Around the World in 80 Days: Is it Really the Worst Best Picture?

Premise: In 1976 Rocky won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It beat Taxi DriverAll the President’s MenBound for Glory, and Network. While most of us love Rocky, we do feel like there were definitely some better movies nominated that year that maybe deserved it more. Rocky was the safe pick.

Pakula? Scorsese? Ashby? Lumet? Who are they? I'm Sly!

Pakula? Scorsese? Ashby? Lumet? Who are they? I’m Sly!

Sometimes it’s a tough call. My Fair Lady beat Mary PoppinsBecketZorba the Greek, and Dr. Strangelove in 1964. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest beat JawsDog Day AfternoonNashville, and Barry Lyndon in 1975. Those years were anyone’s game.

On rare occasions I all-encompassingly agree with the Academy’s decision (e.g. On the Waterfront was an obvious win). Sometimes a winner is reviled or labeled “overrated” by folks were preferred other nominees (e.g. CrashRocky, etc.). Rarer still is the occasion when I must defend a snubbed winner.

I know exactly why Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is considered one of the worst Best Picture winners, but I am here to defend it. I’m in an awkward place because this is actually one of my favorite movies. . . but did it deserve the Oscar? Let’s take a look at the successes and shortcomings of Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days.

atw80d13 drink

*slurrrrp*

Perspective: 80 Days beat out Friendly Persuasion (Gary Cooper is a conflicted Quaker), Giant (James Dean finds oil), The King and I (Rodgers and Hammerstein ensure happy and balanced America-Thai relations FOREVER!…it’s actually still banned there, I think), and The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille makes the religious epic to end all religious epics).

Around the World in 80 Days was a bold widescreen period epic that employed nearly 70,000 extras and nearly 8,000 animals and required moving crews of thousands to relocate equipment and people to thirteen different countries. In addition to the wild costumes, exotic locations, and incredible set-pieces; countless Hollywood hotshots were given cameo bit parts throughout the film. Some movie star extras include Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Evelyn Keyes, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Noel Coward, Joe E. Brown, Trevor Howard, Sir John Gielgud, George Raft, Cesar Romero, Peter Lorre, Ronald Colman, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Jose Greco, Hermoine Gingold, Charles Boyer, Red Skelton, John Mills, Andy Devine, Jack Oakie, and more.

atw80d8 sinatra

“Sgt. Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known.”

Full Disclosure: Friendly Persuasion is good, but High Noon was the Gary Cooper film that should have won something. I actually haven’t seen Giant (yet), but I’m not a big Elizabeth Taylor fan and wonder if it really could be better than East of Eden for Dean flicks (my favorite). The King and I is a lavish, vibrant, and somewhat racist pageant show that boasts a few great songs and a lot of tedious bits. We can’t be too down on The King and I for racial mischaracterization because 80 Days is actually guilty of the same (and in way more countries). Finally, The Ten Commandments is an incredible visual feast with another epic cast list, and while I still do love a lot of the biblical melodrama and the impressive score, this film sometimes does feel too long (still maybe better paced than Ben-Hur though…but Ben-Hur is probably the better film).

atw80d14 bike

+5 points for penny-farthing.

I’ve heard it said that Around the World in 80 Days is proof you can buy an Oscar—due to its high production costs and lavish flourishes. But come on! The King and I and The Ten Commandments might be even more lavish and even flourishier. The only real difference here is that Around the World in 80 Days seems less pretentious.

I’m also somewhat biased because I do like travelogue adventures, Jules Verne, and levity.

The Skinny: Following a long prologue about the possibilities of technology and the influence of prophetic science-fiction writers on scientific progress, presented by Edward R. Murrow who shows us Georges Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon. . . our story finally begins.

There's a Visine for that.

There’s a Visine for that.

Phileas Fogg (David Niven) is an exceedingly punctual and fastidious 19th century British gentleman. On a whim over a game of whist he decides to prove to his aristocratic colleagues that he can successfully circumnavigate the earth in 80 days. The wager is set.

Fogg takes his amorous new servant, Passepartout (Cantinflas, the Mexican Charlie Chaplin), along for the ride.

