In 1865, during the American Civil War, Libby Military Prison in Richmond, Virginia, is struck by a huge storm, and several prisoners take the opportunity to escape in a reconnaissance hot-air balloon tethered near the compound. They are Union soldiers Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig), Herbert Brown (Michael Callum), and Neb Nugent (Dan Jackson), plus a war correspondent named Gideon Spillet (Gary Merrill) and a Confederate guard, Sergeant Pencroft (Percy Herbert) who knows how to pilot the airship.
The balloon carries them westward across the American continent and out over the Pacific Ocean. Another storm tears the balloon, and they land near the shore of an unknown island. In the morning, their explorations reveal the island’s lush jungles, harsh plains, and active volcanoes. They are attacked by a giant crab, which nearly kills Neb. They push the crab into a boiling geyser and have crab for dinner. They try to capture a herd of goats, then find two unconscious English ladies, Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogen), who have been shipwrecked. All together, they establish shelter in a cave they call Granite House, where they find the body of a previous castaway called Tom Ayrton.
A treasure chest washes ashore, in which they find rifles, charts, and books including Robinson Crusoe. One of the rifles is labelled the property of Captain Nemo of the Nautilus, which was supposedly destroyed off the coast of Mexico eight years earlier. Spillet admires the man, but Harding calls him a madman and a murderer. Using the charts, they determine their location and begin to construct a boat.
One day, Spillet finds a giant flightless bird called a Phorusrhacos. With Mary and Elena, he tries to shelter in the goat pen, but the creature attacks Elena. Herbert arrives and kills it with a knife, and as they eat it, they find a bullet inside, though none of them fired at it. A few weeks later, Herbert and Elena find a hive of enormous bees, which attack them and seal them behind wax. Escaping into a flooded cave, they discover the submarine Nautilus. The others see an approaching pirate ship and they battle the pirates. Mysterious explosions sink the ship and kill the pirates.
The castaways meet Captain Nemo, who is living on his disabled submarine. It is he who has been helping them. Over dinner, he tells them that the giant creatures are the results of his experiments. He hopes to enlarge the Earth’s food resources, ending hunger and poverty and the other causes of war. He believes the volcano will erupt soon and with the castaways’ help he can escape the island.
He has a device to raise the pirate ship and teaches them how to breathe underwater with his air-tanks. Despite the attack of a giant cephalopod, they raise the ship and set sail as the volcano erupts. The Nautilus is buried, and Nemo is killed, but the castaways escape, vowing to fight against war in honor of their benefactor.
The novel on which the movie is based was a sequel to In Search of the Castaways (1867) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) by Jules Verne. Mostly British actors were used, including Percy Herbert, who learned to speak in a southern American accent by watching Suddenly Last Summer. But the stars of the movie are Harryhausen’s creatures. The music was by Bernard Hermann and the London Symphony. Producer Charles Schneer decided to make the movie because he read that Mysterious Island was the most-read book in public libraries. Composer Hermann shocked Harryhausen by suggesting the music Turkey in the Straw for the giant bird sequence, but he was kidding.
A real crab was disemboweled, dismembered, and fitted with an armature for stop-motion animation. Also, there were other crabs which they cooked and ate afterwards. It is clear that the shape of the Nautilus was influenced by the 20,000 Leagues under the Sea film. They tried to get James Mason to play Nemo, but they could not. The film was suggested by the recent success of Swiss Family Robinson (1960). A scene in which the castaways cross a ravine on a log is supposed to remind you of King Kong. I’ve always wondered if the Phorusrhacos was inspired by Aepyornis Island (1894) by H.G. Wells, in which a man is stranded on an island with a giant bird he calls Friday.
The island is 1800 miles from New Zealand, at 36 degrees South Latitude and 153 degrees West Longitude, so the balloon travelled 7000 miles from Richmond, Virginia, if you can believe that. Even more unlikely is that officers and enlisted men would be in the same prison, a war correspondent would be wearing a uniform, and a black man would not have been sent back to slavery the moment he was captured. Mysterious Island was remade in 2005 with Patrick Stewart for TV, in 2010 for the big screen, and again in 2012 with Dwayne Johnson and Michael Caine. None of these will make you forget Ray Harryhausen’s visual feast, or even the strange 1929 half-silent, half-color film with Lionel Barrymore, unearthed in 2013 (See Melanie’s review).