AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
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The Reel World /
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AROUND THE WORLD UNDER THE SEA (1966)
|"You want to put a woman aboard this submarine!?"|
Director: Andrew Marton
Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Shirley Eaton, Brian Kelly, David McCallum, Keenan Wynn, Marshall Thompson, Gary Merrill, George Shibata, Ron Hayes, Donald Linton
Screenplay: Arthur Weiss and Art Arthur, based upon a story by Elmer Parsons
Synopsis: Dr Doug Standish (Lloyd Bridges) is on a naval ship monitoring the activities of Dr Craig Mosby (Brian Kelly), who is piloting a one-man submarine, when a helicopter that has come to take the two back to Washington on urgent business approaches. Mosby’s return to the surface becomes fraught with danger when the helicopter spooks a pod of whales that are swimming above the submarine: a whales collides with the submarine, which in turn collides with the naval ship and begins taking on water. Mosby radios frantically that the hatch has become jammed, and that he is trapped. Standish orders a naval diving-team to assemble, but without waiting for them, he himself dives in and swims down to the submarine, making contact with the desperate Mosby. The navy divers succeed in attaching a flotation device to the submarine and bringing it to the surface. At the Federal Science Council in Washington, Dr August Boren (Gary Merrill) addresses a meeting that includes the Vice-President of the United States (Donald Linton), describing the frequency and severity of a wave of earthquakes that has struck around the world over the preceding months, and stressing the need for a warning system. Professor Uji Hamaru (George Shibata) proposes that an experimental nuclear-powered submarine, known as the Hydronaut, and which is capable of handling the distances and depths involved, be used the travel the world under the sea to plant a series of sensor devices able to transmit warnings at the first sign of an earthquake. Boren introduces Standish and Mosby to the Vice-President, explaining that they were responsible for the design and engineering of the Hydronaut. The Vice-President is impressed by the presentation, and promises to arrange the necessary appropriations to fund the voyage. As Standish inspects the Hydronaut for any damage sustained during its final series of tests, Boren and Mosby discuss the make-up of the crew for the upcoming mission. Mosby proposes Philip Volker (David McCallum), an electronics expert who designed most of the Hydronaut’s systems, and Orin Hillyard (Marshall Thompson), a geologist. In order to restrict the numbers of the crew, Mosby explains to Boren that they hope to recruit a single individual who is both a doctor and a marine biologist. Here, he and Standish disagree: on the basis of his impressive research record, Standish wants a newcomer called M.E. Hanford. A laughing Boren reveals that “he” is a woman – Margaret Elizabeth Hanford (Shirley Eaton). Mosby is violently opposed to idea of including a woman in the crew, but is left with no choice when the only alternative is unavailable. The final recruitments prove difficult. Phil Volker only agrees to join the team upon condition that the Hydronaut be used to salvage several million dollars’ worth of sunken transistor components; while self-taught survival and underwater expert Hank Stahl (Keenan Wynn), who lives alone in a facility on the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, is finally persuaded to join the expedition out of respect for Professor Hamaru, and when convinced of the mission’s significant humanitarian purpose. The crew assembled, the Hydronaut sets out on its underwater circumnavigation of the world….
Comments: Underwater adventures were numerous and profitable during the 1960s. Rapid advances in technology in the post-war era opened up the dazzling world that lay beneath the surface of the ocean to the public at large, and it was upon these aspects jointly, the science and the sea-life, that these films and shows tended to focus. One of the most significant figures in this trend was the expatriate Hungarian writer and producer Ivan Tors, whose Florida-based production facilities would provide the backdrop for everything from Thunderball to Flipper. While Tors’ TV series Sea Hunt and its short-lived follow-up The Aquanauts provided the initial impetus for the 60s’ flood of watery exploits, it was – inevitably, it seems, in retrospect – Irwin Allen who really ramped things up with 1961’s Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea and its spin-off series, which ran for four seasons. Around The World Under The Sea is very much in this tradition, although in a far less enjoyable way. Like many of its brethren, the film was partially produced at Ivan Tors’ studio in Florida, and it boasts both Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman in its production team; while its cast’s qualifications are almost comically perfect, in a waterlogged sort of way. Thus, we have Lloyd Bridges from Sea Hunt, Brian Kelly from Flipper, which also guest-starred Marshall Thompson, and Gary Merrill from Destination Inner Space. Meanwhile, Keenan Wynn was in Bikini Beach, although I don’t suppose that really counts.
