20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Disney’s first venture into the burgeoning genre of sci-fi would also be its first real Cold War film. Also, it’s awesome.

At this stage in its history, Disney was almost exclusively adapting novels for their live action films, and to explore science fiction, rather than capitalising on the space race (like so many others at the time), Disney opted for Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, even keeping the film set in the Victorian era. They also got their biggest names yet:

opening titles big names

Ooh la la!



Verne’s story was already rich with material as an adventure in scientific and cultural exploration. Those 20,000 leagues were not measuring depth, but distance traveled around the world as Professor Aronnax, his sidekick, Conseil, and harpooner, Ned Land, join the crew of the Nautilus as they explore the underwater realm and myriad coasts of continents.

From the beginning, to anyone with access to a copy of the book (or Project Gutenberg), this is going to be a loose adaptation.

page 1 of book
The movie
Jules Verne’s text

What they did well: The Horrors of the Age

From the beginning, Disney picks up on the themes of scientific rationalism versus the sensationalist hype made pervasive by reporters looking for a story. As more and more ships are destroyed, the media is filled with wild tales of sea monsters while scientists try to grapple with the mystery rationally. At this stage it looks like this:

The media
The media

Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex (i.e. The Man) is worried about falling profits due to the loss of commercial shipping, so they send their lackies (the US Navy) out with scientist, Professor Aronnax, to investigate. After the ship is destroyed, we learn what it is that has been causing the destruction: the Nautilus.

Aronnax: "Don't forget this is an engine of destruction." Unlike that war ship you were just on, dumbass?
Aronnax: “Don’t forget this is an engine of destruction.”
Unlike that war ship you were just on, dumbass?

Enter Nemo – Disney’s First Anti-Hero

We’re basically swooning right now over James Mason and his incredible voice. Purrr. It’s like Douglas Reynholm from the IT Crowd, but with loads and loads of credibility.

Nemo's great great great great nephew?
Nemo’s great great great great nephew?

Nemo is unlike any other previous Disney character.  There is a sophistication in the complexity and depth of his character. Unlike the two-dimensional good versus evil and inane fluff of their previous efforts, Nemo is a real fucking character. Did we mention we’re in love with James Mason?


Verne’s Nemo did not have much of his past spelt out in 20 Thou, however in his later work Mysterious Island, we learn his character is a former Indian prince who turned to a life in the ocean after his family was killed during a war against the British. He rejects humanity and fights imperialists. (Interestingly, Verne originally wrote Nemo as a Polish man whose family had been murdered in an uprising against the Russians, but his publisher feared poor sales in the Russian market, Russia also being an ally of France, so they changed it.)

Disney’s Nemo is a little different. For one thing, he’s white.

These guys also played this Indian prince.
These guys also played this Indian prince.

While Disney dropped the idea of Nemo being a brown skinned former subjugatee of the British, they didn’t completely drop the anti-imperialist angle. This Nemo rejects humanity after his wife and child are tortured and killed (for his nuclear secrets) and he spends years in brutal hardship on the island penal colony of Rorapandi  (pronounced Rura Penthe).

rura penthe 1
Rura Penthe Rorapandi: known throughout the galaxy world as the alien’s white man’s graveyard

What makes this part of the story awesome is the exchange between Aronnax and Nemo as they visit Rorapandi:

“The prison camp of Rorapandi, the white man’s grave.”
“I thought it had been abolished.”
“Nothing is abolished that turns a profit to that hated nation.”

“What is in those sacks they are carrying?”
“Nitrates and phosphate for ammunition, the seeds of war. They’re loading a full cargo of death, and when that ship takes it home, the world will die a little more.”

He also mentions he didn’t escape alone. I think we can assume he had some help from a shapeshifter in getting through the magnetic shield – but more about that later.

In this small exchange may be Disney’s best critique of the relationship between militarism, colonialism and capitalism – and it’s spoken by someone they depict as at least a little mad.

The Power of the Universe

It was apparent that Captain Nemo had discovered what mankind has always sought, the veritable dynamic power of the universe. This secret alone gave him mastery of the sea. I can hardly believe it, how one could conceive and build such a craft – and in a single stroke, harness power beyond the wildest dreams of science. Why, such a secret could revolutionise the world. Or destroy it.

This language, heavily implying nuclear power, is only used to describe the power of the Nautilus in Disney’s version of the story (Verne left it much more a mystery). In the context of the Cold War, the Nautilus is Captain Nemo’s bomb shelter, protecting him from a world gone mad; the sea, an alternate world of order and relative peace. And yet, this peace is broken by Nemo’s own command again and again as they destroy ship after ship, and hundreds if not thousands of human lives. Lashing out at imperial power, Nemo’s revenge (and peaceful underwater existence) is made possible by the same nuclear power.

It’s also useful to witness how the possessor of this technology believes he is the only one who can be trusted to use it wisely, yet it becomes clear that his anger is not always tempered by wisdom. It is interesting to note how nations with nuclear capabilities – both in the 1950s and today – rationalize why it’s fair for them to have them and not others. Our side is assumed to have the wisdom that will ensure it is only used when necessary. Others shouldn’t have access to it because they will inevitably misuse it. (The other side usually believes the same).

Rorapandi/Rura Penthe
The name Rura Penthe was later re-used as the name of a Klingon gulag in Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country, a 1991 film which explores the end of the Cold War. Originally the Klingon Rura Penthe was imagined as a foul-smelling hot planet, bearing closer similarity to the island prison in 20,000 Leagues, before being changed to an ice planet.

As a side note, there seem to be a number of rumours online that Rura Penthe and possibly the Klingon warden’s welcome in Star Trek VI dates back further to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but these appear to be unfounded. A quick word search of War and Peace found no such reference.

Do you know how hard it is to find a picture of young Steve Guttenberg where he's not topless?
Thanks again Project Gutenberg!

Rura Penthe is from Disney’s 20,000 Leagues (not Verne’s), the speech is from Bridge on the River Kwai. (If you can prove me wrong, post a comment!)

What’s not-so-good/pretty weird

  • In the book, the people on the Nautilus visit many lands and encounter many peoples. In Disney’s version, there is one instance of this–dark-skinned, cannibals from New Guinea (who don’t look like New Guineans) who give chase, set to generic “savage” music which bears a resemblance to other Disney scenes with native peoples. Oh, and they grunt to communicate. Nice, Disney.
  • World leading scientist, Professor Aronnax says of a group of non-descript men in diving gear: “That tall one must be the leader.”
  • The only women in this movie:

    Yeah, probs not going to pass the Bechdel Test.

Now to wait for the buddy cop sequel, where Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre play mismatched partners.



Rating:  12/17
Rating versus Joe versus the Volcano: Thumbs up.

Rating:  20/24
Rating versus Joe versus the Volcano: Thumbs up.



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