Directed by Michael Anderson
The 1956 movie Around the World in 80 Days is a peculiar film. It obviously caught the collective eye of Hollywood back in 1956, winning the Academy Award for best picture.
But seeing it today you can’t help but wonder why. Even outside the context of the other movies nominated that year (like The King and I), it seems a strange choice.
It appears to have been a case where something won simply by being “big.” It’s really not much of a story and there certainly isn’t great character depth.
There’s no doubt it’s entertaining, but it’s quite light, extremely long and is burdened by the period’s pretentiousness – which amounts to a confusion between long and important.
(It appears to have been the case back then that the longer a film ran the more important it was considered to be.)
The movie opens with not one but two tedious musical introductions that play as the audience presumably takes it seats.
There is the Prologue followed by the Overture. However, if you can sit through these or skip past them, once the movie starts it’s a fun jaunt (though still lengthy).
Based on the Jules Verne novel of the same name, Around the World in 80 Days is about a bet the enigmatic and inscrutable Phileas Fogg (David Niven) accepts. Can he or can he not travel the around the planet in eighty days?
The story takes Phileas Fogg to various countries and this means various adventures. And this makes the film linear and episodic.
But with lack of character development and not a great deal of interest occurring in any of the character’s plot lines, what do the filmmakers do?
They turn the movie into a kind of visual travelogue.
The movie has some wonderful cinematography and it’s often sufficient to hold us even if there is a kind of National Geographic documentary quality to the film.
From Europe to India to America, we get a visual compendium of the world circa the latter 1800s. And while this is interesting to some degree (and, to repeat, quite nicely shot), you could miss over half the movie and not miss a thing.
There is, then, a gimmicky quality to the movie. It’s a film that lives on its hype (in 1956) rather than its content. It’s the product of a flim flam man, meaning flash without supstance, and this isn’t surprising as the man behind the movie was Mike Todd, one of the great Hollywood flim flam men. He was all about hype and selling and that is what Around the World in 80 Days is.
But that is not to say it doesn’t entertain. It does. It’s length, however, causes our attention to wander. There’s only so much of hyped nothing a person can take.
One aspect of the film I loved was David Niven. While there isn’t much to the role of Phileas Fogg, I always love seeing him. But for better David Niven roles I would recommend The Bishop’s Wife and Separate Tables.
The recent 2004 remake of Around the World in 80 Days appears to have tanked at the box office. I gather the hype machine was not quite up to the Mike Todd standard set in 1956.