It is when you're stuck on a submarine with this crowd.
It is when you're stuck on a submarine with this crowd.
The main problem with Around The World Under The Sea is that it wastes most of the talent at its disposal by being just a little too blasé about everything. Striving for realism in science fiction is fine, until it crosses the line from being merely matter-of-fact to being outright boring. Frankly, this film could have done with a dose of the goofy disregard for probability that makes the earlier Irwin Allen entries in this sub-genre so very entertaining. Instead, it goes to the other extreme and serves up exactly what you might expect, given its pedigree: gadgets and stock footage, and plenty of both; and if you’re not entertained by these offerings, then there is very little else here to hold the attention.
Around The World Under The Sea tips its hand from its very first scene, wherein we are presented with a gadget – in this case, a one-man submarine – and are asked to accept that it is surrounded by a lot of stock footage sea-life, most significantly a small pod of whales. The submarine is being piloted during its “test” (unspecified) by Dr Craig Mosby, while Dr Doug Standish monitors the proceedings from a naval vessel up above. The test in interrupted by the arrival of a helicopter bearing a representative of the “Federal Science Council”; and we get an hilariously unconvincing episode involving Mosby and his back-projected whales. In the first place, there is a desperate attempt on the part of Standish/Bridges to convince us that those whales are really there, yes sir, as he radios to warn Mosby that they’re directly above him and he’ll have to wait them out before surfacing. (Bridges’ tone as he reiterates, “Watch out for those whales, now!” suggests that even he was embarrassed by this passage.) However, circumstances intervene when the helicopter comes too close and “spooks” the whales, which start to dive. One hits the sub and sends it into the side of the naval ship, causing a leak and jamming the hatch. This gives Standish the chance to show off his he-man credentials, as he orders a navy dive-team into action, but hurls himself into the water without waiting for them. Mind you, once he gets down to Mosby he can’t actually do anything to help; and it is the navy divers who manage to bring the sub up to the surface using a flotation device.
A couple of points about this sequence. First, I promise you that by the end of the film, you’ll be cursing that whale for not finishing off Craig Mosby when it had the chance. Second, the one really notable aspect of this passage – although it might be a consequence of the pan-and-scanning of the Cinemascope print – is the number of low-angled shots that it contains, which seem designed to put an uncomfortable degree of emphasis upon Lloyd Bridges’, um, area.
"Watch out for those whales, which are totally in the same
movie as you!"
"Watch out for those whales, which are totally in the same movie as you!"
Standish and Mosby are then whisked away to Washington, where they take part in a meeting about the increasingly severe series of earthquakes that is sweeping about the world. The plan, suggested jointly by Dr August Boren and Professor Uji Hamaru, is to use an experimental nuclear-powered submarine known as the Hydronaut to travel around the world under the sea – and yes, they do say the title – and to plant a series of specially-designed sensors along the underwater fault lines, which will be able to detect the beginnings of an earthquake and transmit warning signals. The presentation succeeds in convincing the Vice-President (unnamed, but I sincerely doubt it’s intended to be Hubert Humphrey; I guess this is supposed to be “in the future” [Spiro!?]) to secure the necessary appropriation; and Standish and Mosby are put in charge of the mission.
We then cut to our first good look at the Hydronaut. Like all such science fiction vessels, it has impractically enormous viewing windows; while undoubtedly we are supposed to ooh and ahh over the three “TV cameras” that assist visibility in the other directions. An inadvertent laugh is the other outcome of this scene, as Mosby responds to Boren’s comments on “that crazy colour on the hull” of the Hydronaut by explaining that it is “international rescue colour”: would that anything in this film were half so interesting as your average episode of Thunderbirds!
