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Mysterious Island

Year: 1961  Company: Columbia Pictures   Runtime: 101′
Director: Cy Endfield   Writers: John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman, Crane Wilbur
Music: Bernard Herrmann   Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper
Cast: Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan, Gary Merrill,
Herbert Lom, Beth Rogan, Percy Herbert, Dan Jackson
Disc company: Twilight Time   Video: 1080p 1.66:1   Audio: DTS HD-MA 5.1 and 1.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH   Disc: BD50 (All Region)   Release Date: 11/08/2011
Mysterious Island is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com
The Wtf-Film Guide to Essential Blu-ray is the record of one man’s eclectic journey to uncover the very best of the weird and wonderful that Blu-ray has to offer. The special effects of Ray Harryhausen had to make it onto our list sooner or later, and we’re pleased as punch that it’s the former.

1961′s Mysterious Island begins with one of the great scenes of fantasy-adventure cinema. Imprisoned by Confederate forces in the midst of the Siege of Richmond near the end of the Civil War, Union Captain Cyrus Harding and his underlings, freed slave Corporal Neb and the cowardly Herbert Brown, decide to make a daring escape by the unlikely means of an observation balloon. With Union war correspondent Gideon Spillet and Confederate operator Pencroft in tow the men escape their cell and commandeer the balloon, only to launch themselves into the midst of ‘the greatest storm in American history’. Aloft for days and trapped on a steady course Westward, the escapees are savaged by weather and circumstance until the balloon itself finally gives way, ripping under the pressure of gale-force winds and plunging its crew towards the tumultuous Pacific and a mysterious, uncharted speck of land.

Buoyed by the descending bass and percussive clash of one of Bernard Herrmann’s finest fantasy scores, I remember thinking that this sequence was the most suspenseful, thrilling thing I had ever seen when I first chanced upon the film as a young child. The idea of these men, casting themselves out into the elements toward some unknown, foreboding locale, was harrowing stuff, and as their epic adventure unfolded I was filled with dread excitement. As they dangled from the balloon’s rigging over a seething sea I wondered with fatal curiosity, how would they survive, and who among them? And what if they did make it to that strange island. What then?

Of course Captain Harding and his rag-tag band of castaways do make it to the island, and what follows is a potent mix of survival adventure, science fiction and fantasy that thrills me just as much today as it ever has. Mysterious Island may follow the Vernian adventure on which it is based with only a middling accuracy, condensing and consolidating its events in an economical fashion and taking some pretty judicious liberties with it along the way, but it’s tough to complain when such diversions include the lovely Beth Rogan and her abbreviated lace-up goatskin dress (the height of Victorian fashion, I’m told). Oddly enough it’s one of the film’s many deviations from source that has gone on to make the film so beloved as it is – a sci-fi plot thread that could almost be of Bert I. Gordon’s invention, but which is elevated to the level of pulp genius under the creative auspices of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Though with some obvious variation, Mysterious Island actually follows the basic circumstances of Verne’s story quite faithfully. Captain Harding and his fellows find themselves castaways on an uninhabited volcanic island, and are forced to allay those philosophical differences that plagued them in the civilized world so that they might join forces to survive. Through human ingenuity the five manage to scrounge together a rather satisfying existence, feasting on the island’s often bizarre fauna and taking up permanent residence in a comfortable cliff-side cave they call ‘Granite House’. Along the way they are aided by unlikely coincidences, like the discovery of a trunk loaded with supplies – tools, weapons, and even a copy of The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. After a brief tangle with cutthroat pirates ends in the inexplicable destruction of the pirate vessel the source of the coincidences is revealed. The island is the home port of none other than Captain Nemo, who was thought lost in a maelstrom some years before. With his submarine Nautilus inoperable Nemo was forced to continue his mission for global peace from the confines of the island and its surrounding waters, stalling his terrorist action against the world’s military fleets in favor of eradicating of the root causes of human strife through scientific invention.

