John Huston and color cinematographer Oswald Morris had given their film of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1956) the look of old whaling prints; perhaps inspired by this example, Czechoslovakia’s Karel Zeman and his black-and-white cinematographer, Jiří Tarantik, gave Vynález zkázy, their film version of Jules Verne’s 1896 Face au drapeau (Facing the Flag), the appearance of the woodcut illustrations that accompanied the original publications of this and other fantastical fictions by Verne, which they set into motion. Zeman’s intermittently brilliant film draws on other works by Verne as well: Clipper of the Clouds, Master of the World, Mysterious Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was released in the U.S., English-dubbed, as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne.
Science and technology “toss aside outmoded ways of life.” Among the futuristic sights in the film’s opening late nineteenth-century setting is an aircraft being pedaled by a lone gentleman! (Later, submerged, men unboard a submarine on individually peddled “missiles.”) Professor Thomas Roche is investigating “pure matter,” which will be used by villainous pirate Count Artigas, who kidnaps Roche and assistant Simon Hart, for the invention of a weapon of mass destruction. Reflecting on the superpower nuclear arms race of his own day, Zeman steers the film’s course toward a pacifist message.
What sights Zeman conjures! For instance, there is a nighttime storm at sea: exploding waves of white amidst deep darkness. Much of the film combines live-action and both painted backdrops and charming animation: fish appear swimming by a submarine portal. The operation of the submarine reminds one a bit of the factory in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). A gigantic white jellyfish provides a haunting touch to one scene; a sky full of flapping, chattering birds to another. In a projected film-within-the-film, men ride camels-on-roller skates!
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