A good half hour is then spent upon the recruitment of the rest of the Hydronaut’s crew. First up is Orin Hillyard, geologist. This particular recruitment gives us one of the film’s stupider scenes, as Mosby travels to the area where Hillyard is assisting with underwater demolition and dives down to meet with him. Uh, why wouldn’t you just wait until he came up? The short answer is, more gadgetry, as Mosby is approached and grabbed by something that looks like the bastard offspring of a bathyscaphe and the Michelin Man. As Mosby struggles in its grip, we hope for a few moments – or I do, anyway – that it will chop Mosby in half at the waist. Alas, the suit contains Hillyard, who is merely carrying Mosby to safety prior to an explosion being set off….which rather loops back to the whole “Why wouldn’t you just wait?” thing, as well as suggesting that a “safety” system that allows any random passer-by to swim into the blast zone as long as an explosion isn’t going off right at that very instant could probably use some fine-tuning.
Is that a wrench in your pocket, or, uh....
Meanwhile, Doug Standish is off recruiting Hank Stahl, a self-educated survival expert whose specially-designed deep-diving “breathing gases” are necessary to the success of the mission. Stahl has renounced the world pretty thoroughly, living alone in a sunken facility on the bottom of the Caribbean and passing his time with research and radio-chess. Stahl is your standard cynic with a heart of gold, and Standish resorts to the usual tactics to prove that his target’s bark is worse that his bite, namely, putting his own life in danger (or so it seems), certain that Stahl will rescue him in spite of all his misanthropic speechmaking, which he does. Keenan Wynn probably gives the film’s best performance as Stahl, but his character is horribly underdeveloped. For one thing, this is a man who has lived entirely alone and within his own space for years; yet his sudden transfer into the confines of a submarine and his enforced intimacy with its crew seems to have no adverse effect upon him whatsoever. In fact, instead of dealing with any of the issues raised by Stahl’s elaborate back-story, the screenplay tries rather to turn him into the Odious Comic Relief; although fortunately its efforts in this respect are about as half-hearted as in everything else.
And speaking of “half-hearted”, that brings us to what passes for the film’s villain. Around The World Under The Sea finds David McCallum doing a lazy impression of himself as Illya Kuryakin in the role of Phil Volker, whose villainy lies chiefly in the twin facts that (a) he has an accent, and (b) he’s a scientist who sometimes thinks about money. Yes, yes, I know: gasp! shock! horror!, right? Volker makes his involvement in the Hydronaut’s expedition conditional upon being allowed, when it’s over, to carry out one further dive, in order to salvage $4 millions’ worth of transistor crystals. Now, let me be clear about this: he doesn’t want to divert the Hydronaut from its mission; he doesn’t want to delay it; he just wants one more dive added on to the end of the voyage. He even offers to cut everyone else in on the profits. For the life of me, I can’t see a problem with this arrangement, but the others all react to the proposition as if Volker had just suggested that they spend the afternoon molesting a litter of puppies. Spasmodic wrangling over the issue makes up a portion of what passes for “tension” in this film, while the rest---
For the final member of the crew, Standish and Mosby hope to find an individual who is both a doctor of medicine and a marine biologist. As you might imagine, their options are limited; a choice of two, in fact. Mosby wants someone called “Bob Johnson”, while Standish plumps for one M.E. Hanford, on the strength of some of “his” recent publications. Standish, evidently, has never paid much attention to the tactics employed by those women who operate within a traditionally male-dominated environment – and nor, for that matter, can he ever have seen Hatari! – because Gus Boren has to break it to him gently that “M.E.” stands for “Margaret Elizabeth”. Standish is surprised but amenable, while Mosby is instantly hostile to idea of having a woman in the crew. As it turns out, however, he is left with no say in the matter: the elusive “Bob Johnson” is, for reasons undetermined, unavailable, and so M.E. Hanford it is.
Another triumph for eHarmony.
Another triumph for eHarmony.
And so the
sets out on its mission. The planting of the first sensor device, at
“the east end of the Puerto Rico Trench”, is presented in some detail.
