Rewind, Review, and Re-rate: ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’: An Implausible but Delightful Old-Fashioned Adventure

Ian Kane

Not Rated | 2h 9min | Adventure, Family, Fantasy | 1959

This week, I’m continuing my mission to revisit family-friendly adventure films from a bygone era—when cinema was much more wholesome. In these increasingly cynical times, big-budget blockbuster movies, which are purportedly targeted for family viewing, are apparently being produced by sadistic technophiles. Hence, in the absence of good storytelling, they rely on flashy CGI and lots of wanton violence that is definitely unsuitable for kids.

Back when Walt Disney made some excellent family-friendly films, the company inadvertently struck cinematic gold with its 1955 production of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” In 1959, Twentieth Century Fox adapted yet another literary work of French adventure novelist Jules Verne and filmed “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” directed by Henry Levin.

Seeking Knowledge

The story begins in the beautiful capital city of Scotland, Edinburgh, in the year 1880. The highly esteemed professor Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (James Mason) is proudly receiving his knighthood. Right after the celebration, his young protégé Alec McEwan (Pat Boone) approaches him with a curious object—a strange volcanic rock that’s a little too heavy for its size.
 Alec McEwan (Pat Boone, L) has a mysterious goodie for Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (James Mason). (20th Century Fox)
Alec McEwan (Pat Boone, L) has a mysterious goodie for Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (James Mason). (20th Century Fox)

The two men quickly run some tests on the solidified lava and make a rather (ahem) explosive discovery within it: a 300-year-old tool—a plumb bob—inscribed with cryptic messages that are just begging to be deciphered. After some hilariously slapdash analyses, they quickly deduce that the rock was originally found near a volcano in Iceland.

They also learn that an Icelandic adventurer-scientist named Arne Saknussemm disappeared after he’d embarked on a journey to the center of the Earth. Since the inscriptions were apparently scribed by Saknussemm and entail encouraging news of his various subterranean discoveries, Lindenbrook becomes obsessed with taking his own expedition to Earth’s core, with his loyal assistant McEwan.

When Lindenbrook and McEwan reach Iceland, they soon experience every intrepid scientist’s ultimate fear: that other scientists are competing with them. Racing to get to the center of the Earth first are Swedish professor Peter Göteborg(Ivan Triesault) and Count Saknussemm (Thayer David). And the latter’s last name isn’t merely a coincidence; he’s a descendant of the original scientist who attempted the epic trek 300 years before and, hence, believes he’s naturally entitled to make the monumental discovery before anyone else.

After some devious happenings, the Swede’s beautiful wife Carla (Arlene Dahl) joins Lindenbrook, McEwan, and a towering local Icelander named Hans Belker (Peter Ronson). Oh, and in typical Disney fashion, Hans has a cute little pet duck, Gertrude, which also gets to accompany the band of adventurers on their quest.

 Carla Göteborg (Arlene Dahl) meets one of the monsters the adventurers encounter. (20th Century Fox)
Carla Göteborg (Arlene Dahl) meets one of the monsters the adventurers encounter. (20th Century Fox)


Right off the bat, I must say that this film is filled with all kinds of implausible pseudoscience (such as a lack of extreme temperatures and pressure near the Earth’s core, as well as a curious abundance of breathable air), which is explained away in half-hearted gibberish, some of which sounds as if it were made up on the spot. But then again, this is a film based on a 19th-century literary work.
 A scene from “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” (20th Century Fox)
A scene from “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” (20th Century Fox)

The actors’ performances are fun and straightforward—perfect for this type of genre film. What I also enjoyed is that we’re drawn into the storyline gradually—the whole setup to Lindenbrook’s expedition isn’t glossed over as is usually the case in contemporary fare. This, in turn, gives us time to get to know the characters better and more naturally.

“Journey to the Center of the Earth” is an entertaining adventurous romp that is fantastical in nature. What it lacks in plausibility, it more than makes up for in nailing the grand sense of adventure from Verne’s vast imagination. It’s the perfect type of movie to enjoy on a lazy weekend afternoon with one’s family.

‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ Director: Henry Levin Starring: James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl Not Rated Running Time: 2 hours, 9 minutes Release Date: Dec. 16, 1959 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
Correction: The original posting of this article misstated the production company and the date the story is set. The production company is Twentieth Century Fox and the story is set in 1880. The Epoch Times regrets the error. 
Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.