Around the World in 80 Days, based on Jules Verne’s 1870 novel, opens with an extended documentary-style sequence on the prescience of the ur science-fiction writer: He accurately foresaw the advent of rocketry, air travel, and many other technologies wondrous at his time but commonplace to this film’s original audience. And yet, as the nerdy little narrator of this history lesson reminds us, the world has become much smaller thanks to methods of travel and communication speedier than those at Verne’s disposal. Ironically, it’s because the world has shrunk even more in the subsequent fortysomething years that Around the World in 80 Days is less charming today than it must have been in 1956.
Phileas Fogg (David Niven) sets off on the eponymous trip on a bet from his gentlemen’s club that it can’t be done. He’s a bit of a nutball — he lives by a precise schedule of tea, whist games, and fish and chips; he wears two watches, and every available surface in his house is covered with tick-tocking clocks. (Come to think of it, that’s another example of Verne’s foresight. Are we today, with clocks in every household appliance, any less obsessed with time than Fogg was?) Accompanied by his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas), an ex-acrobat and chimney sweep, Fogg journeys across Europe and Asia, the Pacific and the United States, and finally back across the Atlantic to England by any method that will carry him: train, balloon, boat, elephant. Along the way Passepartout fights a bull in Spain, Fogg hooks up with an (East) Indian princess (Shirley MacLaine, obviously in a previous life), Passepartout is captured by savage Sioux in America’s wild west, and Fogg is constantly dodging a British detective who’s following him. Was it perhaps something more than a bet that sent Fogg on his excursion?
Around the World in 80 Days is a huge, leisurely production, chock full of starry cameos and astounding scenery. There’s not really much of a plot, and the characters are little more than cardboard, but the whole point of this movie is to linger with Fogg and Passepartout as they drink in the beautiful countryside and exotic cities as they float languorously by. This is what Technicolor and 70mm prints were invented for — and even watching a panned-and-scanned video on a 27-inch television, I could get a taste of how awe-inspiring 80 Days must have been, with the mostly black-and-white, mostly small-scale and self-contained previous Best Pictures I’d recently viewed as a basis for comparison.
But 80 Days was released a year before Sputnik, and its satellite descendants would revolutionize television and telecommunications. TV today brings even the most exotic locales — Bombay, Hong Kong, San Francisco (Frisco’s exotic to this native New Yorker, okay?) — into our homes. The lack of an intriguing plot or characters to get truly caught up in means the only reason to see the touristy 80 Days is for the splashy scenery. But we’ve seen these places on television a hundred times — in fact, PBS ran a documentary series a few years ago in which Michael Palin retraced Fogg’s route.
Our familiarity doesn’t diminish the beauty of these places one iota, and I, for one, still want to see the whole world for myself rather than through the eyes of a cameraman. But the novelty these far-flung places must have had for a 1956 audience is a bit lessened for the viewer today.
Oscars Best Motion Picture 1956
unforgettable movie moment:
Fogg and Passepartout balloon their way out of Paris, the dazzling sites of the City of Light and then the gorgeous French countryside gliding by below them.