Standish and Mosby having piloted the ship into position, with Volker
handling the navigation, the sensor is dropped through a hatchway in the
bottom of the submarine and anchored into the seafloor by an explosive
charge set off by Hillyard. Here only is the pressurisation of the
chamber dwelt upon. One trap that Around
The World Under The Sea
does not fall into is that of real-time: apart from this single sequence
(in which an empty oxygen cylinder implodes, just for emphasis),
pressurisation and depressurisation of the chamber, and other
time-consuming activities such as donning wetsuits, are skipped over
fairly rapidly; while scuba-diving scenes, of which there are many, tend
to feature someone suddenly appearing at a point quite distance from
where they were just a moment ago. It is a mercy to be grateful for,
particularly seeing how the rest of the “action” is presented .
“One down, forty-nine to go,” comments Standish after the anchoring of the first earthquake sensor, and that’s exactly how the film plays it, entering into the phase where it is just too realistic for its own good. The planting of the sensors is, for the most part, a completely routine procedure, and no attempt is made to depict it as anything else. Thus, we get repeat shots of the sensors being planted, intercut with dialogue-less scenes of the crew killing time in between, with most attention being given to the marathon chess tournament taking place between Stahl and Volker.
The ultimate point of this is that, at the outset, Volker receives only a qualified agreement to his demand for a salvage dive, with Standish acceding to his demands providing that everyone else does too. Finally, Stahl is the hold-out, so Volker challenges him to play chess for the outcome: if he, Volker, wins, the salvage mission goes ahead. Volker is finally triumphant – only for it to be revealed that he’s been secretly wiring Washington and running the game through a chess-playing computer (still fairly cutting-edge stuff in 1966). Upon being exposed, Volker argues that since he designed and programmed the computer in the first place, he was really only consulting “himself” and therefore not cheating. Stahl is less impressed with this piece of reasoning than he is with the desperation that motivated Volker’s manoeuvring, and he finally gives in with a shrug….which underlines the completely artificial nature of this “conflict”.
Chess: it's the way scientists have fun. The ONLY way.
Artificial is also the word for the way that excitement [sic.] is added to some of the scuba-diving scenes, wherein individuals repeatedly leave the Hydronaut without carrying any radio equipment, just so that they can’t be warned of whatever danger is looming up on them. This is the case in what does eventually turn out to be the single scene in Around The World Under The Sea that really makes the film worth watching, wherein Hank Stahl goes out to collect specimens, and almost ends up becoming lunch for a giant moray eel. (As I complained re: The Deep, these poor critters really do get a bad rap, and you know it’s just because a lot of people find them ugly….) Just for a few brief, welcome moments here, Around The World Under The Sea drops its dogged, wearying reasonableness and gives us a taste of what the people who paid to see this were probably hoping for, as an eel the size of a jumbo jet lunges out of the shadows and pursues the terrified Stahl back to the Hydronaut, where he takes refuge between the ballast tanks. The eel is realised through a combination of close-up photography, magnified back-projection into those oversized viewing windows and, best of all, having the real eel interact with a model of the Hydronaut that, while obvious, is constructed with enough care to win the heart of any true kaiju eiga fan. (At one point there is also a model eel, which is somewhat less convincing.) Mosby and Volker manage to rescue Stahl, dragging him up through the hatch into the sensor-room, and then the eel is disposed of by giving it a spare sensor for lunch instead.
There is another brief ripple of excitement when Volker and Hillyard have to don heat-resistant diving-gear and manually plant a sensor near an active fumerole: Hillyard takes a hit from an eruption and passes out, Volker ends up rescuing him at considerable risk to himself, and Standish gets to perform some more largely pointless he-man antics, venturing out into the near-boiling water without any proper protective gear – and without a radio – to plant the abandoned sensor. Otherwise, it’s business as usual until the mission is complete and the Hydronaut is off on its salvage run. Volker succeeds in locating the sunken transistor crystals (those pure-as-snow scientists who started out throwing up their hands in horror at the thought of the filthy lucre all give a hearty cheer when he does), but the film has no intention of rewarding his venality; and there is more than a hint of Schadenfreude about the enforced interruption of his collection of the crystals, when word reaches the submarine crew of a violent underwater eruption in a zone not covered by the net of sensors. Over Volker’s furious protests, the Hydronaut sets out again to drop one more sensor, being under orders to get “as close as possible” to the active volcano. The crew-members respond with, perhaps, more literal-mindedness than is really good for them, and the Hydronaut ends up trapped under a rock-fall. For a time all seems lost, until an escape plan is concocted that requires, on the part of the viewer, a complete ignorance of the realities of engineering and physics and, above all, submarine design, and even then a healthy dollop of suspension of disbelief might still be necessary….