Detective Fix (Robert Newton), a Scotland Yard agent under the suspicion that Fogg has robbed the Bank of England, pursues.

Despite the demands of the trek, Fogg and Passpartout manage to find the time to rescue an Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine) too.

Modes of transportation include trains, ships, coaches, hot air balloons, horses, ostriches, elephants, and more.

Lands traversed include England, France, Spain, India, China, Japan, the United States, and then some.

atw80d4-balloon landing

What do you mean matte paintings would be cheaper than all this travel?

The Good: The cast and characters themselves are great. So Shirley MacLaine isn’t exactly Indian, but Cantinflas certainly isn’t French (as he is described in the book). Niven is the perfect Fogg and Cantinflas is one of the most fun movie sidekicks of all time as Passepartout.

The film boasts some snappy dialogue, riddled with wit and smarm (one of the screenwriters was American humorist S. J. Perleman). There is an abundance of clever lines and welcome character moments. The script never let’s us forget the stakes or to remind us that it’s all for fun.

atw80d7 wager

So British it hurts.

The scenery is great and the film makes wonderful use of the widescreen photography. Remember, in 1956 most people hadn’t really seen much of the rest of the world. This was their chance to get the Disney-fied Haliburton experience from the comfort of a theater seat.

The film has a loose buoyancy to it and never loses its spirit of fun and adventure—even when the ubiquitous threat of immolation at the hands of politcally incorrect uncouthed savages looms large. There is a pleasing and self-depricating sense of patriotism for both Brits and Yanks alike. That it can manage to be both cavalier and suspenseful at the same time is something of a noteworthy feat as well.

This is a great album.

This is a great album.

The score is fantastic. Composer Victor Young creates wonderful atmosphere and momentum. There are several very memorable themes. Each country and character gets special musical treatment. Seriously, find the soundtrack and listen to it. It is sublime.

The great intro credits artist, Saul Bass, also provides a very fun cartoon at the end. . . that summarizes the entire three hour film in about seven minutes.

atw80d1

Saul Bass is amazing.

The Bad: The production itself is a staggering achievement and that this ambitious globe-trotting feature is not a mess are positives, however, there are some problems. The movie, perhaps by design, is structured in a fairly episodic manner (there are a lot of isolated mini-adventures throughout, but that seems unavoidable in a story like this. Heck, the original Jules Verne novel is crazy episodic).

atw80d11 stranded2

Cantinflas, Niven, Newton, and MacLaine wait for a train.

The film’s camera direction is actually stultifyingly unimaginative. Very basic shots. Establishing shots and two shots and wide shots. That’s about it. Nothing particularly inspired in the cinematography department, but it could be argued that the content being filmed was so impressively orchestrated that it needed no distracting angles or frills.

183 minutes is a long commitment and you notice more when scenes linger at that length. Most of the movie clips along nicely and there are very few boring scenes. The flight over France, the flamenco dance and bullfights in Spain, and the train ride through the Indian jungle, however, as great as they are, do feel like they go on a tad too long. Perhaps they were just so taken with what they were filming they couldn’t bring themselves to cut it.

atw80d12 train

Sir Topham Hatt blew his whistle, but Percy kept on chugging, defiant to the end.

Some of the cultural representations might feel a little insensitive today. The angry mob that chases Passepartout after he shoos a cow in India; the bloodthirsty Native Americans attacking the train; German actor Peter Lorre being Japanese (a reference to his Mr. Moto days).

The ending is really perplexing. It’s funny, I guess, but even as a kid it felt tonally wrong. The last thirty seconds of this three hour movie are just so bafflingly off that if it wasn’t for the Saul Bass cartoon that immediately followed I reckon even more people would dislike this movie. You can’t invest three hours into something that is going to be written off so flippantly and strangely in the homestretch. It’s a decent joke, but it just comes at the wrong time.

The Leftovers: The novelty of seeing all those old Hollywood celebrities comprise the background atmosphere may have lost some its luster over time as many of the then-famous faces are now unknown to many today.

atw80d5 henrietta

The suspenseful journey across the Atlantic is one of my favorite sequences in the movie.

