Why am I talking about the Beatles? Isn’t this supposed to be about Hollywood Also, Paul McCartney’s band, Wings, got its name from HG Wells’s Wings Over the World, a flying fortress featured in “Things To Come”. And this is how one of the inspirations for steampunk, Wells, showed up on the cover of this Beatles album.
I’ve loved the genre for as long as I can remember. In fact, one of the first films I ever saw on the big screen was steampunk’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, based on a novel by the genre’s other major inspiration, Jules Verne.
We didn’t call those movies steampunk, of course. Verne-like. Retro SF maybe. It’d be decades before KW Jeter would come up with ‘steampunk’ as a tongue-in-cheek name for what the likes of Tim Powers were doing with “The Anubis Gate” while others were championing cyberpunk. The label IS inaccurate because the tales weren’t about steam, but about electricity, which was the Future. Also, they never featured punks.
One was more likely to come across scientists and other dapper characters.
I personally prefer the term ‘NeoVictorian’, but the Horse with a Name left the barn a long time ago, so ‘steampunk’ it is.
Why are those tales of Science & Technology ahead of their times so appealing? We each have our own reasons. For me, it may be that steampunk takes our everyday technology and puts it in a context where it’s not everyday anymore. It reminds me how many wonders there are in our world. Submarines. Airplanes. Cars. Cell phones. Computers.
So, here I am, about to talk about the genre’s hollywoodian past. It’s not exhaustive. While researching this, I found movies I’d never heard about, and some of them appear to deserve oblivion. Still, I’ll try to cover as many of the high points and low points and the stuff in between as possible, but I’ll stay away from enjoyable movies like “HellBoy” because, to me, giant cogs do not a steampunk movie make. They have to be an integral part of the story and not be easily replaced by more mundane death traps. I’ll also skip most stories set after 1903 because, when Orville Wright made that historical flight, the Victorian Era had truly ended. Mind you, I will ignore that criteria when it suits me.
That being said, I propose that there have been four eras to hollywoodian steampunk.
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The First Era was the Prehistory.
Jules Verne’s imagination was a source of steampunk early on although few have survived from the days of the silent film. I’ve never seen any footage from “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” adaptations of 1907 and 1916. One film that did survive is Melies’s “From the Earth to the Moon”. Made in 1902, it was inspired by Verne’s novel and by Wells’s “First Men in the Moon”. I read both novels decades ago, but I’m pretty sure that they didn’t feature ladies in tight pants. Maybe Melies added them to make up for the film’s dry scientific facts.
Then came 1929’s “Mysterious Island”. I couldn’t find any photo, so here is one of the actor who played Captain Nemo.
Yes, Lionel Barrymore, aka Evil Mr. Potter. The movie has nothing to do with Verne’s novel and is more an origin story that shows Nemo exiled to a volcanic island. There he builds his submarine, which takes him to the bottom of the sea, where he encounters dragons, the obligatory giant octopus, and an unknown race of humanoids.
This movie started as a silent one then became a talkie, an expensive process that unfortunately didn’t include a dream sequence of Gene Kelly dancing with Cyd Charisse.
What they did was reshoot some scenes with dialogue. This made for a neither-fish-nor-fowl film. It was a financial disaster and it’s been suggested that the stink of its failure clung to SF movies until the early 1950s. On the other hand, there WERE science-fiction films made during that period, and some were not low-budget affairs like the “Flash Gordon” serials. To name a few steampunk ones…
“Frankenstein” in 1931. “Island of Lost Souls” the following year. “The Invisible Man” in 1933… “Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde”, both the 1931 version with Fredrick March and the 1941 version with Spencer Tracy… For some reason, they tended to be about biology. One might object that most of them aren’t steampunk, but those films often felt set in a Reality where the Present and the 19th Century co-existed.
But it is true that for nearly 3 decades Verne was pretty much ignored by Hollywood while HG Wells was the writer whose works were sought for prestigious productions.
Until 1954, and the Second Era, which I call the Golden Age.