And for a few glorious minutes,
Around The World Under The Sea
And for a few glorious minutes, Around The World Under The Sea was interesting....
Around The World Under The Sea isn’t a bad film, but from an entertainment point of view it’s much worse than bad: it’s dull. Granted, it probably looked better in 1966, when what it had to offer was new and unusual; nowadays, it’s all pretty passé. Certainly there is nothing here in terms of acting or special effects to compensate for the over-familiarity of the material or the repetitiveness of the screenplay – although the moray eel does its best. However, there is one arresting aspect to this film, one that makes it hard to ignore or forget, and that is its presentation of its only significant female character. With this, Around The World Under The Sea ceases to be merely dull, and becomes instead intolerable.
I make no apology for devotion a substantial portion of this review to the question of Margaret Elizabeth Hanford, chiefly because the film itself likewise devotes a substantial portion of its running-time to her: Around The World Under The Sea is about Dr Hanford’s interaction with the other crew-members of the Hydronaut far more than it is about the need for an earthquake warning system, or even about the planting of the sensors; and in the end, the single outstanding feature of this film is the profound contempt in which it holds its “heroine”, which is remarkable even considering the era of its production. When all is said and done, Around The World Under The Sea is nothing less than a one hundred and ten minute dissertation upon Patty Bouvier’s thesis that there can’t be women astronauts, because they’d distract the men astronauts.
We see M.E. Hanford quite some time before we are formally introduced to her. When Craig Mosby and Doug Standish arrive at the offices of the Federal Science Council in Washington, they are surprised by the sight of a woman crawling around under a desk and reeling in a handful of escapee guinea-pigs. (Why the guinea-pigs were in the office, and how they got out in the first place, is left to our imaginations.) This scene is even more tone-setting than we realise at the time, because it contains the only other female characters in the film - secretaries, naturally - whose sole contribution to proceedings is to react to the guinea-pigs by screaming hysterically and, in one case, jumping up onto her desk.
Meanwhile, Craig Mosby is getting an eyeful of the only portion of the guinea-pigs’ owner currently visible, namely her legs. At the time, this looks merely like any one of a thousand tiresome “cute-meets”, and we let it pass without comment (although possibly with an exasperated roll of the eyeballs), but it turns out to be something more than that: a blunt foreshadowing of exactly how this film will treat its female lead. In fact, let’s stop here for a moment, and take a look at the first three glimpses of Margaret Elizabeth Hanford offered to the viewer by Around The World Under The Sea:
Call me crazy, but I think I’m detecting a pattern here.
Anyway, in a ridiculous piece of contrivance, Mosby and Standish decide that in order to keep the Hydronaut’s crew to a minimum, the final team-member will need to be both a doctor and a marine biologist. Standish is surprised when he learns of M.E. Hanford’s gender, but willing enough to have her onboard. Mosby, on the other hand, is violently opposed to the idea, and even more so when he learns that the qualifications in question are attached to the legs of the guinea-pig wrangler. Standish counters this by making “She’s also a scientist!” speeches, along with reciting various statistics about women in the professions.
And how does the film follow up Doug Standish’s staunch defence of a woman’s right to be a professional? By having Margaret Elizabeth Hanford turn up late for the boarding of the Hydronaut – or, as Hank Stahl puts it, by, “Exercising a dame’s right.” And then, when she does finally come aboard, she’s wearing a skin-tight dress slit up the thigh and a pair of spike-heels, and carrying her guinea-pigs in a hatbox.
And there’s that slow burning feeling again, creeping up the back of my neck....
