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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Five Weeks in a Balloon ( 1962 )

Producer Irwin Allen, best known for his "disaster films" of the 1970s ( The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure ) also made a number of entertaining sci-fi and adventure films in the early 1960s, including The Lost World and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. One of his lesser-known films of this period is Five Weeks in a Balloon ( 1962 ), a fluffy juvenile adaptation of the Jules Verne classic, which he also directed.

Cedric Hardwicke stars in the film as Professor Furgusson, a stiff-lipped Englishman who has invented a balloon named The Jupiter which he intends to explore East Africa with. Joining him on this journey is his assistant Jacques ( Fabian ), and American playboy Donald O'Shea ( Red Buttons ). On the day that they are prepared to depart, the British prime minister interferes, commissioning the Jupiter to venture to West Africa to claim uncharted land before a band of slave traders stake the territory as their own. Before they know it, their five-week aerial journey becomes fraught with hazards as they attempt to fulfill their mission for the glory of the British Empire. 

"Cinq Semaines en Balloon", published in 1863, was the novel that launched Jules Verne to international stardom as an author and it included all of the magic ingredients that went into his later works. Irwin Allen's version of Five Weeks in a Balloon departs from Verne's original plot considerably, with the Professor attempting to beat the claims of a slave trading expedition instead of merely racing against other explorers to make a name for himself. The film also added the presence of two females ( Barbara Eden and Barbara Luna ) both of whom are rescued en route by the balloonists from these slave traders.
During much of the production, Allen was involved in a race against the Woolner Brothers, other producers, to be the first to release a film adaptation of "Five Weeks in a Balloon". The Woolner Brothers won this race, releasing Flight of the Lost Balloon ( starring Marshall Thompson ) in 1961, but Allen - with the force of 20th Century Fox behind him - managed to block the team from using the name of Jules Verne in their title or any of their publicity material. 

Perhaps it was due to this rushed production, but Five Weeks in a Balloon never really lifts off and soars to the heights it could have reached had it been filmed with care. 20th Century Fox had scored a hit with another Verne novel adaptation, Journey to the Center of the Earth, in 1958. That film had the perfect combination of adventure, comedy, thrills, and romance. It featured great special effects, a highly-entertaining script, and most importantly, a powerful lead actor - James Mason. An engaging actor such as Mason is sadly missing from Five Weeks in a Balloon. Sir Cedric Hardwicke simply doesn't cut the mustard. 

What Five Weeks in a Balloon does possess is an impressive array of supporting players which include Richard Haydn ( always a delight ), Peter Lorre, Billy Gilbert, Henry Daniell, Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen, and Raymond Bailey. It also features colorful settings, a catchy theme song, spunky title credits, and some clever special effects. The scenes that utilize the balloon are quite good, especially the opening sequence. 

The box-office sales were so disappointing for Five Weeks in a Balloon that Irwin Allen decided to quit the motion picture business for a while and turn his attention to television, where he scored a hit with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants and, his most famous series, Lost in Space...which featured another "Jupiter", the Jupiter II spacecraft. 

1 comment:

  1. A very fair review of FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, capturing its strengths and weaknesses. I think it's a shame to waste such a good cast. I mean, Red Buttons and Fabian were miscast, but the rest of the stars deserved better. It's not that FIVE WEEKS is a bad movie, but, as you pointed out, it could have been so much better!

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