Home > Reviews > 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA – Paul J. Smith

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA – Paul J. Smith


Original Review by Craig Lysy

This classic Jules Verne’s novel was adapted to the screen by Earl Felton. It tells the story of the adventure of Professor Aronnax (Paul Lukas), Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) and Conseil (Peter Lorre) whom Captain Nemo (James Mason) captures after he sinks their ship. Aboard his submarine the Nautilus, they explore the underwater wonders of the sea and battle amazing sea creatures. But all is not well as Nemo, despite his scientific genius, is quite mad and uses the power of the Nautilus to pursue a course of vengeance upon humanity. Ultimately Nemo is undone by his own demons and arrogance as he and the Nautilus perish into the ocean depths as our three heroes escape. The film was the first to use the new Cinemascope technology and was both a commercial and critical success, earning Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Special Effects.

Paul J. Smith was a natural choice by Disney to score the film as he had written a number of very successful scores for the studio including “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” 1937, “Pinocchio” for which he one an Oscar in 1940, and “Cinderella” 1950. The score features three themes and two motifs. The main theme is Captain Nemo’s Theme, a tragic minor modal melody comprised of an A phrase, which is expressed by dark horns and tragic strings with wondrous harp glissandi, while the B phrase flows with lyrical strings and twinkling harp glissandi that lighten the color of the piece while maintaining its dramatic arc. This theme is in reality Captain Nemo, our story’s anti-hero. It animates the score and helps to provide the film an important gravitas. The second theme, Ned’s Theme, offers a complete contrast and perfectly emotes the raw, comic and unsophisticated persona of Ned. His theme is a nautical sounding seven-note statement carried by horns or woodwinds that ranges from the bravado, to carefree or comic. The third theme is the wondrous Nautical Theme, emoted by lyrical tranquillo strings and woodwinds for scenes where we see sailing ships on sparkling seas. There are also two motifs, the six-note Nautilus Motif usually emoted by dark portentous horns and menacing tremolo strings, which is emblematic of the destructive power of his creation. The second is the Descent Motif, which features a rapid descent in scale either by full orchestra or combinations of strings and woodwinds, which is used to underscore people or the camera descending through the watery depths. Each is well conceived and applied throughout the film.

The “Main Title” plays as the opening credits run on the screen, beginning powerfully with a grand and portentous statement of dramatic heraldic horns. We flow seamlessly into a full and powerful statement of Captain Nemo’s Theme. We continue as the curtain rises on the screen with a bridge passage of lyrical strings, harp glissandi and trumpets. At 1:23 low register woodwinds, contrabass and timpani emote repeating dark chords as the opening lines of Verne’s novel are displayed and reveal the loss of many ships in the South Seas to an “avenging monster”. At 1:39 the mood lightens with the Nautical Theme as we see a ship sailing gracefully on the high seas. At 1:53 we hear the Descent Motif as the camera descends to an ominous green-lit Nautilus lurking in the distance. Dark portentous horns repeatedly sound the six-note Nautilus Motif as the Nautilus accelerates on a vector to ram the vessel. As the Nautilus accelerates so too does the repeating cadence of the horns until an orchestral crash when the vessel is rammed and explodes. This is really quite an astounding and dramatic cue that is perfectly attenuated to the film’s opening imagery.

“Street Fight” begins with a farcical horn descent over tremolo strings as Ned is knocked in the head, falls into the mud and begins a raucous street brawl. We are then introduced to a bravado Ned’s Theme that is joined by dueling syncopated woodwinds and horns supported by lively strings alluding to an Irish gig. This comic and outrageous cue continues to play as an exciting and repeating line with Ned’s Theme throughout the scene. We segue at 0:41 with solo oboe and flute dancing over lyrical violins as Professor Aronnax and Conseil are seen riding in a carriage through town.

“Aboard the Abraham Lincoln” tranquillo French horns usher in the beautiful Nautical Theme as the Abraham Lincoln sails on azure seas. Later in the day at 0:34 dramatic horns and string glissandi play as the ship is buffeted in stormy seas. Repeating descending string glissandi and woodwinds are cleverly used to convey the seasickness of Conseil and play against Ned’s Theme carried on trumpets as he offers a banana to Conseil. Comic horns play as Conseil flees to throws up. At 1:10 a new clear day dawns and the Nautical Theme returns with sparkling strings runs as we see countless dolphins leaping along ship. At 1:49 in “Hunting the Monster”, dark horns blare, raise the alarm but subside as Ned’s Theme sounds on muted trumpet when we see a whale in the distance.

“The Monster Attacks” is really an exciting cue that features interplay of competing horn lines. Muted horns usher in the repeating Nautilus Motif as we see it in the distance. Militaristic snare drums join the fray as the Lincoln’s Captain calls his crew to battle stations. Regal trumpets play counter to the Nautilus Motif as the ship opens fire on the Nautilus. Rolling timpani and deafening horns repeatedly sounding the Nautilus Motif play over tremolo strings in a sustained accelerando as the Nautilus begins her attack run that ends with a collision and a damaged Lincoln limping away.