I think what makes me maddest about all this is the insincerity of it, the fundamental dishonesty inherent in making the character so ridiculously over-qualified, and then writing her as a vapid, petulant airhead who gives the impression that she finds buttering her toast in the morning a significant intellectual challenge. (Using this kind of approach as a camouflaged expression of disdain didn’t go out fashion any time soon after this, either, as a glance at Dr Hanford’s lineal descendant, Dr Lori Ridgeway, will attest.) Just to make it perfectly obvious that Maggie Hanford’s double-doctorate is nothing more than an elaborate excuse to get her on board the Hydronaut, once she’s there she never does one lick of marine biology. In fact, it’s Hank Stahl who does all the specimen collection, even lecturing her on the subject! Meanwhile, those guinea-pigs of Maggie’s are supposed to be for “oxygen research”, but we never see any of that, either.
(Releasing the guinea-pigs from her hatbox, Maggie puts them into a glass tank empty except for a heavy water dish, which nearly crushes them every time the submarine pitches! Truly, the way that those poor little things are tossed around over the course of this film is very distressing.)
She is Woman: hear her shriek.
She is Woman: hear her shriek.
As for Maggie’s medical skills, well, while we certainly accept that a doctor was a necessary part of the crew, we never see her doing anything beyond what a good First Aid course would teach – although in the wake of Orin Hillyard’s brush with the fumarole, she does get to display her professional expertise with the following diagnosis: “He’s all right....I think.” It is pretty obvious from the outset that Dr Hanford’s real qualifications for the mission lie elsewhere. The men all fret when she’s late turning up to board the Hydronaut because, as Phil Volker so eloquently puts it, “We can’t sail without a cook!” – and Maggie is, we learn, “As handy with a skillet as a scalpel!” And indeed, before very much time has passed, it is noticeable that the majority of the professional energy of Dr Margaret Elizabeth Hanford, PhD, is being poured, not into medicine or marine biology, but into – what else? – making the coffee.
Incredible as it may seem, however, Around The World Under The Sea manages to be even more exasperating on a personal level with regard to Maggie Hanford than it is on a professional one. Speaking of the obvious, the real reason for Craig Mosby’s objection to her being part of the crew is of course his own physical attraction to her – in which respect, he turns out to have some serious competition: she’s currently involved with Orin Hillyard – and he, at least, is serious enough about it to propose marriage – and she’s also Phil Volker’s ex!
(When you’re done calculating the odds of gathering all of these people together in a six-person submarine crew, you can try to figure out how this woman ever had the time to complete a medical degree or a PhD, let alone both!)
The subtext here – oh, subtext, hell: text – is that is if want to get the job done, you’d better not let a woman anywhere near it. In this respect the film is almost as insulting to men as it is to women, insisting as it does that the mere presence of an attractive* woman is enough to reduce otherwise sensible, intelligent men to the level of ill-tempered, squabbling children, incapable of keeping their minds on their work or of behaving with the least professionalism. At the same time, the screenplay is equally insistent that we really shouldn’t blame the men for any of this: whatever they do wrong, it’s all the woman’s fault.
(*Assuming that you find Shirley Eaton attractive. She really isn’t my type, aesthetically speaking.)
Dr Margaret Elizabeth Hanford, PhD, demonstrates her professional credentials.
We’re aware of Mosby’s hang-ups; those of the others come to light when Phil Volker’s remarks about Maggie’s cooking reveal his intimate knowledge of her, which in turn starts Orin Hillyard bristling defensively and provokes a lot of alpha-dog blustering between the two. Mosby, meanwhile, has no doubt about who’s to blame for all the on-board tension, and he isn’t snarling at both Volker and Hillyard, he’s acting as the film’s mouthpiece by finding something to abuse Maggie for every time he encounters her.
(According to Mosby, Maggie can’t do anything right – not even behave like an hysterical female. When Doug Standish ventures unprotected into the vicinity of the fumarole, Maggie shrieks down the radio, “Doug! Doug!” “Give me that!” Mosby snaps at her, snatching the radio out of her hands. Then he shouts, “Doug! Doug!”)
These hormonally-fuelled interactions reach a humiliating climax (so to speak) when Mosby, in passive-aggressive reaction to Maggie spending a few minutes topside with Hillyard, thunders at her for disobeying his prohibition against wearing perfume on board....only for her to respond coolly that she isn’t. However, the apotheosis of embarrassment is reserved for Phil Volker, who in the course of trying to stir up the embers of his relationship with Maggie becomes so distracted from the job at hand that he crashes the submarine into an underwater cliff.
