Behind the Scenes of Disney’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’

“Giant squid astern, sir!” When I was in grade school and full speed ahead in appreciation of the imaginative writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, I was exposed at the perfect time to Disney’s “mightiest motion picture of them all,” 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. I get excited just thinking about watching that movie as a kid.

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The 1954 film — in Cinemascope and Technicolor! — promised an adventure “from that fathomless world of infinite mystery and unearthly beauty which man has yet to discover,” according to the trailer. It stars James Mason as the mysterious Captain Nemo “who held the destiny of the world in his hands” with his deadly, high-tech Nautilus submarine; rescued by Nemo after their ship is destroyed by the Nautilus, Professor Pierre Aronnax of the Paris Institute (played by Paul Lukas), his loyal assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) and “master harpooner” Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) go on an underwater adventure as reluctant guests of Nemo. As they travel beneath the depths, they learn to see the advantages of ocean life, as well as the disadvantages of above-water civilization, from the determined captain’s twisted point of view; a man driven to destroy civilization’s war machine to save countless masses, Nemo’s steadfast motivation to kill in order to save lives makes for an interesting conundrum.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 16.jpg20,000 LEAGUES was first proposed to be an animated adventure, but Walt Disney changed his mind with an aim to ramp up live-action production on his home turf of Burbank, CA after producing several successful, low-budget live-action films in England, including 1950’s TREASURE ISLAND and 1952’s ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN.

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In order to make 20,000 LEAGUES, he would have to build brand-new soundstages, as his studio was only equipped to produce animated films at the time. Still, he had to borrow space from nearby lots at Universal and 20th Century Fox to accommodate the scope of his project, which he storyboarded from start to finish — an unprecedented endeavor requiring 1,300-plus drawings. The film crew also ventured out on location to Nassau in the Bahamas for certain underwater scenes, including the sea funeral, and to Jamaica for the cannibal island scenes. With an unusually long shooting schedule, the production amounted to be one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time at a cost of approximately $9 million.**

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I’ve always been enthralled by the exciting sequence in which a giant squid attacks the Nautilus and the crew must surface to battle it amid a violent sea storm. Even more enthralling to me are the behind-the-scenes photos taken on the soundstage as they filmed 20,000 LEAGUES. Wind machines at the ready alongside a giant water tank containing a piece of the Nautilus and the unmoving giant rubber squid, you’ll notice crew members lounging about as they wait for the next set-up.

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This shot of a tired-looking James Mason traipsing across the Nautilus deck while a pair of crew members discuss rigging — while the benign, giant rubber squid waits its turn to be activated by wire pullies and air hoses — remains my all-time favorite.

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Interestingly, the entire above-water squid attack sequence was reshot after it was determined that the first effort — a battle that took place against a backdrop of calm waters at sunset — lacked the appropriate amount of drama. Walt Disney himself felt the resulting melee looked fake and forced after seeing a test screening. Thus, the sequence was retooled, causing a six-week delay and an additional $200,000 expense to the budget. The second, final effort featured gale-force winds, white-capped waves, and plenty of seawater in the faces of the valiant fighting Nautilus crew, set against murky, dark blue skies.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 17.jpgYou can watch the final squid fight scene HERE. Much more exciting, and much more terrifying! And you can watch the original, salvaged “Sunset Squid Sequence” footage HERE. Very interesting to watch, and very obvious why they decided to reshoot it.

Disney’s classic design of the Nautilus submarine, courtesy of production designer Harper Goff (who envisioned a cross between a shark and an alligator), not only defined quintessential steampunk with its brass rivets and Victorian-era, future technology, but it helped to inspire a beloved Disney World 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA ride that ran from 1971-1994. Walt Disney originally wanted a more streamlined, tube-like Nautilus like the one described in Jules Verne’s novel, but Goff won him over given the scrap-metal practicality of the design.

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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA was released right before Christmas in 1954 to mostly positive reviews and was a big hit at the box office, although it did not initially recoup its cost due to its inflated production budget. At the Academy Awards, it picked up Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects and was also nominated for Best Film Editing. Of course, there was a tidal wave of tie-in toys, books, records, games, and other promotional items made available, which now are in-demand collector’s items.

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**Thanks to TCM’s great making-of 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA article for additional details, facts, and figures.

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One thought on “Behind the Scenes of Disney’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’

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  1. This is arguably my favorite film of all time for all the reasons you reference in the article. Like you, I saw the film theatrically in the 1970s (before Star Wars) and it lodged in my brain as only certain movies can. Great insight into behind the scenes of this epic, important and classic movie!

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