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That year, Disney’s “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” marked the birth of hollywoodian steampunk, and of steampunk as a genre. Verne became its inspiration while Wells was relegated to the background.
In the 1930s, Victor Fleming, director of “Gone with the Wind”, had planned a film based on Verne’s book, with Spencer Tracy as Nemo. Nothing came of it. Instead of holding on to the rights, they sold them to some smaller outfit which passed them to an even lesser company that did nothing with them. Finally Disney acquired them for what he originally intended to be an animated feature. The success of his first live-action films, “Robin Hood” and “Treasure Island”, was such that he decided to rethink things.
The movie holds together pretty well, after more than half a century, except for Kirk Douglas’s attempts at humor, especially when he sings with the Nautilus’s cute mascot of a seal. Also the grunting Pacific Island cannibals, played by black actors, hits high in the wince-o-meter. But. It has James Mason as the definitive Captain Nemo.
The film was very successful. For some reason though, Disney didn’t revisit the genre for 20 years. Others did. Eventually. In the meantime, most Verne-inspired films were based on “Around the World in 80 Days” and his other non-SF books, which were often travelogues and could be called steamerpunk.
Then 1958 came along with TWO steampunk films.
Czech director Karel Zeman directed “The Fabulous World of Jules Verne”. Inspired by Verne’s “Facing the Flag”, it certainly LOOKS like it was written by him. Zeman put his actors in sets reproducing the old illustrations’s style in this story where a young man must stop people who tricked an old scientist into revealing the secret of Pure Matter. They’re not doing this for the benefit of all humankind.
“We will rule the world together!"
Also in 1958, Byron Haskin directed “From the Earth to the Moon”. It featured Joseph Cotten as Victor Barbicane, and George Sanders as his adversary. It‘s quite unfaithful to Verne, but the results were certainly interesting. After the Civil War, Barbicane invents an explosive so powerful that he won’t share its secret, not even when President Grant intervenes. The mushroom cloud from a test explosion has Barbicane decide to build a rocket to go to the Moon where he can further test his terrible weapon. I know, that doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a decent movie, if slow in parts. It was originally going to be a big-budget affair that was then slashed down, and that’s too bad. It might be a classic of steampunk today if not for its pitiful visual effects, and sound effects lifted straight from “Forbidden Planet”.
1959 saw the release of the first adaptation of Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, and, in my opinion, the best of them all. Mean people could say that it’s an easy claim to make, considering what the later versions were like. Well, it IS a classic, with a great script and a great cast. It’s strange to think that James Mason wasn’t the film’s original Professor Lindenbrook. Clifton Webb, of “Laura” fame, was, but had to step down because of poor health. So inside Iceland’s volcano Skartaris and into the Unknown they go, ably assisted by Gertrude the duck. They encounter giant mushrooms and giant iguanas before they reach an underground sea after many months.
Based on what he did upon their return to the surface, it’d appear that Pat Boone’s character didn’t handle well his being away from his girlfriend for so long.
1960 serves us, at last, a story by Wells. For years, George Pal had tried to get Paramount interested in “The Time Machine” but they passed. Pal eventually got his wish at MGM.
He originally wanted Paul Scofield to play the Time Traveler, but Rod Taylor was fine as the man who ventures into Earth’s far future, to the year 802701 – on October 12 to be precise, which happens to be the date of Columbus’s landing in America. The movie had the Eloi and the Morlocks be the result of an atomic war. Then again, at the height of the Cold War, it might have been unpatriotic to propose that uncontrolled capitalism would lead to humanity’s split. In spite of its low budget, this movie has more sense of wonder in it than 2002’s version.
In 1961, we returned to Verne, with not one, not two, but THREE movies.
One is “The Valley of the Dragons”. Based on “Hector Servadac”, it has a comet that comes so close to Earth that the strong winds from its passage carries away some people who then find themselves on the Moon, where they encounter giant reptiles, prehistoric humans AND pretty girls.
