Blu-Ray Review – Five Weeks In A Balloon

It’s an Irwin Allen film that’s not a disaster movie, from the part of his career that was before his Towering Inferno fame. It is based on the novel by Jules Verne, which is not considered one of his better adventures and is not as well known as much of his other work. It was the first of Verne’s “extraordinary voyages” series, which also included 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In the early 1960s, there were a large number of films based on Verne’s work, based on the fact that the 1957 Around the World in 80 Days (controversially) had won a Best Picture Oscar. Another version of the same story, Flight of the Lost Balloon, was forced to drop all mentions of Jules Verne under pressure from Allen and others, who were already at work on the major studio version.

Peter Lorre appears in an offensive brown-face role as “Ahmed,” pop star Fabian shows up, well-known English actor Cedric Hardwicke features as the balloon’s inventor, and Red Buttons plays the lead adventurer. Ingénue Barbara Eden, who would later become well known for the TV show I Dream of Jeannie, also appears.

The story deals with the slave trade and travelling around Africa. A team is chosen to lay claim to land in West Africa (one might ask why they thought they had the right to do that in the first place), which they can apparently do by simply flying a balloon over it. The plot is all over place—the movie meanders around and has a really anti-climactic ending. The balloon itself was pretty cool, due to technical advisor Don Ticcard.

The “natives” are depicted in ways that any modern viewer would find objectionable (in fact, this kind of thing was already being criticised this early, and rightfully so). Many of the actors playing “Africans” are in blackface, and all the “darkest Africa” clichés of spears and loincloths are on show.

Lorre’s health had been failing for some time due to gall bladder problems, alcohol abuse and an addiction to morphine. He had somewhat redeemed himself with his work on some Roger Corman’s Poe films, but the main reason he was cast was probably his supporting role in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. While not the best adaptation of Jules Verne’s work, that was a great adventure movie and very popular. It was Allen’s follow-up to Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which also starred Lorre.

When compared to other minor Verne films like Master of the World, the Karl Zeman films, or Ray Harryhausen’s Mysterious Island, the film just drags through its 100-minute length. Peter Lorre is totally wasted in the material, which is sad to see, given that he was one of the greatest screen presences.

The disc does not include any extras but is a dual format release.

Ian Schultz

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