The Fabulous World of Karel Zeman

During the summer of 1961 a double feature aimed at children was being distributed in selected cities across the U.S.. If you saw the titles on a theatre marquee, you might think they were Walt Disney releases – Bimbo the Great and The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. But anyone who ventured inside the theatre immediately realized that these films were NOT made in Hollywood. And in the case of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, it didn’t even look like the film was made in the 20th century!

The co-feature Bimbo the Great was actually the poorly dubbed English language version of Rivalen der Manege, which was originally released in Germany in 1958. It was a circus film but, despite the title, Bimbo was not an elephant or some other animal star attraction. He was a trapeze artist whose wife/partner is killed in a rigged accident intended for Bimbo by his jealous half-brother. Bimbo becomes an alcoholic, loses custody of his young daughter and – except for a climatic fire and the garish Eastmancolor – this was not something to hold the interest of a pre-teen audience.

The companion feature, however, was something else entirely. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, also known as Invention for Destruction, was from Czechoslovakia and also originally released in 1958 under its original title of Vynalez Zhazy. The American release version was English dubbed of course but also the credits were Americanized and an unnecessary introduction by TV announcer Hugh Downs was added. The posters also touted it as “The first Motion Picture Produced in the Magic-Image Miracle of Mystimation.”

A combination of paper cutouts, painted sets and live actors create a 3-D effect in this scene from Karel Zeman’s 1958 fantasy feature, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne aka Invention for Destruction.

Directed by Karel Zeman, a former window dresser and poster designer, this movie looked like it had arrived from another world. Well, Czech cinema was another world compared to the Hollywood product we’d been fed. Here was live action combined with 19th century wood engravings, miniatures, glass paintings, animated paper cut-outs and odd bric-a-brac, all of it intermingling simultaneously and causing your eyeballs to pop out of your skull.

Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman working on the set of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne aka Invention for Destruction (1958).

The visual look of the movie would have had great resonance for European audiences raised on Jules Verne novels. For me, whose familiarity with Verne was based on Classics Illustrated comics, Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, (1954) and the fantasy-adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) starring Pat Boone, this was weird, but in a good way. Zeman’s art direction had a 3-D feel to it with various types of animation occurring in the foreground or background within layers of painted facades and ornately illustrated stage flats. It felt like you were stepping into the pages of some lavishly illustrated storybook from the 1800s, one that might have featured the etchings of Gustave Dore.

A giant shark is featured in the underwater sequences of the fantasy adventure The Fabulous World of Jules Verne aka Invention for Destruction (1958), directed by Karel Zeman.

What I remember most about The Fabulous World of Jules Verne were a few indelible sequences: a giant squid attack, a submarine with an enormous picture window that offered a front row seat to the wonders of the deep and an escape by a balloon-driven aircraft from the crater of an extinct volcano. Seeing the film again recently in a stunning 4K Blu-Ray restoration, courtesy of The Criterion Collection, I was astonished at so many other visual delights that had been forgotten. I was also surprised by Zeman’s droll sense of humor amid a serial-like adventure thriller that managed to be both outlandish as well as a cautionary tale about advanced technology falling into the wrong hands, hence the original title, Invention for Destruction. (By the way, the Criterion edition is the original Czech version with English subtitles, not the U.S. release with the Hugh Downs intro).

A deep sea treasure hunter is attacked by a big squid in one of the more unforgettable moments from The Fabulous World of Jules Verne aka Invention for Destruction (1958) from Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman.

Zeman’s film is loosely based on Verne’s Facing the Flag (French title: Face au Drapeau, 1886) with elements from other Verne novels such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: A World Tour Underwater (1869), Robur the Conqueror (1886) and Five Weeks in a Balloon, or, A Journey of Discovery by Three Englishmen in Africa (1863). The fast-paced narrative immediately whisks the viewer into a tale tall recounted by Dr. Simon Hart (Lubor Tokos), an assistant to Professor Roch (Arnost Navratil), who is working on a project that can harness energy as a concentrated force (like an atomic bomb). Roch and Hart are soon taken prisoner by Artigas (Miroslav Holub), a power-mad meglomaniac with his own private army of pirate underlings led by a roughneck captain (Frantisek Slegr). The kidnapped duo are sequestered at Black Cup, Artigas’s hidden island retreat in the base of volcanic crater. Here Roch is forced to complete his invention for Artigas’s undisclosed use while Hart, installed in a ramshackle hut with a full laboratory, plots to warn the world of the approaching threat to humanity.

