Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays



Nº 9 – 2022 (1)

A risky misunderstanding. The three islands of Juan Antonio Bardem

Luis Cemillán Casis

Universidad Carlos III de Madrid


At the time of writing these lines, various preparations are underway for the celebration of Bardem’s year. 2022 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Juan Antonio Bardem, one of the capital Bs of Spanish cinema. Beyond the anecdote, many ideas could come from the recalling of this essential figure of our cinematographic memory: politically active, committed, communist, author, or filmmaker of vocation would fit with the image that people have attributed to his person and his cinema. “The social filmmaker par excellence in Spain” as Castro (2013, p. 12) defines him, is perhaps one of the most accurate allusions that helps us rethink the filmmaker. But also, he could be identified with other disparate attributes, such as “decline”, “impersonal”, or “commercial genre films”. Adhering to auteur theories, one has the impression that the first Bardem, the one of Calle Mayor (1956), Muerte de un Ciclista (1955), and perhaps Cómicos (1954), no longer fits in the Bardem of genre cinema, the cinema of Varietés (1971), La Corrupción de Chris Miller (1973), or La Isla Misteriosa (1973). His “failure” (quotation marks are ours) was “not meeting the expectations that others had assigned to him,” acknowledges one of his sons, Rafael Bardem (2013, p. 8). His success was “managing to live from his profession and hobby next to his family” (2013, p. 8). Perhaps the most interesting thing is to assume that there has never been only one Bardem, but as many as projects went ahead (or failed). 

Thinking of Bardem as an abstract entity, an authorial mark, prevents us from recognizing a work affected by the fundamental and delimiting relationships with other instances of the industry. Therefore, it is still necessary a study that explains the Bardem of co-productions, or the Bardem of international stars, or the Bardem and his struggles with production, or the Bardem and his family roots. In this journal, this section opens up a new space for us to delve into one of the many chapters of his archive:  success and failure in equal parts, national and transnational, curious and banal. That of The Mysterious Island (1973) and its tricephalic result.

Images 1, 2 & 3. Titles of The Mysterious Island in the Spanish, Italian and French versions

The story is already known. The beginning of the 70s.  Jacques Bar, a French producer who had already met Bardem years before, offers the filmmaker to direct a five-episode series for OREF (French Radio Television Organization). The adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel would consist of five and a half hours of footage with the potential to be transformed into two films (The Mysterious Island and Captain Nemo). Co-production, thus, is necessary. Bardem thinks of Eduardo Manzanos, with whom he had already worked in Cómicos and Varietés. The frameworks of the co-production are agreed: Copercines for Spain, Cite Films for France, and Filmes Cinematográfica for Italy (Cerón, 1998, p. 220). Bardem imagines the settings: his admired Lanzarote and Cameroon. He also pictures the story: a science fiction tale set in the 19th century. The international cast was hired, including Omar Shariff, Gerard Tichy and Gabriele Tinti, and other newcomers such as Rafael Bardem Jr. After five months of shooting, Manzanos, the Spanish part, jeopardizes the viability of the project: “the Spanish production processes  did not have the technical capacity or the technical infrastructure needed to make a high-flying production,” says Bardem himself (Debajo de Pablos, 1996, p.107). The rest of the story remains unclear. In a draft, which Bardem himself presented to the deputy director of popular culture and entertainment, as well as other personalities, and which is stored in his archive in the Filmoteca Española, the following events are recounted: on February 28, 1972, four weeks before finishing the work plan, the Spanish and French parties and Bardem himself sign a document that makes explicit the need to extend the shooting. Among other details, it was agreed that the French co-producer, together with Bardem, would oversee the final editing, and that after a study of the materials still to be shot, the project would be resumed in September. However, according to Bardem himself, a few weeks later Eduardo Manzanos unilaterally withdrew from the signed agreement, stopping the shooting and assuming the continuation of the film according to his own determination. The alternative, which Bardem refused, was to continue in the Casa de Campo in Madrid, hiring Santos Alcocer Badenas as director. From that point on, the legal hustle and bustle began: Bardem withdrew from the shooting and the actors refused to continue without him. The director filed a lawsuit against Manzanos, which he would win years later, and even considered removing his name from the film, something that finally was not carried out. The French side continued the project with Henri Colpi. And, finally, as a result, the origin of the three films: the Spanish editing, the French editing, and the Italian editing. Three films, and no mention of the series.

