FANTASIA OBSCURA: The Apocalyptic Submarine Flick That Inspired a ’60s TV Show

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you want to take a break from going to the movies, and sit in front of the TV instead…

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Directed by: Irwin Allen

Irwin Allen

For some, the sea draws us; it inspires and makes us take journeys of discovery.

For example, one of the biggest names in the genre field, Irwin Allen, built his fame largely on his salesmanship; his concepts for the works he was associated with made for very strong elevator pitches and were done with just enough brio that the small, nagging questions you could entertain during their execution could wait, because you wanted to see how this was going to turn out.

Much like the mariners that plied the seas before, Allen, the showman who established himself in Hollywood by winning the Oscar for producing Best Documentary Feature for 1953’s The Sea Around Us, was quick to read which ways the winds would blow and could trim his ship to get the most favorable tact. What kept him in the mind of his audience and backers, more than just his grand ideas, was his ability to get in front of the audience before they arrived there; he got into television just as his likely younger demo got their sets in their homes, and was able to get back to the theaters when the kids grew up and wanted something closer to their age to watch.

What kept him in the mind of his audience and backers, more than just his grand ideas, was his ability to get in front of the audience before they arrived there; he got into television just as his likely younger demo got their sets in their homes and was able to get back to the theaters when the kids grew up and wanted something closer to their age to watch.

And it was by sea that he found a way to make relatively easy transitions between the two ecosystems:

It’s the near future, and we’re treated to the forgettable theme song from singer Frankie Avalon, who has a minor role in the film as well. We’re in the Arctic as we are introduced to the star of the movie: the Seaview, an atomic submarine with windows on her wide bow to better see what’s going on in the water. The advanced research vessel is captained by her creator, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon), a brilliant, if infuriating, ship designer and explorer who combines some of the more dynamic elements of Admiral Hyman Rickover and Captain Nemo. And his work is something to behold, an amalgam of both the fictional Nautilus and the real-life USS Nautilus.

Already, you can feel from the other side of the reactor shielding that this is going to feel like another celebration of Verne-mania coming on here…

Aboard the Seaview for her trials are her chief operations officer, Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling), Ichthyological researcher Commander Lucius Emery (Peter Lorrie), and Nelson’s secretary and Lee’s paramour Lieutenant Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden). Which is already a pretty watchable cast with lots of built-in tension that doesn’t need much more, but gets plenty after a meteor sets afire the Van Allen radiation belt, which threatens to bake the earth if something isn’t done soon to stop it.

(No, that’s not how the Van Allen belt works; in all fairness, since the movie came out only three years after this were discovered, we can afford Allen who also wrote the film a little leeway.)

Confronted with a planet in ecological distress, Nelson offers a plan to the UN, which involves getting the Seaview into a specific position at a specific time and firing a nuke atop a Polaris missile, which should snuff out the Van Allen belt. The body prefers to side with another expert, who expects the fire to go out all on its own; why they are against considering Nelson and his plan is hard to fathom, though Pidgeon’s approach to the role makes him such a grade-A a-hole that their dismissing him out of hand seems reasonable.

That they’d send secret agents to sabotage the ship and encourage other countries to send subs to hunt them, however, is over the top. And have atop that encounters with forgotten mine fields, a brewing mutiny, a giant cephalopod (yes, just like in the other work), and other items off of a general apocalyptic check list, and it’s a very stuffed film, which moves at a very fast pace.

Surprisingly, this is one of the strengths of the film; it throws so much at you so fast like a tsunami, you barely have time to ask, “What the hell, man?” because you’re still getting over the shock of the twist as the next plot beat pops up. There’s no time to realize that this just doesn’t make sense because this story blows through you; if you haven’t given up on it by then, you hang on to see where the next turn brings you.

This could easily be cited as one of the first “roller coaster ride” movies, a film you saw not for any great story, but because the exhilaration of watching the cast try and hold on as the scenario went WOOSH! past them. It’s sheer spectacle that asks you to sit back and enjoy, and if you’re willing to turn off your brain and keep your expectations down to the level of “Oh, that looks cool,” you’re all set.

Allen certainly must have realized from the beginning that what he had when the film was finished was less a singular piece of cinema than it was a potential pitch for a television series. He saved all his props, sets, and costumes at Fox, then got the studio on board to pitch a series based on the film to ABC, reusing most everything from the film after cutting the principal roles to just Admiral Nelson and Captain Crane, played on television by Richard Basehart and David Hedison respectively.

During the 110-episode run of the series, even the script of the film got repurposed as an episode in Season 2, “The Sky’s On Fire.”

Allen would spend the majority of the 1960s in television producing three more series, before the sea would call to him again, leading him back to films with 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure.

 

NEXT TIME: Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and the critters stay out of the way…

About James Ryan 111 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…