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Sullivan's Travels, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

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This is an addendum of sorts to my "weird movie dreams" thread, but now that I've finished the two movies in question I thought I'd start a new thread for those who might be interested in my impressions of the films but quite sanely have no interest in my dream life.

Sullivan's Travels I thought was a terrific picture, and I love the fact that it straddles the line between the two kinds of movies Sullivan and his producers are fighting over in that totally classic first scene. The producers want screwball comedy, Sullivan wants socially conscious melodrama -- and Sullivan's Travels is actually both of those things, as well as being a satire of socially conscious melodrama and a serious apologetic for screwball comedy. And, yes, with a little sex ("There's always a girl in the picture").

One of the things Sturges said about the film was that he wanted to suggest to his fellow filmmakers that they were getting "a little too deep-dish" and should "leave the preaching to the preachers" -- yet he preaches himself in the film, but has a preacher do it!

The movie feels keenly the weight of the objection expressed by the studio suits to Sullivan's presumption in speaking on behalf of the poor -- and by the butler to Sullivan's Amazing Adventure style scheme to experience Poverty for himself. The movie dignifies the poor but doesn't idealize them or their condition, and finally pulls the rug out from under Sullivan's pretensions when things finally get out of hand. The final resolution is clever and satisfying, and if in the end one might have a vague sense that Sturges may have bitten off a bit more than he could chew, that too seems like it could be part of the point.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea I enjoyed so much for so long that I was disappointed when it went so wrong toward the very end. It's essentially Trek-style 60s silly-serious sci-fi action-adventure, and while the sci-fi is enormously goofy, the melodrama and character interactions are handled with a degree of depth and complexity. At first the movie looks like it's going to be a Jules Verne style undersea adventure, and that's certainly part of it, but then goes in a whole different direction narratively that gives the plot some shape and focus.

At some point, the film introduces a religious character, apparently an ex-seminarian or ex-priest who sanctimoniously connects every single thing to God's will ("My hand was guided by the Lord" is his reply when he's thanked for saving someone's life). Still, he had the potential to be a fairly positive caricature of a man of faith.

(major spoilers)

Unfortunately, the filmmakers instead opted in the very end of the film to turn the religious guy into a stereotyped religious nut who threatens to blow up the boat just as it's on the brink of saving the world -- not because he doubts, as others do, that the plan will work, but precisely because he's decided that it's "God's will" that the world be destroyed and that man should not interfere. The movie gestures in the direction of offering a theological rebuttal to this, but the net effect is hardly edifying. Clinching the film's down-turn is the lack of satisfactory depth to the climax of the sci-fi crisis plot and the absence of any denouement at all.

I hate it when movies go bad in the last five minutes. Why can't they go bad in the first five minutes and save me the trouble? sad.gif

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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  • 7 years later...

Just re-watched Sullivan's Travels to make sure my A&F write up for it is accurate. Boy, is this a good film.

Made at the tail end of the Great Depression, I found the film to go surprisingly well with the book I currently happen to be reading (Tim Keller's Generous Justice). Keller's teaching on our individual responsibilities to the poor have been convicting me lately. And then I suddenly watch a film about a man who keeps trying, over and over again, to understand the hardships suffered by the poor and how he can help them.

I understand that God's grace means being given what you in no way deserve. The church at the end of Sullivan's Travels is actually applying this concept in a very practical way. But not only are they sharing what they have with convicted criminals, but the film shows us the admonishments of the pastor to his congregation on precisely how they are to go about the act of sharing. Amazing. In fact, I need to go and add that to my write-up before I send it to Greg. If you haven't seen this yet, see it.

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Link to my post on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in the thread on I, Robot (2004). (Why did it end up over there? Because Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was originally released on the flip-side of the Fantastic Voyage DVD, and the novelization of Fantastic Voyage was written by Isaac Asimov, who wrote the books that I, Robot was loosely based on.)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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