As we said, the story is more or less known. What has not been done until today is the comparative analysis of these three versions, all three “signed” by Bardem and, as we will see below, with an irregular outcome. A parallel viewing of the three films poses some initial difficulties. The lengths are different (120 minutes for the Spanish, 104 minutes for the French and 96 minutes for the Italian), which makes for an imbalance when alternating between the three versions. And, although it seems that the development of the story, the characters and the logic of the plot do not vary that much, the truth is that there are some remarkable differences that are worth highlighting. We will focus, first, on those that affect the order, structure, and form of the progression of the storyline, and then mention a specific example that will allow us to identify even the most innocuous differences.

The music fades in, a ballad in which strings predominate, with nostalgic touches, and the seabed as a landscape. Not one, but three shots of the bed. At the very beginning, we witness the first difference that will be repeated throughout the film: the establishing  shot. Whether they are of the ocean’s surface or of the sunsets resting on the horizon and its beaches, the selection of the establishing shots that link each sequence responds to disparate decisions. An aspect that does not alter the narrative, except for the taste for detail. Perhaps, in this case, we shall give credit to the Spanish version. We continue. After the seabed, the action begins. The film places us in the middle of the storm that is raging against the hot air balloon on which the protagonists find themselves. The cut of each shot varies slightly between versions, as well as the establishing shot  of the balloon and background. Perhaps, once again, we must recognize the value of the Spanish version, despite the comment, on the other hand legitimate, by Cerón Gómez, who considers this first sequence to be artificial and lacking in dynamism (1998, p. 223). But, again, there seem to be no major modifications. However, five minutes after the beginning, everything changes. And the films follow different paths, at least for the first half hour. Let’s order the events chronologically: the group of protagonists has been taken prisoner in an army barracks. After various scenes and conversations that take place in the prison, a small mistake leads to a riot. As night falls, the prison burns while the protagonists make their way to the aerostatic balloon in which the plot begins. Once they have made their escape, a storm surprises them and one of them, Mr. Smith, falls into the sea. The rest of the crew fall over the island. And the mystery begins. The French and Italian versions respect the chronological sense of this flashback. That is to say, the film begins in medias res, in the storm. Then, a ten-minute flashback takes us back to the prison and the riot, and goes on chronologically until we return to the balloon, where we started, to continue with the plot.   

If we dwell on this comment, which seems anodyne, it is because this rule is not respected in the Spanish version. In Manzanos’ montage, the prison sequence is totally altered. In the first scene we witness the aerostatic balloon. Then, there is a cut to the riot. Then, we return to the balloon that loses height. Next, it cuts back to the interrogation, which chronologically precedes the riot. When it seems that events are going to be reordered, we return to the storm, when they fall to the beach. Once they are on the island, we return to the scenes of the cells prior to the riot. And then the revolt begins. And the storm again. And the prison cell. And finally, the beach where they wake up. Of course, the order of the events that conform this first sequence alludes to an ineffective temporal logic, and speaks of a somewhat haphazard exercise that is repeated throughout the story, “where certain scenes are excessively long and others disproportionately short” (Freixas, 2004, p.115).

Video 1. Deleted scene from the French version

The truth is that the lack of continuity and coherence that seemed to worry Bardem when he was told of the suspension of the shooting is the main factor that the Italian and French versions seem to correct, although with unequal results. If the Italian version, with the exception of the initial sequence of the riot, follows those cuts (selection of shots) in a similar vein to the Spanish one, there is a narrative element that refines the absences: the narrator. Throughout the film we hear this voice, almost nonexistent in the Spanish version, which explains, sometimes excessively, the adventures faced by the protagonists. Sometimes it even seems to deal with those scenes that were never shot. The French version also contains some excerpts of the narrative entity, but the solution it proposes comes from including certain scenes that are not in the Spanish version, and others that do not even appear in the Italian one. As in minute 29:15, in which we attend the camp where the adventurers make the weapons they will use in the rest of the film. Or the other scene, minute 38:26, where the voice-over explains how they have built the raft that, in the Spanish one, turns up with no further reason. Or Smith’s fabrication of a device (min 44:20) that will deactivate the mountain flashes that prevent them from approaching the unexplored territory. Or that other moment, on the return from one island to another (from Cameroon to Lanzarote in the extra-filmic reality), in which we witness a storm (min 51:20) that explains why the raft built by the characters breaks down, just as the castaway taken captive manages to escape when they touch the shore. Something that lacks any explanation in the Spanish and Italian versions and results in a comic effect.

