Sunday, March 14, 2021

Mysterious Island ( 1961 )

A world beyond imagination! Adventure beyond belief! 

A band of Union Army prisoners, a Confederate soldier, and a journalist escape in a hot air balloon during the Civil War and are carried off by a storm to an uncharted island populated with giant creatures. This same storm blows in two ladies who were the only survivors of a shipwreck. They band together to survive, staving off giant chickens, bees and pirates before making an attempt to escape the island with the aid of Captain Nemo. 

Jules Verne's 1874 novel "Mysterious Island" was used as a basis for this marvelous adventure film. Special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen teamed up with producer Charles Schneer for the sixth time to create this dandy fantasy film that Time magazine declared would "thrill the geewillikers out of anyone!"

It does indeed! Mysterious Island combines a great cast with a fine script, a fantastic Bernard Herrmann score, and great special effects, making it a winner all-around. Even though it was released by Columbia Pictures, it is a British-made production with a primarily English cast playing Civil War soldiers. Michael Craig heads the cast as Captain Cyrus Harding. He quickly takes command when the balloon party lands on the island. Harding is your quintessential cookie-cutter captain who does things by the book. Even though he seems like the kind of character who would be given a love-interest, he remains single the entire film. 

Gary Merrill is excellent as Mr. Spilitt, an engaging journalist who enjoys jesting with Lady Fairchild, one of the shipwrecked ladies, played by the impeccably British Joan Greenwood. Percy Herbert plays a tough-talking Confederate, Dan Jackson is the loyal strongman Corporal Neb and, to draw in the teenage crowd, Michael Callan plays a young soldier who overcomes his cowardice when he attempts to rescue his new sweetheart, the miniskirt clad Elena Fairchild ( Beth Rogan ). 

Let's not forget Captain Nemo.....Herbert Lom plays the famous inventor. He adds a bit more gruffness to the character than James Mason did in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ( 1954 ). A dash of humor and more showmanship would have given greater interest to his character, but he was in keeping with Verne's description so we're not complaining. 

Mysterious Island was shot at Shepperton Studios, England, and on location in Sa Conca Bay, Spain. Unlike some of Harryhausen's other films, this picture uses a number of matte shots and they really help to create the storybook-like setting of the island. Check out the site Matte Shot to see more screenshots of the mattes used in the film. 

Harryhausen must have had a ball creating the miniatures for Mysterious Island. He made a fantastic model of the Nautilus, a truly frightening giant bee, a giant baby chicken, man-eating crab, and an octopus. It took him months to film these creatures in stop-motion, moving each armature a little bit at a time until the scene played out just right. 

Impressive as these creatures are, my favorite of his creations was the miniature air balloon. As you can see from this behind-the-scenes photo, this miniature was not as tiny as you would think. The soldiers make their escape in the balloon during a heavy storm and Harryhausen had to create this setting within the confines of Shepperton Studios. It is amazing to see the balloon tossed about in the storm over the ocean, forgetting that there was no storm or ocean in reality!


Mysterious Island premiered in the theatres Christmas Week 1961 and was a huge box-office success. It played to packed theaters worldwide and the film received glowing reviews critically as well. It is currently available for viewing on DVD and in an excellent newly restored blu-ray edition from Powerhouse packed with special features. 

4 comments:

  1. I love your review and description of the many delights of this movie. You make me want to make a big bowl of popcorn and watch it right away!

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  2. I agree that Mysterious Island is one of Harryhausen's finest achievements. His marvelous special efforts are integrated well with the confines of a classic adventure tale. I quite like Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo and I love Harryhausen's design for the Nautilus. I don't know why this film isn't shown as often as the special effects wizard's other work, but I'm thrilled you have sung its praises on your blog.

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    Replies
    1. TCM does show it with the other Harryhausen classics fairly often.

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