#343) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1916)


#343) Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

OR “Out of Their Depth”

Directed & Written by Stuart Paton. Based on the novel by Jules Verne (with Verne’s “The Mysterious Island” thrown in for fun).

Class of 2016

The Plot: A group of scientists, including Professor Aronnax (Dan Hanlon) and harpoonist Ned Land (Curtis Benton), are recruited by the U.S. Government to investigate a mysterious sea creature that has been attacking ships. While on board the “Abraham Lincoln”, the team witnesses one of these attacks, only to discover that the “creature” is the submarine Nautilus, helmed by the mysterious Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar). Nemo holds the team prisoner, but treats them as his guests, offering awe-inspiring views of the ocean floor. The movie then jettisons most of the original novel’s plot in favor of characters and situations from “The Mysterious Island”…for some reason.

Why It Matters: The NFR references the film’s production, popularity, and that “[t]he real star of the film is its special effects.”

But Does It Really?: This is another one of those movies that should be partially preserved. The underwater sequences are a technological breakthrough, but everything before and after just kind of sits there. It doesn’t help that this adaptation feels the need to borrow from another Jules Verne novel: other adaptations have proven the original novel provides more than enough material for a full-length movie. “Twenty Thousand Leagues” is on the NFR for 10 minutes in the middle that revolutionized film, and that’s about it.

Everybody Gets One: Shoutout to George and Ernest Williamson, the innovators behind the film’s underwater footage. The two invented the “photosphere”, a dome that could sit on the ocean floor, connected to its ship by an accordion-like tube (see image below). This production used a regular film camera and a mirror to film the reverse image of the underwater scenes.


Wow, That’s Dated: The good news: this adaptation acknowledges Nemo’s Indian heritage from the original novel. The bad news: BROWNFACE WARNING.

Other notes

  • Many have felt the need to make this point, but for the record: leagues are a unit of length, not depth. 20,000 leagues is roughly 50,000 miles, more than twice the circumference of the Earth.
  • We have a title dispute! All publicity material (including the poster and NFR entry) lists the number “20,000”, but the title card at the beginning spells out the word “Twenty Thousand”. When in doubt, I go with what the movie tells me.
  • Knowing full well that this is spectacle and not an actual movie, the opening intertitles celebrate the Williamson brothers and their submarine photography. The boys make a brief on-camera appearance, as does a photo of the late Jules Verne.
  • Professor Aronnax’s assistant Conseil does not appear in this version. Instead we get Aronnax’s daughter, who is not in the book and adds nothing to the proceedings. I’m gonna guess “Director’s Girlfriend” for this one.
  • The top of the Nautilus was a practical set built for the scenes of the ship surfacing. It seems tame, but it was a big deal back then.
  • Why is Captain Nemo dressed like Santa?
  • I did not realize “frustrate” is also a verb. In this case, to prevent or thwart an action.
  • Hey, you got your “Mysterious Island” in my “Twenty Thousand Leagues”! So here’s the thing, “Mysterious Island” is a pseudo-sequel to “Twenty Thousand Leagues”, as the character of Captain Nemo is featured in both stories. The problem is, this film acknowledges the connection, but then goes into a completely different direction with it. Nemo’s backstory is fleshed out in “Mysterious Island”, but it’s not the story we get here.
  • Once again, the added female character of A Child in Nature adds nothing. I’m gonna guess “Producer’s Girlfriend” this time.
  • And now we get to the real meat and potatoes: Captain Nemo showing off his view of the ocean floor. It goes on for about 10 minutes and has nothing to do with anything, but man what a revolutionary watch this would have been in 1916, especially on a big screen.
  • I love that each sea creature gets an intertitle with different factoids, followed by “Look! Sharks!” Speaking of, sharks are “the tigers of the sea”? Between this and “Nanook of the North” silent movies loved comparing other animals to tigers.
  • The oxygen tanks and compressed air powered guns were both created by Jules Verne for the original novel, and were deemed science fiction at the time. The man was a visionary.
  • Underwater sequence aside, this film doesn’t really capture the visual aesthetic of a Jules Verne novel. Really disappointing considering the man more-or-less invented the steampunk look.
  • And now we get a third plotline involving someone named Charles Denver, an original character not found in either novel. Denver is shoehorned into Nemo’s flashback from “Mysterious Island”. Once again, they could have stuck with the source material and been fine; there was no need to add this guy. Especially since he “forced his attentions” on the princess. Do we really need to add sexual assault to a Jules Verne movie?
  • I know they spent a lot of the budget on effects, but you can more or less sense the model of the Nautilus being passed from one hand to another off-camera.
  • According to the intertitle, the climax is when Captain Nemo “reveals the tragic secret of his life, which Jules Verne never told.” HE DID TELL IT. YOU ARE CHOOSING TO MAKE UP YOUR OWN THING. WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?
  • The film’s epilogue is titled “The Benediction”, features a brief shot of two characters (Ned Land and the Girl?) watching the sunset, and a quick fade out. What even is this movie?


  • There have been several adaptations of “20,000 Leagues” through the years, most ignoring Captain Nemo’s Indian roots and making him European. The most famous version, the 1954 Richard Fleischer epic, filmed some of their underwater scenes in the Bahamas, as did the 1916 version.
  • Underwater footage may have been revolutionary in 1916, but nowadays it’s so common I bet there’s some playing on Nat Geo right now.
  • Esther Williams owes her film career to this movie.
  • Was any of “Aquaman” filmed underwater? Can I mention it anyway?

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