Jules Verne experienced a revival in the 1950s, likely sparked with Disney's successful adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea soon followed by United Artists' popular Oscar winning Around the World in 80 Days. That was enough to capture my childhood interest; I checked ever available Jules Verne book I could get my hands on, so I was fired up by the time 20 th Century Fox released their version of Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1959. Little did it matter than the movie ignored over 90% of Verne's text to create a dazzling, well lit path to the Earth's core. They populated the destination with dinosaurs (pre-CGI days when lizards were dressed up with dorsal fins to simulate carnivorous Dimetrodons), so I was a happy camper.
No matter that the movie plot was so implausible. Even at 11 years old, I realized it wasn't logical that a gem studded salt path that slightly got hotter would lead to the center of the Earth. Where was the molten magma? The location shooting in Carlsbad Caverns certainly compelled me to place it on my "must visit" list. Re-watching director Henry Levin's version, I was caught up in old memories and the 1950's film style more than the actual moment, and the film remains remarkably entertaining despite its dated presentation. Bernard Herrmann's signature score enhances the experience (especially for film aficionados).
Set in 1860 Edinburgh, geology professor Oliver Lindenbrook (James Mason) is knighted, and energetic student representative Alec McEwen (Pat Boone) gives him a uniquely heavy lava rock as a gift. Typically absent-minded and obsessive, Lindenbrook gets engrossed with studying the rock, and an accident reveals a plumb-bob with inscriptions from explorer Arne Saknussemn, most famous for his expedition to find the center of the Earth. The treasure leads to the secret entrance that propels the plot.
It's a world that includes a sparkling crystalline pool room, giant mushroom patch, an underground ocean, and the lost city of Atlantis. Improbable science permeates the script—dinosaurs ignoring tender human flesh for one of their own, plentiful underground lighting that render lanterns obsolete, a magnetic pole snatching all things metallic, and a miraculous volcanic tunnel to serve as elevator. There's even a pet duck named Gertrude who serves as mascot and occasional comic relief; and woe to the member of the expedition who fails to recognize her essential role.
Verne veteran James Mason supplies enough charm to carry the narrative adequately while Arlene Dahl supplies a very chaste love interest for the long sojourn. With Elvis Presley doing so well at the box office during this period, the producers sought another popular singer to woo audiences, so clean-cut Pat Boone was cast to croon a few ballads and remove his shirt frequently to appeal to the young female demographic. Contrasting with these pure souls is the greedy, egocentric villainous Thayer David, who dooms himself with his out of control appetite.
By no means a great movie, the well paced film entertains for most of its 132 minutes, and stands the test of time for its genre. A number of other adaptations of Journey to the Center of the Earth have been developed over the years (including a highly anticipated 2008 production), but this one remains the most memorable to date with it's spectacular cave photography, screeching dinosaurs, wide eyed sense of exploration wonder, and fine ensemble cast ... as well as a well trained pet duck.