Video 2. Comparison of the three versions of The Mysterious Island

In short, the Italian, but especially the French, tries at all costs to tie up the threads that would otherwise be even more untied. But it seems to be inferred, from the viewing and from Bardem’s testimonies, that the French version managed to shoot more footage. Perhaps he is referring to the last sequence in which the sailors arrive for the first time on the Nautilus. We are talking about both the scene in which little Herbert walks through some corridors not identified in the Spanish version (although it is probably not another set mounted for the French version, but a scene not included in the final editing of the Spanish one), and the recreation of the deck of the submarine where the different characters walk. Sets that were included in the Italian version but absent in the Spanish one, in which the exterior shots of the Nautilus are solved ineffectively, and the artifice is revealed by the size of the waves that overwhelm it, which remind us more of the vibration of a pool, or even a bathtub, than of the effusive agitation of the sea. The existence of the realistic scale model in the French version not only provides the story with a rigorous scenography, but also explains some narrative events. Such as the sequence in which one of the pirates manages to penetrate the submarine, shoot Nemo, and is killed from the rays that the captain activates before dying. This sequence is decontextualized in the Spanish cut and loses effectiveness. 

Finally, let us mention that although the films may seem similar (with the exceptions already mentioned), an attentive eye will reveal differences in the resolution of almost all the sequences. The way in which each editing chooses between one or the other shots could tell us about different approaches in terms of verisimilitude or rhythm. And this can be seen in every scene, such as the one we present here, in which the protagonists try to unveil the mystery of the “luminous points” form the mountain. A brief viewing will once again reveal the same pattern: the French version, in its drive for plausibility, achieves a better resolution of the attack, of the cause-effect, of the dynamism of the lightning and the resulting explosion. And not only because it is the only one of the three that fully shows the strangeness of those figures that crown the summit, but also because of the way in which the camera/editing follows their shots. In addition, glimpsing the shape of those astronomical devices will give meaning to a scene near the end of the film in which Herbert will be able to deactivate their mechanism. This scene is not present in the Spanish version, but it is in the Italian one.

Until now, in the various volumes cited on the work of Juan Antonio Bardem, the version that had been assessed, evaluated, and analyzed was the one that premiered on October 29, 1973, in Madrid. It was different, now we can be sure, from that of April 19 of the same year that the Milanese filmgoers saw, and different from that of September 27 in France. But the reality is that Bardem did not participate in the editing of the Spanish version. As he himself says, the editor friend of Manzanos, a “rascal”, “edited it as he could, with many traps, so that later everything turns out to be a real mess and besides, you can’t understand a damn thing” (Debajo De Pablos, 1996, p.108). In fact, he recognizes himself as the author (evidently not in reality, but projected) of the French version (Debajo De Pablos, 1996, p.109) and, specifically, of the one distributed for television. If we approach this anecdotal episode, it is to recognize, once again, the Bardem of a thousand faces, the Bardem of whom much remains to be known, the Bardem of the industry, of litigation, of the industry. And, by extension, that of the author in the profession, that of the profession without an author.


This article is included in the I+D+i Project (PID2019-106459GB-I00) “Cine y televisión en España en la era del cambio digital y la globalización (1993-2008): identidades, consumo y formas de producción” IP: Manuel Palacio, 2020-2023. Entidad Financiadora: Agencia Estatal de Investigación.

Luis Cemillán Casis

Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
ISSN: 2659-4269
© Tecmerin Research Group
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid