Reviewing the highest-grossing film of the year (1916): 20000 Leagues Under the Sea

Reviewing the highest-grossing film of the year (1916): 20000 Leagues Under the Sea

Welcome back to our new series, where we take a look back at the highest-grossing films of each year. Sadly for us last time out we had to talk about A Birth of a Nation, which was 1915’s highest-grossing film. Today we turn to Stuart Paton’s 20000 Leagues Under The Sea.

Firstly, it might be wise to do some housekeeping here as many websites have a differing of opinion on what the highest-grossing film of 1916 was. The Box office was never properly recorded for D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, but it is noted for not being as successful as it should have been, as it did earn back the backers $2 million. This would have it fall short of 20,000 Leagues $8 million gross. So by virtue, we are going with the film that has a verified number beside it!

French scientist Professor Pierre Aronnax and his daughter have been asked to assist in finding a reported giant sea monster that has been rampaging through the seas. While on the American naval ship “Abraham Lincoln” they are attacked by said monster from below. They soon discover that said sea monster is in fact The Nautilus owned by Captain Nemo, who shows them the wonders of the oceans.

At the same time, soldiers in an Army Balloon are washed up and marooned on a mysterious island which has only one other occupant. A child seemingly raised by nature. Now if that seems like two different stories merged into one, then you would very much be right. It seems that Stuart Paton decided that not only was he going to adapt 20000 Leagues Under the Sea. But he was also going to give The Mysterious Island a truncated adaption at the same time. It does not make too much sense to do this as both stories had enough in them to carry their own feature film. In fact, we have seen these features a fair few times in the 104 years since.

Whether this was to ensure the film would obtain enough backing from financers is unsure, but it is one of the issues that exist with the film. Even if it is in a time when feature films were multiple shortened films, combined into one. The reason 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea performed so well at the box office is certainly not because of the combination of the two books, but for its technical feats. In essence, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea is almost the original Avatar. A technical triumph with a rehashed story. Let’s look in more to why it is seen as such a successful feat of technical filmmaking.

At the very beginning of the film, the audience is made very aware as to the fact they are going to be witnessing a technical marvel when we are told that the Williamson brothers have solved the secret to under-the-ocean photography. This solution was in fact airtight tubes and a mirror to help reflect the images. Still an unbelievable achievement and almost certainly the first time such camera use was placed into a feature film.

We are then informed that Jules Verne’s vision was the limit of imagination and impossibility, but he was simply born before his time as due to the technical advancements of the human race we are now able to show his vision as he truly envisioned it. Bold claims for sure, especially considering Verne himself had long passed away at this point.

Despite this, you have to be impressed with how they were able to film what they did, especially the underwater expedition scenes. 104 years may not seem a long time, but for technology, it might as well be 1000s. The visuals of The Nautilus are astounding. Never before had a film been able to be so confident in such a large body of water.

The audiences at the time must have been looking at the screens in wonder. How was this possible? Revisiting this era, and being a fan of silent films sum 100 years later, it is easy to forget how advanced this was for its time. We see underwater footage with a go pro, but the skill and effort required to have cameras underwater and on the water back then are simply masterful.

Image result for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea 1916 underwater

It really is such a shame that the story and acting fail the film in the way that it does. Allen Holubar plays Captain Nemo in this version and it is unavoidable to comment on the blackface used for him to portray his character. This is something I expect to have to comment on for the next 50 or so reviews in this series. In the books, Nemo is described as being swarthy skinned and from India, so why Holubar and Paton decided to allow him to be so dark is a tad confusing. Never the less, it is there and we know it shouldn’t be.

Holubar’s performance is as close as you can get to the exact opposite of what Nemo was written as by Verne. Nemo should be strong and commanding, yet here he is almost whimsy and very much as if Holubar thought he was acting in a comical stage play.

The rest of the cast is fine, but no one truly stands out and makes the film their own. A lot of over the top silent film acting, with little nuance, hurts the film greatly here. When a script that doesn’t help or even force the actors to up their game then we are going to see a lot of theatre acting instead. With a better cast, 20000 Leagues Under the Sea could have been known for far more than it’s technical elements. However much I can lambast the acting, the fact remains the screenplay is all over the place. With even a hint of Verne’s “Five Weeks in a Balloon” added into the story as well.

Taking so much from each novel really dilutes the entire piece sadly. When we are just getting adapted to life on the Nautilus and what Nemo is really like now he is being favourable to his “prisoners”, we are shunted away to Lieutenant Bond and his gaggle of merry men from The Mysterious Island story. Then after everyone is where they should be in that subplot, both stories collide (literally) and we finish with the ending of 20000 Leagues Under the Sea.

It again is such a shame from a story point of view. Today we most likely would have had two back to back features with Nemo or even a three films if Peter Jackson was involved to have a full arc for Nemo. Here we barely get to get to know him and the troubles he has had before the end.

In the end, the film is still very much worth your time and if you can spare 100 or so minutes then please watch the film, but I would be remiss if I didn’t lament on what could have been with such potential formed by Paton and the Williamson Brothers.


Reviewing the highest-grossing film of the year (1917): A Romance of the Redwoods

Reviewing the highest-grossing film of the year (1918): Mickey

Highest Grossing Films of each year: 1921 – The Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse ★★★

Highest-grossing Film of the Year: 1922 – Robin Hood ★★★

Highest grossing film of each year: The Covered Wagon (1923) ★★★

Highest Grossing Film of the year: 1924 – The Sea Hawk – ★★★★

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