Victorian leakage 

Mixed-signal movies from a past that never was

We use the term “Victorian” generally to describe the times, the British people, their attitudes, tastes and achievements during the 63-year reign of Queen Victoria, who ruled the British Empire at its high-water mark from 1837 to 1901. We speak of Victorian literature and architecture, Victorian fashions like bustles, balloon-like sleeves and whalebone corsets, and Victorian morals and social mores, particularly those regarding sex.

In the movies, Victorian is a feeling you get as much as anything else—and often a slightly repressed one at that. Lavish costume dramas and comedies have always been a popular forum for exploring Victorian themes—how many adaptations of Charles Dickens novels can you think of?—but because the moving picture made its debut just a few years before the end of Victoria’s tenure, these latent Victorian urges must be expressed retroactively. Contemporary filmmakers charge themselves with the task of re-creating Victorian atmospheres considerably after the event, and the results are usually more interesting when a movie either takes a good deal of license with its Victoriana or simply gets it all wrong.

One interesting case study in Victorian leakage—as I like to call it when cuffs and collar don’t quite match—is the modern horror movie set in Victorian times. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is a virtual feast of leakage—a bizarre mix-and-match of Victorian decors, ’20s Expressionist horror motifs and incongruous modern gross-out. In his various physical incarnations, Coppola’s count is a consummately Victorian horror—the creepy aristocrat—and merely another cheesy monster from a modern horror movie. The scantily-clad were-sisters who try to seduce Keanu Reeves’ character in Dracula’s basement, and the addition of a Texan character in western-cut jacket and waistcoat (as well as a Bowie knife that lends itself to a crudely modern dick-joke), provide more evidence of a period update at odds with itself. Watching Coppola’s Dracula, and modern Victorian horror generally, is like gorging on fruitcake while sucking down Zima.

An even more unlikely genre, however, is the Victorian action movie, a la Barry Sonnenfeld’s westernized-Victorian 1999 dog’s breakfast Wild Wild West and Stephen Norrington’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, currently in theaters. The costumes, decor and computer-generated environment of LXG represent Victorian revanchism at its most sumptuous, while practically everything else about it screams brainless comic-book action movie. Get the two together and you’ve got enough leakage to at least make it worth renting for a buck when it comes out on video.

The Lost World Hard to find on video (but dirt-cheap to buy as part of a DVD triple feature), this 1925 film version of the story by Arthur Conan Doyle is a gem not just of Victorian adventure, but also of early stop-motion animation. Wallace Beery plays Professor Challenger, a controversial Van Helsing-like Victorian scientist who leads an exploration party into the South American jungle (“Bigger than the whole of Europe!”) to settle a bet that dinosaurs are still living there. It’s Jurassic Park decades before Michael Crichton or Steven Spielberg, and the dinosaur effects by Willis O’Brien (King Kong) are marvelous. Not the first, but one of the most interesting (and financially successful) early screen adaptations of Scientific Romance literature, a precursor to science fiction that grew out of the Victorian era, when the British Empire encompassed over a quarter of the globe. In addition to the triple-feature set, a more expensive DVD with restored footage (91 minutes, much of it in still photograph form, as opposed to cheaper, 79-minute combo-pack version) is also available.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea “I’ve got a whale of a tale to tell you lads/A whale of a tale or two/Of the flappin’ fish and the girls I’ve loved...”

And so begins the jaunty tune that will follow jolly harpooner Ned Land around for the duration of this Disney classic starring Kirk Douglas (as Land) and James Mason as Captain Nemo. It’s a delightful musical scene (Douglas actually sings!) in an all-around wonderful movie—just re-released in an excellent DVD package loaded with extras.

And a whale of a tale it is, too, with giant squids and rampaging natives, memorable performances and a good bit of fun to go with the drama. Mason’s brooding Nemo (an Englishman in this version, not the East Indian exile of the original Jules Verne novel) uncharacteristically rescues Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas after sinking their ship, and all sorts of adventures ensue.

It’s a great movie above and beyond all subtext, but there’s something much deeper at work here than even the pessimistic Nemo and his ruminations on a world killing itself a little at a time with Victorian-era WMDs. A previous silent film version of Verne’s story, released in 1916, coincided with a growing public fascination with submarines in combat during World War I—the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine had taken place just one year earlier. The 1954 Disney version was released the same year as the commissioning of the first nuclear submarine, and just over 10 years after German attacks on American shipping that had taken a terrible toll in human life during the early days of World War II.

Disney’s Nautilus is, of course, a nuclear submarine—just like the real nuclear submarine that was named for it—but a fabulously anachronistic Victorian ironclad designed by the studio’s creative team. The nuclear furnace depicted in the film is a marvel of retro-Victorian, quasi-Expressionist artifice: numerous color wheels spinning behind rows of clear plastic salad bowls embedded in fiberglass panels. Now there’s a strange juxtaposition of Victorian leakage and scary reality for you—if only real nuclear reality were so charming!

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