The special effects fantasies of Ray Harryhausen might seem quaint and a bit creaky to modern eyes, but for decades he was the undisputed master of stop-motion animation. Like many others, I grew up catching his many creature creations on TV and was charmed by the "unreal reality" of their movements. Sometimes, the films he made with producer Charles H. Schneer were rather dull, talky affairs, punctuated (some might say "saved") by Harryhausen's lively monster sequences (I'm looking at you, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). Luckily, Mysterious Island has plenty else going for it besides Harryhausen's contributions, including a good cast, an action-packed, adventure-laden survival story and a better-than-usual script.
With one main exception, the film follows the general outline of Jules Verne's original novel. During the Civil War, four Union prisoners escape on a balloon, along with its Confederate guard. The prisoners - Captain Harding (Michael Craig), Neb, a black corporal (Dan Jackson), young Herbert (Michael Callan) and war correspondent Spillet (Gary Merrill) - make a grudging peace with Reb sergeant Pencroft (Percy Herbert) on the condition that he pilots the balloon to safety. This isn't easily done, as the group is quickly blown off course by a severe storm and eventually end up stranded on a desert island far, far away from home.
The survivors ultimately learn that their mysterious "guardian angel" is none other than the famed Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom). Having survived the end of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the solo Nemo had steered his no-longer-seaworthy submarine, the Nautilus, to this island. Still motivated to help mankind end its endless cycle of war, strife, starvation and disease, Nemo has been conducting chemical experiments on the local flora and fauna, in order to find a means of providing an endless food supply for humanity.
This is where the film departs clearly from its source text, as the fruits of Nemo's labors have resulted in the island being populated by gigantic versions of its local animal life, which gives Harryhausen his chance to shine. This time monstrous in size only, a giant crab, a huge bird, enormous bees and a rampaging cephalopod are among the effects highlights here.
Nemo solemnly informs the others that the island's volcano will soon erupt, sending the island into the deep. With Nemo's help, Harding and the castaways make a desperate attempt to escape the island before it's too late...
The cast all do fine work. Craig is appropriately commanding and manly as Captain Harding, who becomes de facto leader of the castaways. Gary Merrill brings a nice, droll sarcasm to his verbal jostlings with Harding, and Joan Greenwood tempers her upper-class hauteur with plenty of earthy pluck. But all fade to the background once Herbert Lom's courtly, charismatic, silver-haired Nemo comes striding out of the sea in his stylish conch-shell helmet and air tank. Though his screen time is all too brief, Lom easily dominates the final quarter of the film, and the rather arbitrary way in which his character is handled at the end has become a bit of a sore point with many fans over the years.
Mysterious Island is the type of old-fashioned adventure film that they just don't make anymore. Compared to the busy, shrill, 3D CGI-fest remake served up to the multiplex masses last year, featuring a babysitting Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and a slumming Michael Caine, the 1961 original begins to take on the lustrous patina of a classic. It might not be that, exactly, but it is a damn fine popcorn muncher.
DVD Note: Twilight Time's (unfortunately) out-of-print Blu-Ray is the best way to see Mysterious Island. It comes with an isolated score track (the better to appreciate Hermann's booming soundtrack). You can see some representative screen captures here and here. The BD is a clear step up from the DVD transfer, but the latter still looks pretty decent.