“Master of the World”, starring Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, was conjured by Richard Matheson out of two Verne novels about the creator of a huge flying ship - “Robur the Conqueror” and “Master of the World”. As seemed mandatory for the inventors of futuristic vehicles in those films, Robur wages war against war. I guess it IS a more dramatic plot device than just having a travelogue as Verne’s stories could be. Unlike Nemo though, Robur drops pamphlets and waits to be shot at before destroying the British Navy in an air raid against London. Don’t get me wrong. This is probably one of my favorite steampunk movies.
The beginning of Harryhausen’s “Mysterious Island” is actually quite faithful to Verne’s novel. Union soldiers escape from a camp of the South, using a balloon. Caught in a storm, they crash on an island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. The film was going to be a straight survival story, like the novel, which did feature Captain Nemo. However, the producers felt that was boring and jazzed things up by having Nemo – played by Herbert Lom of “Pink Panther” fame - genetically engineer one giant bee, one giant crab, and one giant prehistoric flightless bird.
That was 1961, during which Alan Sheppard became the first American to go into space. In what may be a sign of the times, after this quite abundant period, no steampunk movie is released for the next three years.
1964’s “First Men in the Moon” is probably Harryhausen’s best movie, maybe even more so than “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”. A great part of that may be because the script, adapted from the HG Wells novel, was by Nigel Kneale, creator of Quatermass. The story begins in the early 1960s, with the landing of the first expedition to the Moon, led by the United Nations. Then we jump back to 1899, which is when the REAL first expedition occurred. Once on the Moon, they find themselves facing a highly regimented society of intelligent insects living under the surface.
By the way, this is the only SF movie in which (SLIDE#038) Peter Finch ever appeared – unless one considers “Lost Horizon” or “Elephant Walk” to be science-fiction.
After that, steampunk mostly stayed away from theaters, and moved to TV.
It even showed up in “Lost in Space”, when a character from the Arabian Nights kidnaps Will and Penny Robinson along with Doctor Smith. He takes them to his steam-powered asteroid, with which he’s been looking all over the universe for his girlfriend trapped inside a bottle. One could think “Oh, more insanity from Irwin Allen.” Or one could be generous and see Irwin as an unsung pioneer of the modern fusion of steampunk with fantasy – or with Science so advanced that it looks like Magic.
More… ah… serious, “The Wild Wild West” ran from 1965 until 1969. While the 20th Century’s spy James Bond was repeatedly saving the world from Ernst Stavro Blofeld and his kitty, James West and Artemus Gordon were doing the same thing, but in the 19th Century’s very wild, wild West. They thwart the likes of evil scientific genius Doctor Miguelito Quixote Loveles, who wants California for himself and who is assisted by Voltaire, a mute giant. At other times, they had to deal with steel-plated killers or with Boris Karloff, whose idea of entertainment involved dancing gorillas.
Appropriately enough, steampunk’s Second Era ends in 1969 with the character who had brought it into being.
“Captain Nemo and the Underwater City” was a big-screen MGM production, with Robert Ryan as you-know-who and Chuck Connors sporting an awesome pompadour. I've always liked the movie in spite of itself. Instead of adapting (or mangling) an existing story, it used its central character for a completely new tale. For decades Nemo’s been building a Utopian society deep under the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. As usual he is a very scientifically advanced man, but not THAT advanced when it comes to the contributions women can make to Society. Those appear to mostly involve teaching kids how to swim. Some of Nemo’s innovations include the theremin, lobster-shaped alarm bells, and radio communication between divers but not between submarines for plot-convenient reasons. Did I mention genetic engineering gone horribly wrong with one giant demented manta? For all his genius though, Nemo has blind spots: when one of the people you saved from a shipwreck tells you he reallyreallyreally is claustrophobic, do pay attention before the rescuee tries to punch a hole in your underwater city's dome.
Produced the year after Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and on the year when a human first landed on the Moon, this movie feels like an anomaly. The Future, for better or for worse, was very much on people’s minds. They did go see movies set in the past, but it was the recent past, seen thru the glasses of Nostalgia and without Science or Technology to remind them why they were flocking to those films.
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Part Two can be found here;