The Disastrous Production of Howard Hughes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Disney’s 1954 production of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues by Richard Fleischer has long been the definitive cinematic version of the story. But it was not the first to enter production. In 1946, famous billionaire Howard Hughes attempted to make the film, following “The Outlaw” which would become his final completed film as director. The production would become one of Hollywood’s greatest disasters, taking the lives of over 90 actors and crew, costing nearly half a billion dollars (adjusted for inflation), destroying an entire island, and almost causing a third world war.
As the second world war drew to a close, Hughes was setting his sights on what he intended to be his magnum opus. Verne’s book had long been an inspiration to Hughes, in part inspiring his ventures into nautical enterprises, including the construction of the “Mahogany Mackerel,” one of the largest ships ever to sail. A party was held to mark the start of production at one of Hughes’ seaside homes outside of San Francisco (the mansion is now the home of director David Fincher), and was sadly marred when a drunken Hughes began shooting into the air with his crossbow and killed an albatross, which fell into the punch bowl.
The party featured the intended stars of the film, actors Gene Kelly, Gregory Peck, and Orson Welles who would portray Captain Nemo. It was an early blow to the film when all three actors departed the production on its first day due to infighting over an unsuccessful orgy the prior week. This caused a massive production delay during which Hughes bought up over 50 warehouses (including the world’s largest building at the time) to hold the sets and specially built water tanks until casting was replenished.
Two of these warehouses burned down (including the world’s largest building fire at the time), destroying the sets which then had to be rebuilt. By the time Hughes decided to cast unknown actors in the lead roles, ten more major set pieces had rotted away delaying the production further. Finally in October of 1948 the new sets and all actors were in place on the luxurious island of Bikini Atoll. The crew was to arrive at the shooting location on October 26th but was delayed by weather. This turned out to be a good thing as the United States conducted an unannounced nuclear test on October 27th, annihilating the island and the sets completely. The island is still not inhabitable to this day, and Howard Hughes, who owned the island, was compensated only $212 (adjusted for inflation) for his losses by the government.
Undeterred, Hughes began again with fresh sets, and new actors as the previous group had long since departed by 1950. This time, production finally began and footage was shot. It was never developed however because despite the expenditure of $800,000 (adjusted for inflation) on pyrotechnics for the first scenes shot, nobody had thought to temperature-protect the film canisters, which were opened at the lab and found to have melted completely into what amounted to large plastic hockey pucks. Hughes filmed the scene again, at the same cost, and then a third time when he was not satisfied with a background extra’s hair. This new footage too was lost when it was captured by rebellious 1950s teenagers who held it for ransom. They asked only $50 (adjusted for inflation) but Hughes refused to pay on principle.
The actors and crew were even more upset than Hughes that their work had been for nothing and so began the “Leagues Riots” of 1951. What sets remained were once more burned down, this time in protest. The lead actors were rehearsing in the sets at the time and all died of smoke inhalation. Hughes was also injured in an unrelated accident on the same day when he flew an experimental plane on its first test flight. He managed to steer the wayward jet back to his own property but missed the runway and instead crashed into another set, which had already been rigged for pyrotechnics the previous night, resulting in the loss of the set, pyro, plane, Hughes left pinky toe, and over 30 million dollars in production costs (adjusted for inflation).
Then the real problems began.
Hughes replaced the lead actor with Sam Normanjensen, once thought to be an great star on the rise. Unfortunately he was also a serial killer known then as the Sherman Oaks Ripper. He had killed 17 actors before he was cast, and filmed for only two weeks before he slaughtered and ate the spleen of one of his co-stars. Hughes was exonerated of any negligence but only after 50 million dollars (adjusted for inflation) in court fees and settlements with the actors family, one member of which visited the set on a later filming day to fire his pistol randomly at the remaining cast in anger, killing two more, wounding Hughes who lost his right testicle, and destroying a filming balloon that was the largest air vehicle ever built at the time (adjusted for inflation).
It was then that the Verne family withdrew their rights from the plagued production. Another legal battle cost in the millions, and by the time it was over in 1952, the sets had once again rotted away and had to be rebuilt. By that time, the Disney production was under way and Hughes spent millions more to spy on and sabotage the rival production. Several Disney employees fell victims to car bombs, others to arsenic poisoning, and one to auto-erotic asphyxiation, but Hughes was not considered responsible for that particular event. Walt Disney, of course, declared war.
The “War Between The Sets” began in 1953 as Hughes forces were driven off by Disney’s hired guns, the Mouseketeers which in those days were a fully armed paramilitary force. This skirmish took seven lives, but it was only the beginning. Hughes used his government contracts to secure two bombers and arms weighing in excess of 500 tons, all of which were dropped on Disney owned installations. Disney’s retaliation was severe. Hughes hotels burned days after, there were so many fires that Vegas and LA were both lit as bright as daylight even at midnight from the blazes. Hughes responded with bombings and drone strikes, with “drone strikes” in 1953 referring to dropping bees on ones enemy. One such strike which killed Disney’s allergic son, Walt Disney III (There was no Walt Disney II as Walt felt that talent skipped a generation). The conflict at one point threatened to spill over into Russia’s Southern American interests, leading the president to demand Hughes back down before turning the cold war into a nuclear conflict.
By the time a truce was called, Disney’s film was in theaters and Hughes was ready to call it a loss. He became reclusive and wasn’t seen much in public from that time on. Disney continued to be one of the largest entertainment companies in the world, and remains the producer of the most definitive adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
The book has not been adapted since, but David Fincher’s new version begins filming next week on a budget over 200 million dollars. Sadly, the production has already seen its first fatality, when fireworks during the production party at Fincher’s San Francisco home went astray and killed an albatross.
We at FIJMU wish Fincher the best of luck on his upcoming production. He’s going to need it.