adequate enough to follow the more rambling monologues. One reason it got made may have been the fact that it is a Ukrainian, rather than a Russian film. Although Ukriane was a part of the USSR, filmmakers in Ukraine often got away with a bit more controversial films than those stationed in Moscow or Leningrad. Another reason is that there isn’t really anything in the book particularly offensive to the Soviet creed. In fact the five American fugitives set up a more or less idyllic socialist colony on the mysterious island, overcoming their troubles through ingenuity, hard labour and camaraderie. When they set foot on the island, Cyrus Smith releases his manservant from all his formal duties, making him an equal among men, very much like the Soviet Union wanted to portray their society. So perhaps it is not as strange as it may seem that The Mysterious Island was made into a Soviet film.
Director Eduard Pentslin has five films listed to his name at Russian Wikipedia, none of them especially worthy of mention. The Mysterious Island was his second film. He is perhaps most known for being imprisoned in the forties for being an ethnic German. His direction on Tainstvennyy ostrov is both amateurish and dull. The sets are passable enough, that goes for the cave set, the little village the survivors build and the exterior of the Nautilus. But it is clear that the film didn’t have much of a budget. For example, most of the fight with the pirates aboard the pirate ship takes place off-screen, and we see very little of Nautilus, apart from a wide shot from the side. Once inside, we only get a look at a round window by which Nemo lies.
Most of the film consists of the five protagonists sitting in a ring talking, whether they be in the balloon, on the beach, in a cave or in a submarine. The filming is static, often with wide shots showing all actors at once, and with very little editing, as if the scenes were sometimes filmed in only one or two takes, suggesting a hurried schedule. When the shots aren’t static, they are shaky. Nevertheless for some reason the film doesn’t come across as a no-budget clunker, perhaps due to the fact that windmills and houses and palisades where actually built, and they seem to have put some effort into making the cave sets. Of course they also have some help from some marvellous locations, and I suspect that the film was partly filmed in Crimea on the ragged shores of the Black Sea. Crimea was often used by Soviet filmmakers to suggest tropical locations, and the rocks of the Mysterious Island look very much like the rocks in the 1962 film The Amphibian Man, which I know was filmed there. The Crimea theory, although I can’t find official confirmation for it, is further strengthened by the fact that the film was made by Odessa Studios, barely a hundred miles from Crimea. Although it may well be filmed just outside Odessa as well, as it also lies on the shores of the Black Sea.
None of the actors seem to be particularly famous, although I am no expert on Soviet actors. Best known is probably Ukrainian Andrei Sova in the ape suit, who was a prolific character actor, mostly in comedic parts. Although the ape suit is lousy, Sova is quite good as Jupe the orangutan, and has the body language of the primate pretty well nailed. Nikolai Komissarov as captain Nemo seems to be the most distinguished of the actors, at least if one counts the number of Stalin and Lenin prizes he garnered throughout his career. The Soviet Union had an obsession with dealing out patriotic prizes to their actors. If you didn’t have at least one Order of Stalin prize to your name, you don’t seem to have been worthy of mention. The most well known actors have a list of Stalin and Lenin medals a mile long.
Most curious of all is probably seeing a black actor in a 1941 Soviet film speaking Russian, although his lines are very few and far between. The man playing Ned was an American socialist from Montana called Robert Ross, who left for the Soviet Union in the twenties to receive a socialist education. It turns out that there was, in fact, a not at all insignificant African-American community living in Moscow before WWII. Many of them later returned to the United States, but some remained, and one of them was Ross. Ross, however, had no college education, and had a hard time keeping up with his studies, where he competed with top scholars from universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and eventually dropped out and instead became something of an unofficial ambassador for black America in the Soviet Union. He was Moscow’s top lecturer on American culture and society, especially the situation of black people in the country. He also became the contact person for all black American visitors to Moscow, which he treated like dignitaries, according to the book Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of the Soviet Promise. On the side of his official duties he also worked as an actor in both film and on stage.
Another curious fact is that while it is a talkie, it still has a lot of title cards. European and US films still used title cards to some limited extent in 1941, just as we still use text inserts in films today, to point out geographical locations or the passage of time. But here they are used in abundance, to explain situation and plot, as was done during the silent era. This has to do with the fact that the Soviet Union was a large, poor and predominantly rural country, and although many cinemas, especially in the large cities, had switched to sound, there were still a lot of theatres and community centres where sound systems had not been installed. The inclusion of title cards also made it possible for areas without actual movie theatres to show films without a sound system, all they needed was a projector.
Overall the actors in the film are adequate, if a bit stagy and stiff. Most memorable, apart from Ross, is perhaps Andrienko-Zemskov as the rotund, jovial Pencroff. Krasnopolsky as Smith isn’t bad, but his performance is hampered by a ridiculous false beard. Igor Kozlov has a very dramatic scene when he encounters the survivors as Ayrton and asks for their friendship. Komissarov plays a hammy Nemo and Grammatikati is just as annoying as juvenile boy actors usually are in these kind of films.
Best known among the crew is probably the lauded composer Nikita Bogoslovskiy. Bogoslovskiy was well known and loved by many for his haunting melodies, often portraying the history and hardships of the Russian people. Mysterious Island was one of the first of his 119 film scores, and it is very effective in portraying moods and emotions, although to a modern, non-Slavic viewer they seem over the top, especially when accompanied by a choir singing lyrics that Bogoslovskiy wrote himself. Bogoslovskiy was also a famous recording and performing artist and song writer, loved even by Winston Churchill. While some his music was temporarily banned by Stalin, he rose to newfound glory in the sixties, seventies and eighties both in the Soviet Union and abroad with sold-out concerts that combined music and his famous stand-up routine.
All in all, the film, which is close to 90 minutes long, gets good points for sticking so close to the book. It also gets some bad points for sticking so close to the book. Longwinded conversations may be riveting in a novel, but a group of people sitting in a ring discussing the matters at hand seldom make for good cinema. Good sets and stunning locations make the film occasionally beautiful and it is easy to buy into the reality of the survivors, but the creaky direction, the constant off-camera action and the static filming make the movie look amateurish and cheap, and also make the actors look even more stagy than they actually are. A rather talky affair, but some nice action scenes and explosions make up for it, as does the cosy scenes of the rugged band of brothers building their new home. If you know the story of the book, it is worth checking out as a curiosity.
The Mysterious Island/Trainstvennyy Ostrov. 1941, USSR. Directed by Eduard Pentslin. Written by M. Kalinin, Boris Shelontsev. Based on the novel The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne. Starring: Alexei Krasnopolskiy, Pavel Kiyanskiy, Andrei Sova, Igor Kozlov, Andrei Andrienko-Zemskov, Jura Grammatikati, Robert Ross, Nikolai Kommissarov. Music: Nikita Bogoslovsky. Cinematography: Mikhail Belsky, Mikhail Karyukov. Production design: Iosif Yutsevich. Second unit director: Boris Shelontsev. Produced by Odessa Film Studio/Gorky Film Studios.