It’s Maggie’s fault, of course. No-one’s in any doubt about that – not even Doug Standish, champion of women’s rights generally and Maggie Hanford’s in particular, who sums up the incident by observing, “If you weren’t there, it wouldn’t have happened.”
(Actually, here I agree with Standish: it is Maggie’s fault – not because she’s guilty of the heinous crime of being a woman and yet nevertheless “there”, but because she responds to Phil Volker’s peremptory demand for a cup of coffee by obediently trotting up to the bridge bearing caffeine, instead of shouting back at him a hearty, “FU!!”)
Now, you might be thinking that by this time, Around The World Under The Sea would have run out of ways to insult its heroine, but you’d be wrong: it goes the final mile by embracing a poisonous Treat ’em mean philosophy, having Maggie fall for the contemptuous and condescending Craig Mosby; Volker and Hillyard, who are nice to her, never stand a chance. In this perverted scenario, Mosby’s constant verbal abuse of Maggie – and it is abuse, not just banter or teasing – is supposed to be an expression of his attraction towards her.
Dr Margaret Elizabeth Hanford, PhD, demonstrates her---ah, forget it.
That’s certainly how she takes it, anyway: Maggie does a lot of flouncing and hmmph!-ing and storming off in response to Mosby’s attacks upon her, but it isn’t until he tells her that he doesn’t think of her as a woman, but only as a doctor, that she really takes offence at any of it. This particular confrontation is followed by a ludicrous visual expression of their – *cough* – uncontrollable passion for one another, when we get side-to-side shots of the two of them, tossing and heavy-breathing and chain-smoking (in a submarine!?) as they lie sleepless in their respective bunks. It’s as if someone watched Pillow Talk, and decided that what the world needed was a serious reinterpretation of the party-line scenes.
Curious, isn’t it? – and depressing – how many films argue that the best preparation for a relationship is for a man and a woman to be as hateful as possible towards one another beforehand. When Maggie and Mosby go into a clinch towards the end of Around The World Under The Sea, they’ve barely spoken a civil word to one another, let alone had an actual conversation; he’s ogled her legs, and she’s ogled his shoulders, and that’s about the extent of it; and yet for some reason we’re supposed to be thrilled that that they’ve gotten together. And actually, I am. These two richly deserve one another, and at least this way they’ll avoid making anyone else miserable – Orin Hillyard, for instance, who I hope realises what a narrow escape he’s had. Speaking of Orin, he’s a most reluctant witness to the locked eyes and chest-heaving that precedes that clinch – and more: Maggie and Mosby don’t even wait for him to get out of the room before they start making out.
Horrifying as all this is in an immediate sense, the unabashed sexism of Around The World Under The Sea becomes rather interesting when viewed from an historical perspective. Those of you who have been with me for a while might remember my examination of Rocketship X-M, which of course also starred Lloyd Bridges. When we compare these two films, it becomes frighteningly apparent that in the intervening sixteen years, nothing has changed – or if it has, it’s changed for the worst. Both films feature a “hero” whose chauvinistic posturing is supposed to represent appropriate masculine behaviour and therefore be attractive to the heroine, towards whom the hero expresses his own attraction chiefly by contemptuously dismissing the professional credentials that got her there in the first place and demanding that she be “just a woman”. Both films also feature an older man, the team leader, who is overtly a supporter of women’s rights, but who, when push comes to shove, reveals himself to be just as much of a chauvinist as the hero. (By the time of Around The World Under The Sea, Lloyd Bridges had been “promoted” into this role.)
What rock wall?
What rock wall?
However, what is really intriguing is the contrast in attitude of the two films towards their female leads. Although it pushes its heroine into an unconvincing romantic relationship, Rocketship X-M never denies her right to be a part of the mission, making it clear that it is her research that has made it possible in the first place, and that she is in every way qualified to be a member of the team. It is, indeed, when the men choose to ignore her professional opinion that the expedition ends up in deadly danger. Around The World Under The Sea, in contrast, devotes an astonishing proportion of its running-time to arguing that its heroine [sic.] should never have been allowed anywhere near a serious scientific expedition, as in spite of her outrageous over-qualifications, she is not merely functionally useless, but an outright impediment to the mission’s success. The explanation for this back-sliding is, I suspect, the fact that during that sixteen year gap, fantasy had started to become reality – for some, an uncomfortable one. It may have been all very well in 1950 for a science fiction film to posit a far-flung future where women could be equal partners; by 1966, what we find in response to the real-world strides taken by the female sex in the interim is a kind of reactionary panic.
