Friday, December 26, 2014

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960)

Who's In It: Kerwin Mathews (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jack the Giant Killer) and June Thorburn (Tom Thumb).

What It's About: A doctor (Mathews) goes to sea against the wishes of his fiancée (Thorburn) and winds up stranded on two fantastical islands where he learns important lessons about dreams and control.

How It Is: Jonathan Swift's novel is famous as a piece of social satire, so I wasn't sure how well it would translate into an adventure film. Having Ray Harryhausen on the visual effects convinced me to give it a shot though and I'm glad I did. Except for an impressive man vs. crocodile fight towards the end, most of the effects are about making Gulliver either huge or tiny in relation to the islanders he encounters, but there's a lot more to the film than just that. It works as an adventure film, but it works as social commentary, too.

The three worlds in the title refer to Gulliver's native England and the two major islands he visits: Lilliput (where he's much larger than everyone else) and Brobdingnag (where he's much tinier). In England, he has a serious argument with his fiancée Elizabeth. She just wants to get married and settle down at all costs, even if it means buying a dilapidated cottage and Gulliver's continuing to get paid for his medical services in livestock and produce. Gulliver has bigger dreams though. He wants to go to sea and earn his fortune so that he can Be Somebody. Only then will he feel prepared to marry Elizabeth and start his life.

What I like about the movie is that neither side is presented as absolutely correct. In fact, the islands Gulliver visits each teach him (and Elizabeth, who stows away on his ship) something about their desires. On Lilliput, Gulliver is treated as a god, but that doesn't prevent the people from trying to manipulate him into doing what they want. All that prestige and power he craved comes with a cost.

By the time he gets to Brobdingnag, he's sick of the responsibility and at first welcomes the way the giants there treat him and Elizabeth as sort of pets. But though the couple's needs are all taken care of, it's at the cost of their freedom. Lack of responsibility is both blessing and curse.

I mentioned in some of my Christmas Carol discussion that I've been thinking about control a lot lately. It's just something I'm mulling over in my personal life: how much control do we ever really have and how much should I try to maintain. The 3 Worlds of Gulliver adds some important thoughts to that conversation. Too much control/power/responsibility doesn't make you happy (not if we've learned anything from Spider-Man), but too little is just as bad. That's a theme I remember struggling with in another of my favorite movies, Finding Neverland, and it's about time I revisit that one too. There's a lot to be said for retaining a sense of childlike wonder about the world, but it shouldn't keep us from living up to our responsibilities. I don't know that I'll ever find the right balance, but until I do movies like Finding Neverland and 3 Worlds of Gulliver will continue to fascinate me and make me think.

And it doesn't hurt for them to have fights with giant crocodiles at the end either.

Rating: Four out of five enormous osteolaemi.

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