It’s not a great anthropological exploration of the many cultures around the world, but it’s not really trying to be (more a series of snapshots). With regards to its hasty and generalizing representations it can be likened to the It’s a Small World ride at Diseneyland. Oversimplified, but, in the words of Douglas Adams, mostly harmless.

So what is it? It’s an adventure movie, a road movie, a comedy, a joking prod at British classism, a wild western movie, a suspense movie, and tack on a somewhat limited romance as well.

Ultimately: I suspect people think that Giant or The Ten Commandments should have won. I suspect they feel that Around the World in 80 Days was too light and fun to be important and too sweeping and grandiose while failing to be more artistic. I suspect they feel it was gimmicky and perhaps kitsch. Too broadly painted to be taken seriously.

atw80d9 colman

New plan: the team from Guns of Navarone will free the Prisoner of Zenda.

Honestly, Around the World in 80 Days is not a perfect movie. It has its flaws, but for me it still is a great feel-good crowd-pleaser. When I was a little kid borrowing this from my local library I had no idea it was such a hotly contested Oscar winner. I didn’t even know what the Oscars were or that it had won. Perhaps I am too nostalgic for it, but I think you’d have to have a heart of stone to hate this movie.

Maybe The Ten Commandments should have won. I don’t know. It’s not like the Oscars actually have any bearing over how good or bad a film really is. The Court Jester, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters! weren’t even nominated that year (because comedy, science fiction, and atomic parables with giant lizards are not high art).

Thus saith the Lord.

Thus saith the Lord.

There have been plenty of wins, and even nominations, I didn’t particularly care for. There have also been plenty of movies I thought were great that never even got nominated. Does the say-so of “The Academy” really matter? Maybe not. So for all those haters out there who like to downplay Around the World in 80 Days, let me just remind you: get over it.

And while I still think Network and the other 1976 nominees were better than Rocky I don’t begrudge Rocky. Good for Rocky. But I have my alternative preferences.

picture references:

http://wall.alphacoders.com/by_sub_category.php?id=172040

http://floobynooby.blogspot.kr/2012/04/saul-bass-1920-1996.html

http://tehparadox.com/forum/f89/around-world-80-days-1956-a-5139594/

http://thebestpictureproject.wordpress.com/tag/red-sea/

http://silentlondon.co.uk/2011/05/23/a-trip-to-the-moon-and-silent-animated-shorts-at-the-barbican-26-june-2011/

http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1435873280/tt0048960?ref_=ttmd_md_nxt

http://www.complex.com/pop-culture/2013/02/worst-movies-that-won-oscars/around-the-world-in-80-days

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” on May 20, 2014.

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It’s About Time

Future Thanksgiving

Future Thanksgiving

H.G. Wells’ stories have been adapted countless times from the good, James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933), to the not so good, Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods (1976). My personal favorite movie take on Wells is The Island of Lost Souls (1932). Arguably, however, his most famous novels were War of the Worlds (adapted into okay but flawed films in 1953 and in 2005) and The Time Machine (adapted most famously in 1960 and 2002).

It's right behind me, isn't it.

It’s right behind me, isn’t it.

Originally published in 1895, The Time Machine, like most of H.G. Wells’ books was more a social commentary than straight up science-fiction. If Jules Verne was more about the possibilities and potential of science untethered, then Wells was brimming with parables condemning contemporary mores. In the story we meet the Time Traveler, a turn of the century man (like Wells himself) who gets the opportunity—via the eponymous time machine—to see what the world is destined to become.

One ring to rule them all...

One ring to rule them all…

In the future, the Time Traveler encounters two subdivisions of humanity. Evolution has divided the human race into the blissfully ignorant, childish, and decadent Eloi and the subterranean, industrial predators known as the Morlocks. Knowing a thing or two about Victorian classism helps illuminate what the tale is really about. The Eloi are the ultimate conclusion of the aristocracy—they care little and know less and they live lavish lifestyles with no work so they become ambitionless and infantile. The Morlocks are where the workers are headed—spending their entire lives in dehumanizing factories, never seeing the light of day. The irony is that in the Time Traveler’s era, the rich exploit the working class and in the future the rich have become the docile cattle for the cannibalistic proletariat.