In “Deserted Sub” Aronnax and Conseil swim to a floating mast as plaintive horns and strings illustrate their desperation. As they drift, lyrical strings and woodwinds flow until tremolo violins and syncopated woodwinds reveal the Nautilus. Low register strings repeatedly perform the reserved Nautilus Motif against mysterioso violins, harp and woodwinds as they board the ship. A shifting violin sustain with plaintive woodwinds play as they explore the ship’s interior. At 3:11 lush strings play Captain Nemo’s Theme as Aronnax enters his study. A scene shift to Ned and Conseil exploring the Nautilus returns the eerie exploration music with a hint of Ned’s Theme on woodwinds. At 6:14 in “Burial” as Aronnax and Conseil observe an underwater funeral through a view port, a solemn Captain Nemo’s Theme plays with accents of woodwind, harp and religioso horns. At 7:30 in “Captured”, Nemo sees Aronnax through the viewport and dissonant trumpets blare the alarm. French horns sound the Nautilus Motif and desperate strings and horns play furiously as the three men attempt to escape the Nautilus, only to be subdued by the crew.

In “Fifty Fathoms” we see the Nautilus cruising undersea to a reserved Captain Nemo’s Theme emoted by muted French horns. At 0:40 woodwinds carry the Descent Motif as Ned and Conseil plunge in diving suits into the water. At 0:50 we segue into “The Island of Crespo” a score highlight of uncommon beauty. A solo oboe set atop strings plays as the men walk along the sea floor. In a wondrous extended passage, woodwinds, oscillating strings that evoke the motion of water and muted horns play as Nemo and Aronnax join the underwater expedition. Solo oboe, harp and twinkling piano flow in and out of the music as we see the extraordinary beauty of sea life. This lyrical string and woodwind carried melody continues until 3:37 when the tempo becomes gently syncopated with woodwinds and piano as we see the party harvesting the bounty of the sea. At 5:27 Ned’s Theme on woodwinds interrupts the lyrical flow a he and Conseil see an undersea wreck. As they enter the wreck a solo oboe plays and is joined by strings that evoke trepidation. Ned’s Theme dances in and out of an increasingly comedic line as he struggles to retrieve a treasure chest. At 7:43 menacing horns and contrabasses rumble as a shark moves in to attack. After Nemo kills the shark his theme sounds ominously as he orders his men to retrieve Nate and Conseil.

“Storm at Sea” opens with blaring fanfare as we see a violent storm at sea. We quickly segue into “Nemo Plays” where we hear him playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor as the Nautilus cruises undersea. In “Strange Man of the Seas” Nemo explains to Aronnax the beauty and peace he feels in his undersea domain where he is removed from the cruelty and violence of the terrestrial world. A solo plaintive oboe ushers in the tragic laden A phrase of Captain Nemo’s Theme, which flows into a beautiful melodic line of low register strings, woodwinds, rumbling contrabass and horns. A scene change a 1:50 carried by light woodwinds takes us to the Isle of Rura Penthe, where Nemo takes Aronnax ashore to see a horrific slave labor camp where condemned men mine nitrates and phosphorus for gunpowder. Dark rumbling bass, tortured strings, and deep percussion join his tragic theme as Nemo tells of his internment here, how he and his crew escaped, discovered the island of Vulcania, and then built the Nautilus.

In “Justified Hate” after a Descent Motif intro, the Danger Motif sounds frightfully as the Nautilus moves in and destroys a munitions ship. Elegiac strings play as a horrified Ned, Aronnax and Conseil watch the ship sink and explode through the viewport. The cue concludes with a sad A phrase statement of Captain Nemo’s Theme. “Searching Nemo’s Cabin” features Ned and Conseil rummaging through Nemo’s cabin to discover charts that identify the location of the isle of Vulcania. It is a comedic-suspense cue that begins with farcical horns and Ned’s Theme carried by bassoon and reprised with dissonant trumpets. Suspense music and Ned’s Theme alternate until a scene shift at 2:11 when dark rumbling bass, piano and horns sound as Nemo and his crew repair the broken rudder. We conclude the cue with a comedic line of woodwinds, silly horns and Ned’s Theme.

In “Ashore at New Guinea” comic woodwinds perform Ned’s Theme, which gives way to lush string carried music of paradise as Ned and Conseil take the skiff to the island of New Guinea. The melodic line replete with trilling woodwinds is exaggerated and at times comedic as his theme is joined with whistling as he moves to escape. The cue ends on a shrill orchestral blast as he sees dozens of pole-mounted skulls. In “Native Drums” we hear native drum sounds, which cause Ned to begin his flight back to the safety. In “Back to the Nautilus” raucous chase music is accented with trilling woodwinds, his theme as well as native horn and percussive textures as Ned flees for his life with natives in hot pursuit. This is one madcap cue!

