Today is starting off to be a good day because today I get to watch another Harryhausen movie. Today’s movie is one of those that I had heard about and looked for but was unable to find due to the DVD being out of print. Whenever that happens, you can still find those movies, but the price can be insane. I once saw an out of print DVD sold for over $200, which is honestly ridiculous unless you just absolutely have to have that movie. Anyways, I spent a long time scouring Ebay, Amazon, and Movie Stop until I found a reasonably priced used copy, which I quickly bought to add to my collection of Harryhausen films. So let’s get right into today’s movie, Mysterious Island (1961).
The plot: Towards the end of the Civil War, three Union soldiers, Capt. Cyrus Harding, Herbert Brown, and Neb, are making plans to escape the prison they are being held in and use a nearby balloon to escape. When the guards show up with a new prisoner, Union war correspondent Gideon Spilitt, they surprise them with a booby trap and knock the guards out. The four men manage to make their way to the balloon and escape in it, but not before one Confederate Soldier, Sgt. Pencroft, gets in the basket to try and stop them. As they are floating over the city, Cyrus considers throwing Pencroft over the side but decides against it. Pencroft says that he can fly the balloon but they won’t be able to land safely during the storm and offers a deal of flying the balloon and landing safely in exchange that they each go their separate ways afterwards. Carried off by the storm, the group soon finds themselves over the Pacific Ocean and when Pencroft lowers the balloon to get a closer look, the valve gets stuck and they start to plummet towards the ocean before Harding manages to close the valve. When the balloon starts to rip, they toss everything overboard in an attempt to stay afloat and manage to spot a nearby island that they try to reach but the balloon hits the water and the men end up in the ocean. Later, Neb, Herbert, and Pencroft are looking for Harding and when they check with Spilitt only to find him grabbing giant oysters to use for food. Neb sees smoke coming from some nearby rocks and they find Harding lying there but when they mention the fire, Harding says that he didn’t start it. Exploring the island, they eventually reach the opposite shore and split up to look for food when Harding and Neb are attacked by a giant crab. Neb is grabbed in one of the crab’s pincers but Harding and the others manage to flip the crab on it’s back and after freeing Neb, Harding and Herbert push the crab into a nearby geyser and the crab ends up being cooked in the boiling water, providing food for the men. The men climb a nearby volcano so they can get a better look at the island and possibly find a way off. They find a herd of wild goats and attempt to capture then when Spilitt spots a small boat off the shore. Heading to the beach, they find two women washed ashore, along with a sailor who did not survive. Tending to the women, Lady Mary Fairchild and her niece Elena, they learn that the ship they were travelling on was sunk during the same storm that brought them there. The next day, Harding, Herbert, Pencroft, and Spilitt go exploring and come across a cave with some sturdy vines hanging from it. Harding climbs up the vines to explore the cave and finds evidence that someone had lived there before coming across the remains of Thomas Aryton, who had been marooned on the island and hung himself. Deciding to make the cave their new home, which they call Granite House, the group work on trying to build a boat so they can escape. One day, a chest washes ashore and they find it contains rifles and supplies that they can use. Examining some of the items, they learn that the chest came from the Nautilus, and Spilitt tells Lady Mary a brief tale of Captain Nemo and his submarine, which was supposedly destroyed off the coast of Mexico. Harding and Spilitt have a difference of opinion about Nemo, with Spilitt respecting his principles against war but Harding feels he is a murderer for all of the sailors he killed. Sometime later, Spilitt, Lady Mary, and Elena are attacked by a giant, flightless bird and Herbert jumps on it’s back and stabs it repeatedly in the neck with his knife, eventually killing it. That night, after cooking the bird, Pencroft bites down on a bullet and they realize that someone had shot and killed the bird. Herbert and Elena have fallen in love and are talking about getting married when Elena discovers honey flowing down some rocks. They climb the rocks and discover a giant honeycomb but as they try to leave, a giant bee arrives and it ends up sealing them in one of the empty cells. On the beach, Harding and the others are working on building their boat when they spot a ship approaching the island. Spilitt wants to light the signal fires but Harding stops them and says to head back to Granite House. Once there, Harding uses the telescope and notices the ship is a pirate ship, then has Pencroft and Neb hide their boat and they make ready to fend off the pirates when they come ashore. Meanwhile, Herbert manages to build a fire and burn a hole in the back of the cell so he and Elena can escape. They end up falling down into a cave and discover the Nautilus floating in an underground lake and look inside but see no signs of life and so they swim out through a small opening in the cave. Meanwhile, the pirates send a landing party on the island and discover the boat. Harding and the others manage to kill the landing party but the pirates on the ship begin firing cannons at the cave. Herbert and Elena manage to get to shore just as the pirate ship mysteriously explodes and sinks. A strange man emerges from the water and as the group reunites, the man reveals himself to be Captain Nemo. Nemo tells them that the volcano on the island will erupt soon and that they won’t be able to finish their boat in time. He then says he has a plan to place a patch over the hole in the pirate ship and use the Nautilus to drain the water from the ship and allow the ship to float again. Nemo teaches the men how to use his underwater gear, showing them the ruins of an ancient city as he does, and they prepare to fix the ship when the volcano starts to erupt. Taking cover inside the Nautilus, Nemo says there is no hope of surviving but Harding comes up with an idea to use the balloon as an air sack to get the ship quickly to the surface and Nemo agrees that it might work. Using a bamboo pipe to connect the Nautilus‘ pumps with the balloon, Harding, Neb, Pencroft, and Spilitt head down in the water to patch up the pirate ship and place the balloon inside. They are attacked by a giant octopus but manage to use Nemo’s electric gun to drive it away. Nemo starts the pumps and the ship rises out of the water. Harding and the others get Lady Mary and Elena on board so they can go back for Nemo but the island breaks apart and Nemo is killed when part of the Nautilus falls on him and they are forced to leave without him and vow to work towards a more peaceful world like Nemo wanted.
Mysterious Island (1961) met with mostly praise from the critics, earning an 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While there isn’t a critical consensus on the site, the majority of the critics praised Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation and Bernard Herrmann’s score. The scenes with the crab actually involved real crabs, one that was disemboweled and cleaned before having the armature for the stop-motion animation placed inside and two live crabs for the “facial” close ups, after which they were cooked for Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer.
To be honest, this wasn’t quite what I expected the first time I saw it but it is still a good movie. The acting was pretty good among the different characters, particularly with Michael Craig (Harding) and Gary Merrill (Spilitt), as you could really feel the tension between their character’s differing views. The story was good, though I honestly don’t know how closely it followed the original novel. The stop-motion animation was really good and was merely another example of Ray Harryhausen’s genius in his craft. A good classic movie that is worth watching.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5