The 1950’s Blockbuster: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

 Mark Jancovich

It is now commonplace to see the generation of Speilberg and Lucas as transforming science fiction from a genre associated with low-budget filmmaking into the stuff of blockbuster cinema. For example, J Hoberman has claimed that this generation raised the ‘most vital and disreputable genres of their youth … to cosmic heights’,[1] a quote that is used by Schatz precisely to distinguish the old ‘prestige’ blockbuster of classic Hollywood from the blockbuster of Speilberg and Lucas.[2]

However there are a number of problems with this argument. Long before the 1970s, science fiction had been the material for a series of high-profile productions, (or rather there were a number of high-profile films that are now referred to as classics of the genre, although they were not generically understood as such at the time of their original release). Examples of this history include Melies’ Trip to the Moon (1902), UFA classics such as Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (1929), and Things to Come (1936). None of these were low-budget productions and most were big budget efforts with major ambitions to cultural prestige.

Furthermore, if the generation of Speilberg and Lucas were inspired by the cinematic past, they drew at least as much on blockbuster productions such as De Mille’s Ten Commandments (1956) as they did on films such as Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space (1953); and their films are distinguished by their ominousness rather than their predilection for the low-budget independents.

Spectacular effects in War of the Worlds (1953)

Spectacular effects in War of the Worlds (1953)

Even at the start of the 1950s science fiction cycle, which initiated films such as Arnold’s low budget classics, blockbuster science fiction was not only present but was probably the galvanizing force. Rocketship X-M (1950) may have been a low-budget production but it was an attempt to cash in on a forthcoming prestige production, George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950). While the period also saw a host of alien invader films, one of the first was George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1953), which was anything but a low-budget production and for all its dated charms featured glorious color photography and spectacular effects.

But even this production was overshadowed by Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Not only was Disney a key producer of independent prestige productions but as Variety pointed out, the film was the company’s ‘biggest film to date’; had not only cost ‘$6,000,000’; and would be announced with the ‘biggest advertising campaign Hollywood has ever seen.’[3]

New Cinema Wonder

New Cinema Wonder

Reviews of the film also predicted that it would earn ‘Ultra-high box-office around the world’ that would provide a ‘special event for any man’s theatre’.[4] The film was even claimed to have been so finely crafted so that ‘it is the product itself that is the star’ with special mention being made of its use of ‘Technicolor’, ‘cinemascope’ and ‘stereophonic sound’. Underwater sequences and other effects were heavily discussed and the result was claimed to be a ‘very special kind of picture’ that was precisely the kind of film that Speilberg and his generation aspired to achieve – it was a ‘new cinema wonder’.

Here, then, the concept of the blockbuster was not associated with cinematic trash as has become common today but, on the contrary, with prestige and respectability – this was science fiction film that drew on the classic literary science fiction of Jules Verne. It also does so for a family audience. For example, while the New York Times claimed that the kids would ‘love every minute of this nonsense’, it regarded the film as having marginally failed in those elements that would capture the imagination of their parents, but even so these elements would only prove ‘mildly disappointing’, if that. [5]

Educational Adaptation

Educational Adaptation

Prestige was also sought through presentation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as an educational film, not only through its association with literary classics but its use of cinematic spectacle, so that the film was presented as a cinematic equivalent of the National Geographic magazine, a beautifully photographed tour of the natural world. The New York Times even commented on this aspect of the film, although again it complained was that, despite its ‘occasional sight-seeing tours’, there was ‘less observation of the deep than there should be in a picture of this nautical nature.’

In this way, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a key example of a cinematic phenomenon that included science fiction films but went well beyond them, a phenomenon that was directly related to developments in visual technology and leisure activities. The postwar period produced a number of films that were effectively journeys through the spectacles of the natural world. Disney would do this kind of thing a number of times, even making pets the focus of the narrative in The Incredible Journey (1963), while science fiction examples include Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Fantastic Voyage (1966, a journey around the human body) and even 2001: A Space Odessy (1968), which was marketed as ‘the ultimate trip’. Even many westerns can be seen as part of this trend with John Ford’s classic, The Searchers (1956), being heavily sold through the ways in which its visual technology and location footage provided a spectacle of the American landscape: ‘Adventure … from the Sand-Choked Desert of Arizona … to the Snow-Swept Plains of Canada’. But, of course, science fiction was especially well suited to this cinema of exploratory spectacle, with its journeys into space, the center of the earth, the future, the body, and the mysteries of consciousness.

If Speilberg and his generation would celebrate the low-budget science fiction of the 1950s, they were also never far from trying to recapture the wonders of 1950s spectacular, of which science fiction was a core element.

Bio: Mark Jancovich is Professor of Film Studies at the University of East Anglia, UK.He studied at Keele University, the University of Kent at Canterbury and Indiana University. He has taught at the Universities of Keele, Manchester, and Nottingham, where he founded the Institute of Film Studies. He is the co-editor of two book series; a founding member of Scope: An Online Journal of Film Studies; a member of several editorial and editorial advisory boards; and has been a member of research panel 2 of the AHRB, an subpanel of RAE 2008, and a member of the Executive of the Media, Communication and Cultural Studies Association. He has been an external examiner at over ten different Universities and supervised numerous research students to the successful completion of their studies.



[1] J Hoberman, ‘Ten Years that Shook the World’, American Film, 10, June, 1985, 42.

[2] Thomas Schatz, ‘The New Hollywood’ in Jim Collins, Ava Preacher Collins, and Hilda Radner, eds., Film Theory Goes to the Movies, New York, Routledge, 1992, 8-36.

[3] Anon, ‘Hollywood-Caribbean “20,000 Leagues” Disney’s Top Budgeter at $6,000,000’, Variety, 21 July, 1954, 7.

[4] Gene. ‘Film Reviews’, Variety, 15 December, 1954, 6.

[5] Bosley Crowther, ’20,000 Leagues in 128 Fantastic Minutes’, New York Times, 24 December, 1954.

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