It’s easy to see why Around the World in Eighty Days would win best picture. It’s a spectacle from its Edward R. Murrow introduction to its Saul Bass animated end credits sequence. However, what comes in between doesn’t do much to recommend it. It’s a big movie, but one that’s pretty short on both story and character.
Phileas Fogg (David Niven) casually takes a bet from some of the other men at the club (you know, one of those organizations where rich old British men sit around and feel superior to everyone) that with the modern advances in travel, it’s easy enough to go around the world in a matter of eighty days. He abruptly sets out on his trip that very same day, along with his new valet Passepartout (Cantinflas). During his trip, he remains focused on maintaining his precise routine as well as winning the wager. Fogg drinks tea and plays cards in all manner of conveyances, never stopped by wind, rain, or sleet. Meanwhile, Passepartout gets into all sorts of side adventures. The two of them are pursued by Inspector Fix (Robert Newton), who’s convinced Fogg raised all his money for his trip by robbing the Bank of England prior to his departure. In India, they are joined by Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine, everyone’s first choice to play an Indian woman), whom they rescue from burning alive on the funeral pyre of her late husband.
One can get pretty frustrated with Fogg’s complete lack of personality. It one scene, he details a particularly thrilling game of whist to Princess Aouda, which is about the high point of animation we get from David Niven’s character. He is a slave to his routine without really thinking about where he is or who he is with. There’s a pretty humorous shot of him “enjoying” a cup of tea on the deck of ship, with his hat tied to his head to prevent it from blowing away in a storm. Other examples of his fastidiousness are not so humorous, and because he only slightly interferes with his routine by the end of the movie (and arguably, he doesn’t really do anything, Princess Aouda is the one who breaks with tradition in the end) it’s not as if his voyage around the globe has really done much to broaden his perspective or change his habits.
However, just because the main character is a bore doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole movie is ruined. The best part of this movie, hands down, is the sense of spectacle it offers. I can easily see audiences in 1956 being blown away with all of the different scenery on display here, especially in a theater in 70mm. The second-unit photography in particular is quite amazing in this film. The filmmakers haul the camera on trains through India and America, boats on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean, and even an elephant when our heroes discover that reports of the Indian railway’s completion have been exaggerated… it’s an impressive, boots on the ground type of filmmaking you don’t see as much of anymore. (Oh yeah, not to mention the hot air balloon over France.)
The film not only takes a voyage across the world, but also through a who’s who of Hollywood stars. It’s quite strange to see some of them pop up at the group’s various stops, and some are used better than others, but you also have something to take your mind off the insufferable lead. It’s always fun to pick out famous actors in small roles, and I couldn’t help shake the feeling while I was watching it that I actually recognized way more people than I was able to identify in their small amounts of screen time. I was able to catch Victor McLaglen, John Carradine, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Charles Boyer, Glynis Johns, Hermione Gringold, Buster Keaton, and Peter Lorre, while totally missing Trevor Howard, Ronald Coleman, George Raft, and many more.
Those are definitely the high points. The rating I give it at the bottom is really for spectacle and not much else. I appreciate a good spectacle now and again, but I really can’t get behind it too much here, because that’s all this movie ends up being. Its main character is so inconsequential to his own story that it makes for a very awkward film to watch. There are a lot of weird and uncomfortable story decisions, most of which can probably be attributed to the year 1956, but rankled me just the same (Shirley MacLaine’s unfortunate casting is enough, but combined with the ranking of different types of native women back at the club, Passepartout’s tendency to wander off after any woman that walks by, and don’t forget the “savage” Native American, or really native people from any country, stereotypes). The really abrupt and nearly nonsensical ending was basically the last straw. It seemed as if they were going for a sort of Tom Jones-esque fourth wall breaking joke there, but it was over to quickly and too removed from the rest of the film to be effective.
As I said, I can totally see why the Academy went for it back in the day. Spectacle was (and still is) super important to Hollywood, especially in the ’50s, because they thought it would help them compete with television. And it is an impressive display here on some level, though I wish it had a story and characters worthy of the grand visuals and scope.
Around the World in Eighty Days won five out of the eight Oscars it was nominated for in the year 1956. It beat out Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I, and The Ten Commandments. It also won best adapted screenplay, and I suppose I can’t really say how it measures up to the original Jules Verne classic, but I’d have to guess unfavorably. It also took home best color cinematography (I suppose I can’t argue that too much), best original score, and best editing. It lost best director for Michael Anderson, and best color art direction and costume design. I get the craft awards for this one, but I don’t understand the creative ones, not at all. And for the modern viewer’s consideration, I give you some better alternatives from the year 1956: Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man, and John Ford’s The Searchers.
“Mr. Fogg, why must you be so… so British?”
Long story short: 2/4 stars
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