It’s not terribly clear whether it is intentional or not, but Twilight Time has the habit of releasing titles that are thematically or generically linked around each other. Of their string of recent releases, three immediately jump out. These three films each take a look at the unknown through the lens of science fiction; three bold, imaginative, and visually stunning films. The films in question are 1959’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1964’s First Men in the Moon, and, finally, John Boorman’s 1974 cult-classic Zardoz. These films, each from a different decade, in many ways couldn’t be more different from each other. Yet, there are many things that unite them. They are all, in some form or another, adapted from literature — with Zardoz being less an adaptation than a hybrid of Boorman’s own take on The Lord of the Rings (after his planned production fell apart) mixed with The Wizard of Oz. In another light, each film is somewhat dated — so-called relics of past science fiction, the “pre-Star Wars” era. While this sounds like a denunciation of them, it couldn’t be farther from the truth, because in this lies a key to the past. And, while certain aspects of the films haven’t aged well, overall, each of the films still manage to be captivating and entertaining long after their release.
Going in chronological order, we begin with Henry Levin’s 1959 action-adventure, science fiction epic Journey to the Center of the Earth. Based on Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Voyage au centre de la Terre, Levin’s film could be criticized (even in the late 50’s), as being guilty of more than a few scientific faux pas that perhaps weren’t as apparent when the source material was being written, but that is not really the point. Unfortunately, in an era where people seem increasingly interested in the accuracy of cinema (see this New York Times article for an example), this may come as an annoyance to new viewers. Fair warning, if you want your science fiction to be scientifically accurate this is probably not your movie (but you are also doing it wrong). For those with imaginations, those willing to suspend their disbelief, I think you’ll find the film a terribly effective little gem from the late 1950s.
With that said, the film is not quite the romp that Twilight Time historian-in-residence Julie Kirgo describes in the liner notes. At two hours and twelve minutes, the film is a tad long. Further, it takes nearly an hour for the expedition to start. Granted, the script by Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett is full of witticisms and snappy dialogue, so it is not to say that the film necessarily drags but there are some pacing issues that leave a little to be desired. The film is really driven home by James Mason’s brilliant performance as the surly Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook. Mason’s strength as an actor is really on display, transforming the surly and, to be frank sexist (a sign of the times for sure), Lindenbrook into a likable character. Without Mason, it is hard to say that the film would be the classic it is.
Some of the aforementioned pacing issues are, however, negated by Leo Tover’s beautiful cinematography and, of course, the composition work by one of cinema’s greats, Bernard Herrmann. While, normally, I’d credit the director for the visual work of a film (giving proper credit to the DPs for lighting), it does seem that, based on each of their respective filmographies, Tover probably brought more experience to the set than Levin, who hadn’t worked on a great deal of Sci-Fi films prior. Regardless, the result is simply stunning. Late 50s/early 60s cinema has one of the most breathtaking visual looks, and Journey is not an exception. Shot in Cinemascope with DeLuxe color the film has that beautiful earthy texture to it. There are some that complain that DeLuxe color is inferior to Technicolor, with Technicolor offering a more natural spread of skin tones. This reviewer, however, has always found the dark brown skin tones of DeLuxe marvelous. Given that the DeLuxe+Cinemascope combination was a favorite for another Twilight Time regular, Richard Fleischer, one wonders what the film may have been like had Fleischer been in the directing seat. It may seem like pointless contemplation for some, but it was the success of Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that prompted the green-lighting of Journey. When speaking of the visuals, this restoration cannot be overlooked. Having released the film previously in 2012, this release comes as Twilight Time’s second visitation of the film, and this time they have knocked it out of the proverbial park. 20th Century Fox’s new 4k restoration from the original negatives is, without exaggeration, one of the most pristine prints we’ve had the pleasure of viewing.
