Cy Endfield directed "Mysterious Island" with a screenplay written by John Prebble, Daniel Ullman and Crane Wilbur, loosely based upon the original novel by French author Jules Verne (1828-1905). The cast is comprised of Michael Craig as Capt. Cyrus Harding, Joan Greenwood as Lady Mary Fairchild, Michael Callan as Herbert Brown, Gary Merrill as Gideon Spilitt, Herbert Lom as Capt. Nemo, Beth Rogan as Elena Fairchild, Percy Herbert as Sgt. Pencroft, and Dan Jackson as Cpl. Neb Nugent. The film was produced by Charles H. Schneer, featuring a grand music score by Bernard Herrmann (recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra), cinematography by Wilkie Cooper, Art Direction by Bill Andrews, and sensational visual effects created by Ray Harryhausen.
Opening Credits and Following Scenes
The film opens with the powerful orchestral music of Bernard Herrmann, utilizing a very large orchestra incorporating 8 horns, 4 tubas and an expanded wind and percussion section. We are swept up into enormous waves of imagination as we encounter Herrmann's vivid and spectacular score. Although Ray Harryhausen has stated that his original idea was to showcase a prehistoric concept, he indicates in the accompanying documentary that this plan was altered in order to highlight the plight of survivors on a marooned island in the Pacific, a vehicle for introducing giant creatures via the "Super Dynamation" process.
The film opens with a scene from the American Civil War as Federal and Confederate armies face one another during the Siege of Richmond, Virginia in 1865. As a storm rages outside of a Confederate prison, Federal prisoners make plans to escape, hoping to capture an observation balloon despite an armed guard and the furious windstorm aloft. The masterful set design gives a very atmospheric feel to the interior of the prison and the outer courtyard where the balloon is secured in the midst of buffeting winds and heavy rainfall. Through a clever execution of events, the Federal prisoners make their daring escape and manage to take the balloon aloft, narrowly missing a few rifle shots from the Confederate guards as well as avoiding a sharp steeple almost directly in their appointed path of ascent.
The Journey Aloft
Although Capt. Harding's plan of escape is successful, the group of escapees now includes a Confederate soldier (Sgt. Pencroft) who valiantly attempts but fails to halt the stealing of the balloon. Now there are five passengers in the wicker basket beneath the balloon, including Capt. Harding, Pvt. Herbert Brown, newspaper correspondent Gideon Spilitt, Cpl. Neb Nugent and the aforementioned Sgt. Pencroft (an unwilling participant in the grand escape). As furious winds carry the balloon further and further aloft, Capt. Harding narrates the story via a descriptive voice-over, indicating they are now "prisoners of the wind" in the greatest storm in American history. The group witnesses "forests torn up by their roots," and begins to feel "helpless in the storm's mighty grip." Capt. Harding intuitively speculates internally about ever setting foot on earth again.
Music, Storms & Atmosphere
When someone notices a large body of water below, the group decides to lower the balloon's altitude in order to investigate their exact location. After days of travel initiated by incredible winds, it is thought that they may now be over the Pacific Ocean. As the descent proves to be too fast (due to a stuck release valve), Capt. Harding heroically climbs up the craft's rigging to try to stem the rapid fall but manages only to break the valve. The group is now stuck in mid-air, unable to descend or ascend, frozen at a specific height above the ocean waters below. A storm appears, forcing the crippled vessel to be carried westward in the furious current of the moment, lashed by wind-gusts and torrential patterns of rain. The balloon tears open causing a rapid descent toward the angry waters swirling beneath the imperiled craft. Capt. Harding orders everything of weight to be thrown out, guns, food, ammunition, all in order to reduce heaviness. Everyone must climb the rigging to get closer to the balloon in hopes of jettisoning the wicker basket as a further measure of weight reduction. It is a precarious moment and Herbert hesitates as he looks down upon the violently churning sea far below. Capt. Harding orders Herbert to make a snap decision, "You climb or you drown!" This scene features a magnificent portrait of the sea and the ruptured balloon as the basket is cut loose and falls to earth below. The music of Bernard Herrmann adds immensely to the overall excitement, flavor and atmosphere of the special effects introduced by Ray Harryhausen and the artists involved in this thrilling fantasy film.