While I like and dislike things about both the 1960 and the 2002 versions of The Time Machine, regrettably this cuttingly dark satirical element is never quite expressed in either.

time machine10

I miss you, Lolita.

The Good

The 1960 version of The Time Machine, directed by George Pal (War of the Worlds), stars Rod Taylor (The Birds) as the inventor. His Victorian gentlemen pals think he’s insane when he proposes the impossible idea of time travel. Sebastion Cabot (The Jungle Book) and Alan Young (Mr. Ed) memorably play two of his skeptical friends. It is through Young’s character (Filby), the sensitive and affable bookend, that gives this film the heart it needed.

The time travel sequences themselves are great and wonderfully executed (copious usage of stop-motion and time-lapse photography). The wild plains, vegetation-overgrown minimalist future-buildings, and the Morlock sphinxes are atmospheric and good as well.

Filby and  VOX

Filby and VOX

The 2002 version also has some good points to it. It was directed by H.G.’s great-grandson, Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt), and starred Guy Pearce (Memento). They up the stakes a tad by giving the inventor a deep, personal reason for building the time machine: his girlfriend is killed by a mugger. At first he goes back in time to save her, but he cannot seem to change the past. If he averts danger once she will only be killed in a different way. He then travels forward in time to the future to find the answer to why he cannot change the past.

This premise is actually pretty good. Like the 1960 movie, he stops in the near future first and witnesses the effects of war and progress, but he also meets a holographic librarian (Orlando Jones) who helps provide necessary exposition and some subtle comic relief. The librarian character is totally new and I actually think he services and amplifies the story in an innovative way.

Again, the time travel sequences are really well done (this time with computerized special effects). The impressive images and swelling score captures the breadth of change on a cultural and geological scale.

1.21 gigawatts?!

1.21 gigawatts?!

Lastly, the Time Machine itself. Both films feature similar designs for the title apparatus. Both feature a barbershop chair, home-made doorknob cranks, a spinning mechanical calendar, and a huge disc positioned behind the passenger. Rod Taylor’s machine looks a bit like a steampunk swamp-mobile and Guy Pearce’s incorporates two large, spinning thingies that create a time envelope around the entire machine (looks like a shiny, giant hamster ball). Seriously, both time machine designs are awesome.

The Bad

I insist both films have some great setups and great gadgets and both Time Travelers are played by fine actors and both have at least one solid supporting cast member. Their depictions of Victorian England/New York are well done and the time travel sequences are fantastic. But then we get to the future. Both Time Travelers make a few pleasant and intriguing stops along the way before the year 802,701 AD, but once at their final destination the films seem to be on autopilot.

time machine comparison 2

Everything leading up to 802,701 had been changed or expanded upon from the original novel. The changes were appropriate and added dimension and soul. But Wells’ future loses all social significance in both films and the filmmakers (George Pal and Simon Wells) seem unsure of what to do with the Eloi and the Morlocks and the context of two opposing races of humans where one feeds on the other.

While neither film gets the Eloi or the Morlocks quite right, the 1960 version does come closer. Both versions insist on making the Eloi too human, while the book describes them as nonverbal alien babies with no long-term or short-term memory. But all movies seem to require romance and since he cannot fall in love with a Morlock, the Time Traveler naturally develops feelings for an Eloi girl (Weena, played by Yvette Mimieux in 1960 and Mara, played by Samantha Mumba in 2002). In the 1960 version, Rod Taylor gets appropriately frustrated with the Eloi and eventually pities them and their broken culture. In 2002, Guy Pearce is just innocently learning the ways of a somewhat naive but defined culture that vaguely resembles Native American societies. . . or Ewoks.

