If there’s one thing I love, it’s a blatantly audacious title; something that really grabs the viewer’s attention. Something like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or I Was a Teenage Werewolf or The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant. These titles let you know pretty much exactly what’s going to happen in them, or at least that something real weird is bound to happen. It’s probably this reason that the 1965 sci-fi adventure film City Under the Sea, loosely based on the Edgar Allan Poe poem “The City in the Sea,” got its name changed to the infinitely more evocative, and infinitely less correct, War-Gods of the Deep.
The film stars Tab Hunter, a matinee idol whose contract at Warner Bros. had just ended and he was looking for any work he could get. Hunter plays Ben, an American living in England and staying at a boarding house in the early 1900s. At the same house is the lovely Jill, played by Susan Hart, who is the ward and assistant of an eccentric painter named Harold Tufnell-Jones, played by David Tomlinson.
Harold has a pet chicken named Herbert. A hen. A female chicken named Herbert. One evening, strange gill men from the ocean come into the house through a secret passage and kidnap Jill and, after some silly frippery, Ben and Harold find the secret door and make their way through catacombs until they reach a whirlpool and eventually fall through it.
They are soon found by swarthy-looking men with seafaring garb who take Ben and Harold to see The Captain, played by the wonderful Vincent Price. He is the captain of a ship that found a lost city under the sea and has since been made ruler. The fish people do his bidding because they fear him and the death he brings. Most of his crew are loyal, but one sailor agrees to take them to Jill—whom the Captain is holding because of her resemblance to his lady love—and tells the hapless heroes that they’ve been down there for over 100 years, though this man doesn’t look a day over 35.
It turns out they were all from a ship in the year 1809 and the power of an underwater volcano has made them stop aging. While the Captain has no need for these men and will likely kill them, Harold lies and says that Ben is a scientist, which brings the mad Captain to frantically ask if he can stop the volcano from dying, which it’s apparently about to do. A race against time ensues where Ben and Harold need to find Jill and escape before the Captain figures out they’re phonies, and before the gill men… do something.
I have to admit, while I enjoyed this movie on an aesthetic level—and the fact that I always love watching Vincent Price—I don’t fully understand what’s happening in it. Apparently, lots of people thought similarly. The original script was written by Charles Bennett, which everybody liked, but the studio wanted to work on it more and add some humor, so an English writer named Louis B. Heyward rewrote it and added the character of Harold Tufnell-Jones. Tomlinson is perfectly cast as this character and does a great job, but that character totally seems out of place in this type of film. A lot of the tension is lost when you have dude and his pet chicken being silly.
It’s also notable that a huge amount of the film’s scant 84-minute running time is spent on underwater battle sequences with the fish people and humans in old-timey diving helmets. 1965 must just have been a year for extended underwater fights because later that year, Thunderball was released which devoted the whole third act to an undersea harpoon fight. The problem with the one in War-Gods is that they lacked the budget and the cast of thousands, but did retain the same inability to distinguish who was who. It’s impressive inasmuch as they tried it, but the execution doesn’t quite work.
Now that is a gorgeous poster. If the film had had any of the excitement and grandeur of the scene depicted there, it would be a real winner. As it stands, War-Gods of the Deep is second-tier Vincent Price. Tourneur’s a good director and the photography looks really nice, but the story doesn’t hang together all that well and chiefly it lacks any of the epic adventure promised. This is good for light Sunday afternoon viewing. Perhaps with a cup of tea and a scone.
Image Credit: MGM