Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mysterious Island, aka Tainstvenny Ostrov (USSR, 1941)

Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island has been adapted for the screen many times, but seldom, it seems, with much faithfulness. This may in part be due to the makers of those adaptations wanting to insert into them the science fiction elements that are largely missing from Verne’s original. Verne is, after all, inseparable from his reputation as a science fiction author, yet those who tackle this particular example of his work might be surprised by the extent to which it plays as a straightforward adventure. In response to that, the 1961 film version of Mysterious Island famously sought to spice things up with the addition of some Ray Harryhausen begotten giant animals, while the semi-silent 1929 version included a mysterious underwater race and the 1951 Columbia serial added invaders from Mercury.

Thus it could just be that the 1941 Russian film version, Tainstvenny Ostrov, might be the most faithful adaptation of Mysterious Island out there. Though to just what extent it is I personally can’t say for sure, because, as is so often the case, my copy lacks the subtitles that would enable me to determine whether the characters in the film are spouting dialogue in keeping with Verne’s own or simply parroting Stalinist bromides about collective farming. Still, the evidence of the eye is that Tainstvenny Ostrov follows the events of its source material with a surprising level of scrupulousness.

In keeping with that, the film begins as does the book: In Virginia circa 1865. As the Battle of Richmond rages around them, a group of men lead by the northern officer Smith (Alexei Krasnopolsky) make their escape from a military prison in a hot air balloon. Carried away by a storm, they crash land on the titular land mass, which they later dub Lincoln Island. As time goes on, they master the island’s environment, constructing a palatial shelter inside a cliff face, forging tools, creating an irrigation system, and building a compound complete with windmills, farmland and a working elevator.

Throughout this, the group -- which also includes the freed slave Neb (R. Ross), the sailor Pencroft (though it sounds like they’ve changed his name here to “Petrov”), the young boy Herbert (Yuri Grammatikati) and a dog, to name a few -- face a catalog of what could be considered pretty boilerplate island perils: Their camp is invaded by wild apes; another castaway (I. Koslov), who has been reduced to a caveman-like state of savagery, makes the scene; and they are forced to fend off an attack by marauding pirates. All the while they find themselves repeatedly aided by the efforts of a mysterious, unseen benefactor.

As we saw with the recently reviewed Kosmicheskiy Reys, the Soviet film industry had, as recently as the mid 1930s, yet to completely kick off the trappings to the silent era. And, despite its spoken dialog, Tainstvenny Ostrov still shows some signs of the same -- largely due to the frequent use of under-cranked camera work and the heavy reliance on written title cards to move the narrative forward. Aside from this, though, the film is well executed and obviously generously funded. The opening battle scene is far more spectacular than the narrative demands and, once we’re on the island, good use is made of the dramatic natural locations, as well as some impressive matte and miniature work. Co-directors B.M. Chelintsev and Eduard Pentslin also keep the pacing such that, despite the many scenes of the castaways discussing plans by the campfire –- and, in my case, the total inability to understand what they were saying -- the feeling of a driving forward momentum is never lost.

As most of you know, Verne’s Mysterious Island is a sequel whose identification as such renders moot the very mystery around which it’s centered. Because of that, any of us familiar with the tale will be watching Tainstvenny Ostrov in eager anticipation of the moment when the castaways will finally discover the hidden port of the submarine Nautilus and, within it, the ailing Captain Nemo, here played by Nikolai Komissarov. In the event, the effects and sets used to realize the steampunk-before-there-was-steampunk super vessel are given spare screen time, but are beguiling enough for me to hope that the same crew might have also brought their own version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to the screen. The imposing Komissarov is also with us all too briefly, but must understandably be rushed from the stage in order to make way for the film’s catastrophic, volcano-blasting finale.

Given the limitations I had to deal with while watching it, I'd be loathe to describe Tainstvenny Ostrov as in any way a work of propaganda, though it's not hard to see what aspects of its story might have warmed the hearts of Soviet censors. Its castaways leave behind a United States torn apart by war and racial prejudice (in the course of their escape, Smith must free Neb from a bloodthirsty lynch mob) and end up building a society of their own from scratch, in the course exhibiting much of the same industriousness and utopian idealism celebrated in so many works of Soviet propaganda proper. And indeed there are some rousing, patriotic-sounding songs that blare on the soundtrack during these particular scenes. But, in truth, my guess is that the reason those involved here chose to adapt Verne’s novel is the same one that has driven so many others to bring it to the screen over the years; it’s simply a ripping good adventure yarn. And that fact is something to which Tainstvenny Ostrov provides clear testament, with or without translation.


Anonymous said...

Yet another Soviet era sc-fi discovery. A very nice review, is this available on an official dvd ? I got the last russian sci-fi film you wrote about off ebay.Cheers.

Mango Cheeks

Todd said...

I'm happy to report that this is available on a decent quality Russian import DVD. I bought it from this retailer, though they don't appear to have it listed in their inventory anymore.

Realm Of Retro said...

Someone upload a NICE version of this to youtube a few yrs ago:

You have to google the Russian title to find it.
Amazing I never knew about this.

Ronald Reagan:
"Mr. Gorbachev TEAR DOWN this wall we want our Russian Retro Sci-fi!"