Mumba vs. Mimieux

I understand why they humanized the Eloi so much. The filmmakers probably don’t think an audience would go for our protagonist being truly alone with no real good guys versus bad guys. That said, the Morlocks also suck. 1960 has blue, dopey sumo guys with furry arms and lovehandles—but their eyes do glow! They also get killed way too easily to be scary, but at least their design in more interesting than in the 2002 version.

time machine morlocks

The newer movie has boring, beige, gorilla-like Morlocks that are big but not scary. . . until we meet the Uber-Morlock, played by Jeremy Irons (The Mission). Irons is the smartest person in this future and he is able to relate all the horrors of the past few millenia and even is able to answer the Time Traveler’s question. Unfortunately he only has about 5 minutes of screentime and his character feels tacked on (because the movie needed a clear villain).

The 1960 version has a Rod Serling-esque nightmare Eloi harvest. A siren calls the complacent Eloi to parade quietly into the Morlock sphinxes. It is an inbred Pavlovian memory of the air-raid sirens that told their ancestors to flee underground. The 2002 update rips off The Planet of Apes (1968) round up scene. Big guys in suits chase and capture dudes who look like extras from Apocalypto.

time machine12

Stand back. There’s a giant Bugs Bunny around here somewhere.

Ultimately

I actually like both films to a degree. I really do enjoy the George Pal version from 1960, despite a weaker third act (that is somewhat resurrected through Morlock massacre and Filby’s adorable conclusion back in the past). The structure is good and it’s a very well done science-fiction film that just loses its way ever so slightly after 802,701 AD. It’s a solid movie that might underplay the social satire and not do justice to the Eloi or the Morlocks, but it makes up for it with great characters, atmosphere, and pleasant bookends.

And that's how I did it.

And that’s how I did it.

The Simon Wells 2002 adaptation has a solid and thoughtful beginning and setup that unfortunately devolves into a weak action movie after 802,701. It royally screws up the Eloi and removes the darkness from the Morlocks (with the exception of the added Jeremy Irons character in the homsetretch). It doesn’t totally work, but it doesn’t totally suck either. It just can’t consistently deliver the goods the way it should.

For all their flaws, both movies have some charm, pleasing eye candy, and add some of their own intriguing elements to Wells’ original novel. The Morlocks as depicted in Wishbone were better, but I’d still recommend checking out these guys again.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 30th, 2013.

See, Here’s the Thing…from Another World

The face of science fiction is an ever-evolving curiosity. Every era brings something new and exciting. Whether it is Jules Verne or Isaac Asimov that tickles your fancy, you like your science fiction clever and full of wonder. If you like space aliens, suspense, and sharp dialogue you will love the Howard Hawks’ film, The Thing from Another World (1951).

When you examine the ambitious roots of the sci-fi flick it’s really quite a wonder. Science fiction, by nature has to be audacious. That’s what I loved about the Victorian era of science fiction: space was still full of immeasurable potential and possibilities. When Georges Melies made his amazing Trip to the Moon in 1902 the world got a taste for what worlds beyond could look like. The bulk of early science fiction movies explored the wonder and awesome possibilities of outer space. By the time the 1950s rolled around space still held a lot of wonder and excitement, but there was also increased fear and the movies became more ominous, foreboding, and frightening. The movies began reflecting fears of communism, wars, etc. Rather than bold scientists traveling to the moon, this next tier of science fiction dealt more with the warning and horrors of spacemen coming to our planet. . . and turning out to be not so friendly. I think this concept was best encapsulated in The Thing From Another World.

The Thing has it all. An alien flying saucer crash-lands in The Arctic Circle near a military research base (or something. . . it really doesn’t matter). An alien (James Arness), encased in a block of ice, is retrieved from the spacecraft. It is brought back to the base to be studied more closely. Before long, an absent-minded soldier (suspecting the creature to be staring at him through the ice) flees his post and leaves an electric blanket on the ice block. Naturally the thaw is accelerated and the creature escapes his frozen prison. It soon becomes very apparent that this is a miraculous yet dangerous discovery so we naturally get the classic tri-corner conflict: the military who wants to destroy it to protect humanity vs. the scientist who is blinded by the possibilities of contact with an alien race and will sacrifice humanity to keep the contact alive vs. the reporter who just wants to get the scoop.

