Sometimes when digging back through the decades to find “new” movies to review, a film will stand out as something so bright and marvellous that it feels like an antidote to our cynical times, with tentpole Hollywood blockbusters and cinematic universes dominating the box office.
One such film is Karel Zeman’s wondrous Invention for Destruction, a delightful flight of fancy that continually staggers the viewer with its imagination and sense of old school adventure…
Taking ideas from several of Jules Verne’s works but based primarily on his novel Facing the Flag, it’s the story of gentlemanly megalomaniac Count Artigas (Miloslav Holub) who rules the sea thanks to his steam-powered submarine and band of pirates. The lethal craft has enabled him to amass vast wealth, plundering treasure from old shipwrecks. When there’s not a shipwreck around to plunder, he can make one, using his sub to sink merchant’s vessels.
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Now the Count wants to conquer the land and the air. To this end, he kidnaps Professor Roch (Arnošt Navrátil) and his dapper young assistant, Hart (Lubor Tokoš). The professor is working on futuristic technology, not unlike the atom bomb. While he intends the new tech for the benefit of mankind, Artigas wants to use it for a superweapon. He takes the captives to his secret lair in a dormant volcano to work on his fiendish plan, picking up a pretty survivor from a shipwreck, Jana (Jana Zatloukalová), along the way…
Shooting the story in crisp black and white, Zeman employs an astonishing array of techniques, special effects and camera trickery to recreate the look and feel of the engravings from the Jules Verne novels. Live-action footage is frequently sandwiched between several panes of foreground and background to make it look like the characters are moving within an illustration. Zeman laboriously added a cross-hatched pattern to almost everything to complete the illusion.
Within these illustrations comes to life is a vast range of fabulous vehicles and contraptions – pedal-powered hot air balloons, paddle steamers, steam engines, shark-nosed submarines – much of which seem incredibly unlikely and impractical, but capable of sparking even the most jaded imagination. My personal favourite is the pirates’ submarine bicycles, complete with bike bells that somehow ring brightly even underwater.
Amid this riot of imagination are the actors, who are the dullest thing about the movie. It’s not really their fault – the performances are fine enough and they were instructed to act in a decorous manner to match the setting – but they don’t have a chance of upstaging the production design.
Despite the short running time, the pace of Invention for Destruction occasionally flags. Yet every time it does some new wonderment arrives to astonish and delight. There are also some nice touches of humour along the way – ever the gentleman, Hart scales a castle wall and climbs into Jana’s bedroom window, then climbs back out again and dangles from the ledge while she gets herself dressed.
While Zeman’s production design vividly captures the atmosphere of Victorian-era invention, the story it tells is surprisingly contemporary to the film. The professor’s invention evokes the same fears of annihilation that drives atom age sci-fi movies like Them, Godzilla (1954) or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and even has a mushroom cloud-like explosion in the finale.
The Count’s nefarious plan – build a superweapon and take over the world – also prefigures the James Bond series by a few years. Perennial master villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld would even take residence in a similar volcano-based lair in You Only Live Twice, released nine years later.
Invention for Destruction was preceded by Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and was re-released in many countries as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, making it one of the most internationally successful Czechoslovak movies.
Karel Zeman was a true filmmaking genius, ranking alongside the likes of Georges Méliès, and his stop motion animation also compares favourably with the indelible creations of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. Zeman’s wonderful Invention for Destruction should delight fans of steampunk and old-fashioned ripping yarns, and if you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing his work, that’s something you should rectify without further delay. Kids should love it too.
If you enjoy the imagination and craft of Zeman’s films and you’re in Prague, you can visit the Karel Zeman Museum.
Invention for Destruction is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.