Though ostensibly escapist adventure, there are some underlying themes in Mysterious Island that, though largely ignored today, must have held broad appeal in a time of Cold War and civil rights unrest. Nary half a decade after Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board of Education Mysterious Island prominently features an African American (a freed slave fighting for the Union, no less) with the same rights and privileges as his white peers – a fixture of Verne’s novel granted a newfound timeliness in the film adaptation. Indeed, the screenplay by John Prebble, Daniel B. Ullman and Crane Wilbur also simplifies the politics of the Civil War, purposefully conflating its noble struggle to free men with the contemporary Civil Rights Movement. In the context of an ongoing Cold War, Mysterious Island offers the hope of reconciliation among political ideologies by virtue of the relationship between Captain Harding and Confederate soldier Pencroft, each of whom begin the film as a prisoner of the other side only to set aside their philosophical differences for a greater good. So, too, does the character of Nemo offer hope, in converting a destructive weapon (the submarine Nautilus) into a tool for peace – if contemporary science could create the atomic and hydrogen bombs that threatened the world, then perhaps it had the power to save the world from them as well.

All that said, Mysterious Island is still ostensibly an escapist adventure with overtones of fantasy and science fiction, and that which lends it thematic weight also serves as a catalyst for some of its most exciting moments. Captain Nemo’s efforts to eradicate human suffering through science have left his island teeming with an assortment of gigantic flora and fauna, from harmless overgrown plants and oysters to the giant crabs, honeybees and flightless birds that threaten the existence of Harding and his castaways. It’s a plot thread concocted purely to take advantage of the talents of effects artisan Harryhausen, who had pretty perfected his stop motion process (now touted as Dynamation) with the color spectacle The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. By 1961 Harryhausen was at the top of his game, precisely blending live-action back and foreground plates with his meticulously crafted stop motion armatures to create spectacular special effects scenes that even the more obscenely budgeted epics of the time couldn’t match.

In Mysterious Island his work feels like a response to the big bug pictures that had been so popular in the years just prior, with Harryhausen answering the poor travelling matte grasshoppers of Beginning of the End and the monolithic composited arachnid of Tarantula! with a few gigantic creepy crawlies of his own. In the film’s most famous sequence, stills of which populate no end of children’s monster books, Harding and his crew are forced to do battle with an enormous land crab – a scene which concludes with the castaways dining on the beast after it falls into a hot spring. Truer to the giant bug pedigree are a host of car-sized honeybees, which trap young heartthrob Michael Callan and hottie Beth Rogan in the mother of all honeycombs. Later on Harryhausen takes a moment to reference both Verne’s giant squid and his own past work, as a walk on the sea floor leads into a life-and-death struggle with a colossal chambered nautilus. More than just an homage to the sensational squid attack from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, itself entering film history in Disney’s spectacular adaptation, the creature design closely resembles that of one of Harryhausen’s own creations – the city-smashing cepholapod of 1955′s It Came From Beneath the Sea.

Aside from Harryhausen’s considerable talents, Mysterious Island also serves as a colorful showcase for all manner of practical visual effects techniques. Filmed partly on gorgeous coastal Spanish locations and partly on the sound stages of England’s Shepperton Studios, Mysterious Island bridges the considerable gaps between A and B and expands its fictional locale with exceptional matte paintings, composite and miniature work. Indeed, the epic balloon escape that so thrilled me as a child is accomplished through a succession of opticals and process shots, the transparency of which do nothing to impede the experience. With modern expectations in mind there is the temptation to label such vintage effects methods as crude or unrealistic, but as I grow older I become more acutely aware of just how overrated realism is in cinema – especially with regards to such overtly fictional stuff as this. While there’s a concerted effort by the technicians to ensure that the various mattes and miniatures match to the scale sets and locations the effects themselves are more suggestive than literal, the cinematic equivalent of the illustrated plates published in the stories and novels that came before. As such I’d suggest that those tempted to question the methods by which human conflicts with gigantic arthropods and impossible transcontinental balloon trips are related are perhaps missing the point of the experience, and would do well to occupy their time elsewhere.

For my money Mysterious Island is fantastic, beautiful stuff, and a pitch-perfect example of the lost art of fantasy filmmaking as it once was. It’s hard to believe that it’s been a full fifty years since it originally premiered, but the taught direction of Cy Endfield (Sands of the Kalahari, Zulu) and a screenplay that’s both wittier and more substantial than I remember have certainly helped it to age more gracefully than it might have otherwise. Much as the novel from which it was (freely) adapted has become a classic of literature, Mysterious Island deserves its place as classic of cinema escapism. For those keen on the rousing genre excursions of old it’s an absolute must-see.