It didn’t start with Around The World Under The Sea, of course. As early as 1960, The Lost World was resorting to exactly the same tactic, starting out with its Professor Challenger bellowing, “There’ll be no women on my expedition!” and then serving up a “heroine” so irritating and incompetent, we are left with very little choice but to side with the male chauvinists. What Around The World Under The Sea does do is ramp this approach up to the nth degree. Make no mistake: I can jump up and down about the film’s unfair presentation of its female lead as much as I like, but the fact remains that, as written, Margaret Elizabeth Hanford is indefensible. There really is no end to her annoying qualities, but what finally puts her beyond forgiveness is the clear implication that for all her bridling and indignant denials, secretly she is enjoying the effect she’s having on the men. This is never more evident than in the wake of the submarine crash, when Doug Standish tells her that, yes, it was her fault. Her response to this is not indignation or protest, but a simpering little laugh.
Nevertheless, no matter how despicable their tactics, both The Lost World and Around The World Under The Sea do confine themselves to a single example of the useless female: if the entire sex is condemned, it’s by distant implication rather than in practice. Such is not necessarily the case in the cinema of the following decade, where the sexist panic of the 1960s has reached punitive levels, and where in parallel with the solid progress made by the Women’s Movement we find science fiction imagining a future wherein women generally have been reduced literally to the level of a commodity. I’m thinking here of films like Soylent Green and Rollerball – the former of which, we recall, not only has a woman supplied along with the bed and the table and the lounge when the hero is given access to his own apartment, but actually refers to her as “the furniture”.
Nothing says "uncontrollable sexual attraction" like giving
yourself lung cancer.
Nothing says "uncontrollable sexual attraction" like giving yourself lung cancer.
Well....I do try to keep an historical mindset
when viewing any of these films, and treat them as documents of a time
and of attitudes hopefully past; but I admit, sometimes it is a
struggle. Oddly, I tend to find Around The
World Under The Sea
the most depressing of the bunch – perhaps because it’s the most
realistic, the one most set in a recognisible “present”. A repeat
viewing of this film always leaves me – along with a profound desire to
dig a meat tenderiser out of my kitchen utility drawer and wipe that
smirk off Margaret Elizabeth Hanford’s face with it – with the feeling that Hank
Stahl had the right idea in the first place when he withdrew to the
bottom of the Caribbean. Sometimes I could really imagine myself joining
him there, if he’d have me, and just passing my time in research, and
reading, and radio-chess... .
Provided, that is, we could get a decent internet connection down there. I mean, a misanthropic retreat from the world to live on the ocean floor is all very well, but we wouldn’t want to get carried away....
Footnote: Much as I complain about
this film, I can't help admiring its ad campaign. Remember what I said
about the giant eel being what the audience probably expected, as
opposed to the other 99% of the film? There's a reason, as a glance at
the captions to the film's lobby cards will explain. For instance, a
group shot of the cast is captioned, The crew of the Hydronaut sees
a terrible sea monster outside the viewing windows of the Hydronaut
- we clear on that?); while Hillyard in his Michelin Man outfit is,
A giant metal monster. And so on. I wonder how many people demanded
their money back?
Footnote: Much as I complain about this film, I can't help admiring its ad campaign. Remember what I said about the giant eel being what the audience probably expected, as opposed to the other 99% of the film? There's a reason, as a glance at the captions to the film's lobby cards will explain. For instance, a group shot of the cast is captioned, The crew of the Hydronaut sees a terrible sea monster outside the viewing windows of the Hydronaut (they’re on the Hydronaut
- we clear on that?); while Hillyard in his Michelin Man outfit is, A giant metal monster. And so on. I wonder how many people demanded their money back?