Jumping ahead five years, we are met with Nathan Juran’s adaptation from the HG Wells story, First Men in the Moon. Stylistically speaking, First Men is not far off from Journey. As it is also shot in Cinemascope, the film plays as a nice companion with Journey and many other iconic Science-Fiction pictures from the late 50s to 60s. The pacing issues present in Journey, however, are not a problem in Juran’s film, which is quick to jump into the main thrust of the film. While Levin’s film is undeniably held in higher regard, First Men is no slag. While some may argue, it seems to me that the film is most notable for the contributions by Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen has become an iconic, almost mythic force in cinema’s history, and for good reason. There is not one quite like him. His work is completely singular. First Men doesn’t have quite the resonance as something like Clash of the Titans, in regards to the effects, but it looks great every step of the way. It almost has a silent-era aesthetic to it, like something you can imagine coming out of Fritz Lang or even George Méliès’s studio. By the time the expedition reaches the moon, the film is a full-on spectacle to behold.
Ironically enough — although it is more and more the case with all of these films — both First Men in the Moon and Journey to the Center of the Earth have had 2000s era re-adaptations, with the new Journey being a blockbuster extravaganza and box-office success. While current readers may (or may not) be more familiar with these new adaptations, both of these films still have a resonance today. They are finely crafted films that focus more on the development of strong characters and dialogue than the effects. Yet, even with an emphasis paid towards the building blocks, the films feature beautiful effects.
As for Zardoz, I highly doubt we will ever see a remake…and that is probably for the best. What would a remake of this film even look like? It is one of the few films ever made that, without a doubt, does not need a remake. Why? Because, forty years after its release, Zardoz is every bit as perplexing as it was upon its release. In fact, the introduction to the film was included at the behest of Boorman, because the studio felt that audiences wouldn’t get it. Even with its presence, audiences still failed to understand what Boorman was going for. While Zardoz has become a cult-classic for many reasons, sometimes this love is actually to the detriment of the film. A tradition has formed around the film that seems to value it only on its excessiveness. Sure, the costumes, the effects, the acting, the dialogue, are all guilty of being a bit laughable, but that is not to say that the film is not incredibly deep.
Knowing Boorman’s work really helps to work through the film’s nuances. While I do not claim to be either an expert on philosophy, politics, or even the work of John Boorman, Boorman’s style has always been that of heightened intellectuality. One can read through Zardoz’s lines and find a far deeper meaning than might be apparent. Existing beneath the surface of this film is a discussion of class, gender, sex, and religion. In spite of everything that heavily dates the film, the content is increasingly fresh and original. Sean Connery has been noted as famously agreeing to the whacky role as a way of shaking his Bond image, something that had begun to hinder his career. For that, mission accomplished because this is one of Connery’s most distinctive roles. In fact, it could be said that, Zed is one of Connery’s best performances, because for as esoteric and weird as the movie goes, Connery anchors it. Further, it is almost impossible to connect in any psychological way with Zed — something that can only be read as intentional. Zed acts on almost pure animalistic impulse. Despite our inability to identity with Zed, Connery is nonetheless mesmerizing.
Theories surrounding the meaning of Zardoz are scattered across every corner of the internet. Despite the film’s lack of success upon its release, it has remained alive in arthouse and cult circles, gaining new audiences each year. Twilight Time’s release marks the film’s debut on Blu-Ray, and the beautiful transfer really helps to highlight the technical prowess of Boorman. Boorman is perhaps one of cinema’s most overlooked filmmakers. In all of his films, Boorman is able to weave a tapestry of social and political commentary. Mainly known for Deliverance, the Irish filmmaker has produced countless efforts, each worthy of a viewing. What really ties this package together, however, is Boorman’s commentary — which has been ported over from a previous DVD release. No release of Zardoz should be without it, as Boorman’s thoughts on the film do help to elevate the picture beyond what many have come to think of it; many of the film’s idiosyncrasies are revealed. It really is a remarkably deep and challenging film.
Despite Twilight Time’s limited releases, which often lead to desirable titles selling out fast, the films are still available — at least at the time of this writing — through exclusive distribution partnership with Screen Archives. With each film featuring more special features than the typical TT release, each of these films come as a high recommend from Diabolique, and we urge you to grab a copy before they sell out and are only available for after market prices.