Just in time to celebrate the film’s fiftieth anniversary, Mysterious Island makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of independent collector’s label Twilight Time (in conjunction with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) in a limited run of only 3000. This arrangement won’t be to everyone’s taste, particularly in that it means a high retail price point, a contractually limited slate of extras, and venue exclusivity (it can only be officially had through Screen Archives Entertainment), but the plain fact of that matter is that licensor Sony, after the marginal enthusiasm their previous Harryhausen Blu-rays inspired, had no great interest in releasing this film to Blu-ray themselves. While I’m sure their agreement leaves Sony open to releasing the film in the future, if they should so desire, those wanting Mysterious Island on Blu-ray now (and I’m among them) will find this Twilight Time release to be their only option. Fortunately it’s a good one!

There are those who may worry that Twilight Time have been left to their own devices with regards to the transfers they’re working from, but that’s happily not the case. They’ve instead been granted access to the latest studio masters of the titles they’ve licensed. In the case of Mysterious Island that means a comprehensive 50th anniversary restoration courtesy of Sony’s second-to-none archive restoration team. There is always talk of restorations bringing films back to their original luster, but effort here really goes beyond the call of duty. I can state unequivocally that Mysterious Island has never looked so good as it does on this disc, ever, and that fans of these colorful Harryhausen effects vehicles are in for a downright exhilarating experience.

Past editions of Mysterious Island have all suffered from a variety of damage, from flicker and general aging of the elements to the specks, flecks, dust and scratches that were baked right into the film’s extensive optical printing effects from the start. I know my comparison below is not ideal – I’m forced to rely on a compressed archival copy of the 2002 DVD, having seemingly lost my original – but it does reveal the obsessive extent to which the restorers have gone to remedy the issue of print damage. The third comparison set shows one of the film’s many optical effects, one which, like the rest, was possessed of a good deal of blemishes and imperfections from the start. You’ll note that in the new restoration practically every hint of damage has been successfully removed. Such is the case even with the classic Dynamation stop motion sequences, as evidenced by the final comparison set. Specks and blemishes present in the original back projection and rephotographed during the Dynamation process have been carefully removed, leaving the footage looking even crisper and cleaner than it was when originally produced. That isn’t to say that there’s absolutely no damage to be found in this new restoration of Mysterious Island, which does present with some minor white speckling at times, but the improvements in this regard are striking.

More impressive still is the attention paid to the film’s rich and at times eccentric color design, from the white sands and pure blue skies of the coastal Spanish locations to the fantastical studio interiors, punctuated with unreal shades of yellow, red, blue and green. Whether the result of the telecine process or of fading of the elements themselves, the 2002 DVD edition had some color shifting that resulted in an overly yellow appearance. Comparison set two shows perhaps the most obvious and widest breadth of improvement. Everything from Spillet’s light white undershirt to background rock, foliage, and water has lost its yellow tinge, resulting in purer shades of white, grey, green, and so on, while flesh tones have shifted from the overly orange hues of the DVD into more natural territory. Contrast is similarly improved, with what had before been a comparatively flat image alive with rich, deep blacks and more pronounced highlights (see the third comparison set again). The sum experience of the color restoration here is utterly breathtaking, with ace cinematographer Wilkie Cooper’s dynamic photography more vividly represented than ever. Other aspects of the restoration improve in a manner more typical to these comparisons between standard and high definition. Detail takes a healthy bump upwards, bolstered by the healthier contrast and increased resolution, and the at times considerable grain inherent to the original production is blessedly retained.

Beyond the source restoration, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a robust technical specimen as well. The 1.66:1 1080p image is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, with the feature plus audio taking up more than 30 GB of space on disc. The image is AVC-encoded with a strong average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps, and the encode frequently lazes about in the upper 30s. You’ll have to look long and hard to find any technical deficiencies in the image, as Twilight Time have ensured that the film receives a very strong presentation. Thanks to its meticulous restoration and beefy technical specs Mysterious Island may well be the strongest a Harryhausen film has appeared yet on Blu-ray.

HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool at a quality setting of 95%. The three DVD screenshots are sourced from my compressed archive copy of Columbia Tristar’s DVD from 2002 (my original disc is somehow missing in action – sorry!), and were captured in .png format in VLC, upconverted to 1920×1080 and saved as .png in GIMP, then compressed to .jpg using the same method as for the HD screenshots.
DVD | Blu-ray

More Blu-ray Screenshots:

While it may be the best looking, Mysterious Island is inarguably the best sounding of the Harryhausen films currently available on the format. The primary track for the feature is a new, restored 5.1 surround mix presented in lossless DTS-HD MA at an average bitrate of around 3 and half Mbps. I’m generally not much a fan of these 5.1 remixes, but this track is a stunner, with more breadth and depth of auditory potential than anything that’s come before – none of that even comes close! The foley work remains consistent with the original monophonic recording, never sounding out of place for a film of this vintage, and all of the dialogue and effects come across crisply and cleanly. The biggest beneficiary of the bump to 5.1 DTS-HD MA, however, is Bernard Herrmann’s tremendous score – for my money the best of the four he composed for Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen. The opening theme, repeated throughout with some variation, blew my mind when I first saw Mysterious Island as a child, and no other viewing of the film has touched that nostalgic experience until now. As Herrmann’s score clashed forth over the classic Columbia logo I felt a chill run down my spine – terrific stuff. With purists in mind Twilight Time have also preserved the originally monophonic recording courtesy a lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 track. Though it obviously loses the LFE of its 5.1 counterpart, which is particularly notable in the music department, this restored track still sounds very good, and is well in advance of the 2002 DVD. Whether you’re fond of original recordings or surround remixes, Twilight Time has you covered. They’ve even included a set of optional English SDH subtitles, leaving me no room to complain.

As noted earlier, Twilight Time are contractually obligated with regards to the supplements they can provide, so Mysterious Island is predictably limited in that department. In terms of complementing video the disc presents both the original theatrical trailer and an imaginatively bizarre 1-minute television spot, each of which are presented in native 1080p AVC encodes (at 1.66:1 and pillarboxed 4:3 respectively) with lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 audio. The only other extra is a big one, an isolated original score track (in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo!) that accompanies the feature. There’s an interesting mix here, with some cues accompanied by sound effects (a la the old Laserdisc edition) and others not. For its part the music here sounds terrific, and those who don’t already own the soundtrack will find much to love here. My one complaint is that the isolated score only appears to be accessible from the disc’s main menu (there is no pop-up that I could find), and plays as a separate timeline from which the audio for the film is likewise inaccessible. Small potatoes, but some may find it bothersome. The package is accompanied by a lovely booklet of film stills and liner notes (all too rare a thing these days) by Julie Kirgo, and my order arrived with a Mysterious Island refrigerator magnet (which replicates the attractive cover art for this release) as well.

There has been some grumbling about the rise of short run ’boutique’ labels like Twilight Time and Olive Films in the home video market, much of it arising from the perceived high price of their releases. In my mind that’s just the cost of doing this sort of business, and if Warner can charge $20 a pop for burned DVD-R of their own catalogue titles then $34.95 for an independently produced limited run Blu-ray of a big-studio title like Mysterious Island seems fair enough. I’ve put my money where my mouth is in this case, happily shelling out the nearly $40 it cost to put a copy on my shelf even though I knew I had a screener en route. It’s a matter of principle. I want to support those companies that release the movies I love, especially when they’re doing it well, and so long as Twilight Time continues to release them so proficiently as they have here I’ll have their back all the way. Now, if they can just find their way to The 3 Worlds of Gulliver, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad and The First Men in the Moon

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Excellent  Audio: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Bernard Herrmann score track, Theatrical Trailer, Television Spot
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case with booklet of liner notes.
Mysterious Island is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com

2 thoughts on “Mysterious Island

  1. A brilliant review. The film that changed my life, and pushed me to the work that I still am doing today. This blu ray is a masterwork, and your review confirms what I have seen and heard myself when watching this masterpiece of cinema.

  2. This is certainly one of the better cast harryhausen movies, with herbert lom at his phantom of opera piano, and bette davis’ ex also in the cast.

    And harryhausen’s old effects are a million times more fun than the computer generated stuff in today’s boring, expensive movies—such as the 200 million dollar kong remake.

    I have a $3 big lot version of this movie, which is good enough for cheap, poor, me.

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