In “Submerge”, dark low register descending chords play as the Nautilus’ hull is ruptured by a warship’s canon ball and she begins sinking. A sustained dark line by contrabass, kindred strings and woodwinds play as the crew struggles to restore the ship’s propulsion. The Descending Motif sounds as we see the ship continuing to sink. Once the propulsion is restored Captain Nemo’s Theme plays as he relates that they are now deeper than man has ever gone before. In “The Giant Squid” we are treated to an exciting extended action cue. It begins with an orchestral blast as we see a monstrous giant squid rise up from the depths and begin a pursuit of the Nautilus. Menacing horns and contrabass sound as the crew spots the Squid in the aft view port. A horn line accelerando begins as the squid moves in for the kill with a horn shrill marking its capture of the Nautilus. When Nemo orders the vessel to surface so as to fight the creature topside, rolling timpani, rumbling contrabass and blaring horns mark the ascent. Trilling woodwinds and horn fare signal that they have reached the storm swept surface. A line of trilling woodwinds, horn blast and contrabass play as the crew battles the beast. When Nemo is grasped, we hear Ned’s Theme play as he comes to the rescue, slays the Squid with a harpoon and then dives into the water to retrieve a drowning Nemo. The cue ends with a descending horn line that gives way to a triumphant rendering of Ned’s Theme

“Ambush at Vulcania” Dark ominous contrabass play as the crew alerts Nemo that warships surround the island. His theme plays powerfully over rumbling contra bass as he navigates the Nautilus through a narrow passage and surfaces in the island’s caldera lagoon. As Nemo leads a shore party to destroy his installation, we hear militaristic snare drums and horn fare, which intensifies, creating a sense of urgency as troops cross over the volcanic lip. As Nemo flees back to the Nautilus, his theme plays against contrapuntal militaristic trumpet fanfares and relentless snare drums. An accelerando of his theme in scale and tempo plays as he seeks the safety of the hatch, but a bass horn blast signals a mortal bullet strike as he staggers through the hatch. “Nemo Wounded” features a dying Nemo taking the Nautilus through the passage back to the open sea. His theme plays tragically and full of remorse on horns and strings as he struggles to pilot the ship. In “Escape from Vulcania” a dying Nemo orders the ship bottomed where they will all be interned for eternity. When Ned refuses to be part of a mass suicide and fights for his freedom we are then treated to some fierce action writing as he and the first mate fight. Woodwinds play over ostinato strings and blaring horns as they struggle. As he frees himself trumpets sound and he navigates the Nautilus to the surface to an ascending motif of woodwinds and tremolo strings. Blaring horns and rolling timpani signal a resumption of his fight with the first mate until horn blasts signal his triumph. Urgent strings and French horns play as he frees Aronnax and Conseil and they flee the Nautilus in the skiff. At 3:13 we shift scenes to a dying Nemo and hear his theme emoted tragically by solo oboe and rumbling contrabass to end the cue. We conclude the score dramatically with “Finale-Deep Is the Mighty Ocean” where an impassioned and hopeful Captain Nemo’s Theme born by strings plays powerfully and ends in a horn flourish as the Island explodes and the Nautilus is consumed by waves

I must offer a heartfelt thanks to Randy Thornton, Disney and Intrada for this world premiere release of this epic score. The restoration of this three-track two-channel audiotape is nothing short of miraculous. The quality of the sound is actually quite good considering the age of the masters and the1954 technology used. This is a truly classic Golden Age score with good themes, several strong motifs and some classic action scoring. Smith’s ability to create aquatic textures in the music was well conceived and executed. If you want a classic fantasy score packed with drama, adventure, suspense and comedy, then this is the score for you. I recommend this to both fantasy niche and general collectors alike.

Rating: ****

Buy the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (Captain Nemo’s Theme) (2:26)
  • Street Fight (1:04)
  • Aboard the Abraham Lincoln/Hunting The Monster (2:29)
  • A Whale of a Tale (2:10)
  • The Monster Attacks (2:21)
  • Deserted Sub/Burial/Captured (9:14)
  • Fifty Fathoms/The Island of Crespo (8:45)
  • Storm At Sea/Nemo Plays (2:26)
  • Strange Man of the Seas (4:04)
  • Nemo’s Torment (1:00)
  • Justified Hate (1:29)
  • Searching Nemo’s Cabin (4:02)
  • Ned’s Bottles (0:44)
  • Ashore at New Guinea (2:55)
  • Native Drums/Back to the Nautilus (3:50)
  • Submerge (1:45)
  • The Giant Squid (6:54)
  • Ambush at Vulcania (4:47)
  • Nemo Wounded (2:44)
  • Escape From Vulcania (3:43)
  • Finale/Deep is the Mighty Ocean (0:52)
  • A Whale of a Tale (Single Side A) (written by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel, performed by Kirk Douglas) (2:07)
  • And the Moon Grew Brighter and Brighter (Single Side B) (performed by Kirk Douglas) (2:32)
  • A Whale of a Tale (written by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel, performed by Bill Kanady) (2:22)
  • A Whale of a Tale (written by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel, performed by The Wellingtons) (2:00)
  • A Whale of a Tale (Reprise) (written by Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel, performed by Kirk Douglas) (0:12)

Running Time: 78 minutes 23 seconds

Walt Disney/Intrada Records D001415702 (1954/2011)

Music and conducted composed by Paul J. Smith. Orchestrations by Joseph Dubin. Album produced by Randy Thornton and Douglass Fake.

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