The Hero’s Journey in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days”

Around the World in 80 Days was released in 1956 and is a silver screen adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1873 book of the same title. The film follows Phileas Fogg, a pedantic, upper-class Englishman who enjoys his rigorously enforced schedules and spending time at the élite Reform Club. The private club is filled with like-minded, pretentious men. Several of the members, not surprisingly, have a proclivity for gambling, gossip, and braggadocious conversation. News quickly spreads throughout the empire that the Bank of England was robbed of a large sum of money. Naturally, the men discuss the events and offer their own analyses of how such a heist could have been executed.

            While leisurely playing cards and discussing the theft, Fogg ends up betting several club members that he would be able to circumnavigate the globe within eighty days. This launches both Fogg and his new valet, Passepartout, on a globe trek. The thief remains at large, however, fueling speculation that Fogg himself may be the culprit and is using the funds to finance his travels. Around the World in 80 Days’ story is unpredictable, memorable, and peppered with humor – all the makings for an impressive and entertaining movie.

Image Courtesy of United Artists | The Michael Todd Company | Warner Bros.

            Despite its long running time, Around the World in 80 Days is well-paced. The major legs of Fogg’s journey are presented as vignettes that underscore the customs and traditions of the given area. Sometimes, in order for Fogg’s expedition to continue, there are unforeseen events that arise and possible conditions that must be met, which draw Fogg and Passepartout into other minor adventures. Other times, the adventurers become enveloped in a conflict or other unanticipated situations that force the characters to improvise in order to stay on Fogg’s strict travel timetable. These elements contribute to the capricious nature of the journey and the film’s entertaining flare. 

            The snapshots of the areas of Fogg’s travel are clearly truncated, but highlight some of the main stereotypes or images that come to mind when thinking of a particular land. Some of these may not make sense in terms of historical chronology, but are entertaining nonetheless. Additionally, since the movie is set in the Victorian era in which the British Empire still existed, and the movie itself was produced in the mid-1950s, some of the observations or nomenclature may seem antiquated now, but are accurate to the appropriate time. This adds to the movie’s authenticity and immersion. It would be wise for viewers to keep this in mind when watching the film and suspend their 2016 mindsets.

Image Courtesy of United Artists | The Michael Todd Company | Warner Bros.

            Around the World in 80 Days’ tone ties into its pacing. It is energetic, varied (due to the locations visited), and thrilling. Each of the locations Fogg and Passepartout visit have their own distinct aesthetic and feel. When paired with the underlying mystery of the identity of the Bank of England thief, the film’s development and tone remain fresh and exciting.

            The movie features very strong performances from all elements of the cast. David Niven’s performance as the neurotic Phileas Fogg is masterful. Niven captures Fogg’s genteel and pompous aura. However, throughout the journey, it becomes clear that Fogg is an advocate for good and is willing to engage in selfless behavior and risk aiding others. This nicely-developed character arc helps keep Fogg unique and respectable and precludes the character from being wholly repulsive. I personally like the movie’s setting and think that Fogg’s mannerisms and decorum, though seemingly arrogant at times, are traits that have largely been lost.

            Cantinflas, a well-known Mexican comedian and entertainer, shines in his role as Passepartout. The character is Fogg’s valet, but that does not mean that he is given only to menial tasks. Rather Passepartout is tasked with monitoring Fogg’s money during the voyage. Fittingly, Cantinflas is often given the most comedic elements of the movie; and he excels at them. In terms of the character himself, Passepartout is self-sacrificing, a trait that he demonstrates on numerous occasions. Cantinflas’ on-screen chemistry with Niven is charming and a joy to watch.

Image Courtesy of United Artists | The Michael Todd Company | Warner Bros.

            Shirley MacLaine’s Princess Aouda is also well-acted. Some may not like that MacLaine portrays an Indian princess, but it does become known that Aouda studied in England. Her specific heritage, however, is never specified. Nevertheless, MacLaine’s performance is strong and she helps create an appreciated balance, particularly with Niven and Cantinflas. Robert Newton’s portrayal of the tenacious Inspector Fix is notable. Regarding aesthetic and attributes, both Newton and Niven’s representation of stereotypical English characters is spot-on and quite memorable.

            Additional actors provide enjoyable, small cameo appearances throughout the movie. Around the World in 80 Days actually created the film cameo as a vehicle for introducing outside actors into the movie. Cameo appearances include: Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre, Evelyn Keyes, Melville Cooper, Charles Coburn, and Finlay Currie, among others. I will mention that some of the actors portray characters of other races or ethnicities, a sign of the times in which Around the World in 80 Days was produced.

            The film’s cinematography and production design is quite remarkable. There are several times throughout the film that the camera is mounted behind the actors. For example, it is mounted behind Passepartout as he rides a bicycle, and behind the characters as they ride an elephant. This technique helps the viewers feel like they are with Fogg and Passepartout on their adventures. The varied costumes and color palettes also contribute to the film’s vibrancy.

Image Courtesy of United Artists | The Michael Todd Company | Warner Bros.

            The film was shot in various locations throughout the world, not exclusively at a film studio. The variety of the location shots really enhances the overall experience of the movie and shows that its production group, the Michael Todd Company, went out of its way to capture as much authentic footage as possible. The set pieces that are used are also quite impressive. I will note that while in the United States, the travelers get attacked by the Sioux. It is obvious that the extras are actually firing dull arrows. There are a few moments when arrows simply bounce off of Passepartout, who is not supposed to be shot. This is a minor notation that actually functions more as a humorous section of the movie than a part worthy of strong critique.

            Victor Young’s music is outstanding and features superb songs that will grab viewers’ attention. The film’s main theme is quite catchy and is likely to remain with you after your viewing. It distinctly reminded me of the music of the famous dance sequence in An American in Paris. Further, the variations of the musical style for the different destinations is noticeable in a positive way.

Image Courtesy of United Artists | The Michael Todd Company | Warner Bros.

            Overall, Around the World in 80 Days is a fun, and impressive film flavored with humorous elements. There are also some pointed remarks made regarding the seemingly indefatigable nature of the British Empire. As mentioned above, you should suspend your twenty-first century presuppositions, and enjoy the movie for what it was at the time in which it was produced. This is generally a good rule of thumb for viewing classic films, lest your current-day presuppositions sour your experience. If you are willing to do that, then the diverse locations, strong acting, and great technical elements are sure to provide you with a delightful movie experience.