The three main villains of The Fabulous World of Jules Verne aka Invention for Destruction (1958) are (left to right) Artigas (Miroslav Holub), Serko (Vaclav Kyzlink) and the pirate captain (Frantisek Slegr).

There are complications and diversions along the way including the introductions of a female shipwreck survivor (Jana Zatloukalova) and Serko (Vaclav Kyzlink), an inventor who designed Artigas’s Black Cup getaway and is currently working on a massive supergun and a transatlantic tunnel to the mainland. Yet, the film is so visually rich that it’s easy to become distracted from the main storyline when there are such hallucinatory touches like two deep-sea divers having a sword fight over a treasure chest on the ocean floor. Or a sequence where a movie projector-like device provides Artigas with news of the outside world via animated newspaper stories. In one, he witnesses army officers riding camels on roller skates! All of this is rendered in evocative black and white cinematography by Antonin Horak, Bohuslav Pikhart and Jiri Tarantik and accompanied by an appropriately atmospheric music score by Zdenek Liska (The Cremator, Marketa Lazarova, etc.).

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne was originally distributed in the U.S. by Joseph E. Levine, who had previously made a pile of money bringing Hercules (1958) starring Steve Reeves to the U.S. He didn’t have the same luck here because this was too much of a bizarre art object. Still, it started me on a lifetime search for more movies by Zeman. Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to see any of Zeman’s work in America unless you happened to live in a major city like New York where his movies might show at a repertory cinema or museum.

The 1962 Czech film fantasy The Fabulous Baron Munchausen aka Baron Prasil, directed by Karel Zeman.

Audio Brandon, a now extinct 16mm distributor, carried two of his films – The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962) and War of the Fools (1964) but it wasn’t until the early 1990s when I finally saw another Zeman feature – On the Comet (1970), based on Jules Verne’s sci-fi novel. Facets Multimedia rented it on VHS to members. That’s how I also got to see Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. There are several other film versions of the popular Rudolf Erich Raspe novel from 1785 – a 1940 Czech adaptation by Martin Fric, the 1943 German version by Josef von Baky known as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Terry Gilliam’s 1988 remake with John Neville in the title role. For my money, Zeman’s rendition is the most consistently entertaining of them all.

In retrospect, it is easy to see the influence of Georges Melies (Le Voyage dans la lune, 1902) on Zeman’s work and in turn you can see Zeman’s influence on animators like Terry Gilliam and Walerian Borowczyk. The Criterion Collection has showcased three of Zeman’s most important films in their collection, Three Fantastic Journeys, which also includes A Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955) and The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. This is the ideal way to immerse yourself in the magical world of Karel Zeman.

The extras alone are worth their weight in gold and feature several short films including A Christmas Dream (1946), Zeman’s first exploration of live action and animation. Also invaluable is the 2015 documentary Film Adventurer: Karel Zeman, which serves as his biography and a wonderful overview of his entire career. Last but not least, several of the short interviews and featurettes included provide fascinating behind the scenes details of Zeman’s approach to filmmaking. In one, his daughter reveals that for The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, Zeman recruited many of the extras and bit players for Artigas’s pirate army from retirement homes; he hired those who had the most craggy or wizened features and when you see the film, you’ll realize his casting was inspired.

Other links of interest:

https://karelzemanmuseum.org/karel-zeman-museum/karel-zeman/

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6840-our-eye-popping-tribute-to-silver-screen-magician-karel-zeman

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6840-our-eye-popping-tribute-to-silver-screen-magician-karel-zeman

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