The alien is ubiquitous, but rarely seen—except for a few key scenes—and requires the blood of animals and people to sustain life. The scientist, Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), soon discovers that the space creature is more plant than animal. The scientist also discovers (but keeps it to himself) that the alien has shed spores to grow more creatures like it. Carrington, believing the creature to be superior to mankind, wants to communicate with it and allow it to take over the earth. Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), will not allow the creature to go on killing innocent people. The reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), can’t get a single clear picture of the monster. And there’s your trifecta.

Did I mention that the monster was also radioactive? Didn’t have to, right? Because it’s a 50s science fiction movie! You already knew. The radioactivity shtick is more than just a gimmick to be topical in this movie, however. They use it in a very clever way. There is a Geiger counter that ticks and crackles louder and louder whenever the creature gets closer. This adds a welcome dose of suspense and it is used to great affect.

As a blizzard limits their mobility, the monster continues to suck the blood of the captain’s men and sled dogs while it also systematically cutting off their power, forcing the people into smaller and smaller confines on the base. If you saw Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) you may spot some similarities: a rarely seen phantom monster bumps off characters in gruesome ways while slowly cutting off the supplies and places to hide and getting closer and closer. Same thing, except instead of being trapped in outer space they’re trapped in a research base in the frozen arctic. The 1982 remake of The Thing put its own twists on things. John Carpenter’s The Thing is more of a reimagining of the Howard Hawks original. The remake has the creature replicating people and infiltrating the base in even more horrific ways. It’s a gross out feature with some great, disturbing special effects from Rob Bottin and Kurt Russell in mascara. Some days I like John Carpenter’s version even better than the original, but not today.

So we’ve covered the basics of this film: a blood-sucking six-foot vegetable man is roaming around the tundra and many people are all locked inside a rapidly shrinking base awaiting their fates. The scientist wants to preserve the monster at all costs and the military wants to stop it from killing again. All the classic moves, but what makes this particular film stand apart from the hundreds of other spaceman movies that came out around this time? Answer: the characters and the writing. While a lot of 50s sci-fi horror is campy and loopy and loves its stoically wooden protagonists, The Thing From Another World is firstly interested in the people. It’s not all about the monster out there in the snow. This movie is more about the human struggle to find reason and understanding amongst each other. There is a lack of trust between many of the main characters (mainly from Dr. Carrington) and this leads to many a great debate about the significance or insignificance of the human race. I’ve painted the characters rather broadly in this article, but I assure you they have much more dimension than the strict ideologies they represent. Then there’s the writing. When I first saw this film at around age 14 I was actually really impressed with the sharp, witty dialogue. I was used to the more hokey aphorism-riddled verbal interplay of the standard old-timey B-movie (a genre I actually really like) and was taken aback that they had gone for more. The story is fascinating and tightly woven and the characters are all fully realized (there may be a bit of melodramatic acting here and there, but that’s all part of the fun).

The Thing from Another World is also genuinely suspenseful and thrilling. It has some very memorable and chilling scenes. Whether it be a group of soldiers and scientists standing around the shadow of the flying saucer buried in the snow, or an ice-covered eye glaring relentlessly at a frightened guard, or a twitching severed vegetable hand on an operating table, or ominously pulsing alien pods growing in a closet, this film has the cards to play and knows exactly when to play them. We don’t see the monster often, but you won’t be bored with the human element (a criminal mistake of many a forgettable B-movie is to make the monster immensely more enjoyable than the people and then never showing it). It’s not by chance that The Thing is regarded as a classic. I think it is one of the best representations from this genre.

So if you loved Alien (1979) or John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing (1982) or if you love the older classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), This Island Earth (1955), and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) or if you just always wondered what they were watching on the TV set in that one scene from Halloween (1978) then check out The Thing from Another World (1951). It’s a very enjoyable film and I think you’ll like it.

picture references:

ferdyonfilms.com

eons.com

homestead.com

dvdtimes.co.uk

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 6, 2010