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Five Weeks in a Balloon

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Irwin Allen's Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), starring Cedric Hardwicke, Richard Haydn, Red Buttons, Barbara Eden, Fabian, BarBara Luna, Peter Lorre
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Irwin Allen’s  Five Weeks in a Balloon  (1962), starring Cedric Hardwicke, Richard Haydn, Red Buttons, Barbara Eden, Fabian, BarBara Luna, Peter Lorre

Synopsis of  Five Weeks in a Balloon

 In Five Weeks in a Balloon,  Professor Ferguson plans to demonstrate the practicality of his new hot air balloon design by charting the unknown areas of Africa – but the government wants him to claim the area to prevent slave trading from being established there. His crew consists of his friend Jacques, a retired general, and a journalist — and along the way they pick up two escaped slaves and a slave trader as well.

Review of  Five Weeks in a Balloon

Irwin Allen’s final feature film,  Five Weeks in a Balloon, is a very interesting action film — not dreadfully faithful to Jules Verne’s original story, but very enjoyable nonetheless. The acting is very good all around, the sets and locales look realistic and not like movie sets, and some of the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous.

Cast of characters in  Five Weeks in a Balloon

  • Professor Fergusson (Cedric Hardwicke, Invisible Agent, Ghost of Frankenstein) – the inventor whose airship is capable of journeying across the continent of Africa. He has animus towards:
  • General Sir Henry Vining (Richard Haydn,  The Lost World) – retired military man, who prevents the funding of the professor’s journey; primarily comic relief
  • Donald O’Shay (Red Buttons, The Poseidon Adventure,  The Longest Day) – the journalist who comes along to document the journey — and whose uncle finances it
  • Makia (BarBara Luna,  One Life to Live) – the slave girl that O’Shay rescues shortly before they leave from Zanzibar – and she stows away
  • Jacques (Fabian, North to Alaska, Ten Little Indians) – the professor’s assistant and friend
  • Sultan (Billy Gilbert,  County Hospital) – the inebriated ruler whom the professor helps, and who introduces
  • Ahmed (Peter Lorre, M,  Casablanca) – a slave trader, whose latest acquisition is:
  • Susan Gale (Barbara Eden, I Dream of Jeannie,  Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) – a teacher at a missionary, and love interest for O’Shay

Irwin Allen’s movie adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic story, Five Weeks in a Balloon starts off with a bang, and a large hot air balloon is careening through mountains seemingly out of control — but not really, as the inventor, Professor Ferguson (Cedric Hardwicke), with his assistant Jacques (Fabian) are demonstrating his new invention to some doubters — who, despite it’s accuracy and control, will not fund his expedition to explore and map Africa in it. But Mr. Randolph, an American newspaper publisher, offers to fund it — sending his star reporter Donald O’Shay (Red Buttons) along for the trip.

In Zanzibar, an hour before the launch, Professor Ferguson unexpectedly meets with the Prime Minister (Herbert Marshall) wants the professor to plant the British flag there, to forestall slave traders from claiming control of the territory.

In the meanwhile, O’Shay  is running through an Indian bazaar with a beautiful young lady — a slave named Makia (BarBara Luna) that he’s rescuing — in a slightly zany chase scene (I enjoyed the spectacle of the Indian Rope trick being interrupted) where he meets with Jacques, and the chase continues. The professor is forced by the government to take along General  Sir Henry Vining (Richard Haydn) — one of the doubters who tried to scuttle the expedition. To add some conflict, the people from the bazaar are upset, and (led by two slavers) try to stop the balloon from leaving — but despite some gunfire, they take off for West Africa.

O’Shay doesn’t like the change in plans, and appeals to Jacques as a fellow American to send the airship back to Zanzibar — but he’s a Canadian, and so with the professor and Vining fighting, they’re on their way, with some beautiful cinematography of Africa. And soon they’re landing in Africa, “in a forest full of trees.” Vining shows off his “expertise” on Africa by mistaking the sound of a young elephant for a rhinoceros, but soon they’re sitting down to dinner in Africa — where a hand under the dinner table surreptitiously helps itself to food and drink, until she’s found — Makia has been a stowaway, who feels that she now belongs to O’Shay.And then, for comic relief, a chimpanzee invites herself to dinner. And then, in the distance, they hear drums …

A storm strikes, and the balloon takes to the air to rise above it — despite Vining’s insistence that they ride it out on the ground. The balloon takes some minor damage, and they need to land to repair it — and see a large city where they can land. The city is thrown into a tumult by the site of the strange thing landing from the sky, After chanting and bowing, the natives approach, and Vining shows his worthlessness again — but the natives think O’Shay to be the moon god, and the professor his medicine man — and the sultan needs his medical help.

The sultan (Billy Gilbert) is merely inebriated, and brought out of his stupor by a whiff of ammonia — and calls for a celebration, with our heroes as guests of honor. Billy Gilbert does a good comic turn as the sultan who loves his drink, and then O’Shay undergoes a test of courage with six natives armed with spears. Afterward, Peter Lorre shows up as a slave trader named Ahmed, with a young lady in tow – the beautiful Susan Gale (Barbara Eden). Soon, our heroes are running for the balloon again to escape, where the slave trader follows by climbing up the rope ladder, and nearly kills the professor.

That night, the balloon lands along with the “honest” slave trader — with stolen jewels taken from the sultan. Susan Gale explains how she was a teacher at a mission, and they explain how their mission is to plant their flag and prevent the slave trade. But the drums threaten … and the race between them and the slavers is on in earnest.

While at a stop, O’Shay tries to warm up to Susan, and while on guard duty, O’Shay manages to get himself caught in a net and captured by natives. He manages to sneak away, and runs for the balloon while the rest are loading supplies, and helps  Susan after she’s tripped. After another narrow escape, they’re back in the air … and Susan is starting to fall for O’Shay.

At their next stop, when O’Shay is looking at Susan — instead of what he’s supposed to be doing — he accidentally cuts the anchor loose, and the ship flies away, with only the chimpanzee on board. Luckily, the ship’s anchor gets caught in a tree and they’re able to recover their ship. There’s talk of letting O’Shay leave, and join a caravan heading for the Nile — but he’s rescued by a sandstorm that forces them to climb above it, and they’re all forced into the relative safety of the ship’s cabin to ride out the storm.

At the next oasis, after some angst about forcing O’Shay from the expedition, most of the group are kidnapped by slavers — except for O’Shay and the chimpanzee in a tree, and Jacques and Ahmed inside the ship’s cabin. The captured people are soon met by the Sheik of Timbuktu (Henry Daniell), and informed that they’ll soon be executed — except for Makia, who will be sold as a slave.

Ahmed and Jacques watch in disguise as Makia is being auctioned by Redbeard (Billy Gilbert again in another role, as the sultan’s cousin) — where, after a bidding war with the Shiek, they buy Makia — and next have to figure out a way to rescue the others from their public execution. With the aid of the airship, they manage it — at the cost of Vining’s beloved teapot. As they escape, a well-thrown scimitar  pierces the balloon, and they need to gain as much altitude as quickly as they can. But the professor is angry at O’Shay — again — by “wasting” time by saving them, they’ve lost precious time, and the slavers may beat them there — unless they risk flying at night.

Eventually, the scimitar falls out, increasing the size of the tear, and the balloon begins sinking, and they try to lighten the load by throwing everything overboard — and they make it to their destination, arriving at the same time as the slavers. The professor orders everyone to climb up into the balloon itself, as the slavers shoot at them. In a dramatic moment, the use the anchor to destroy the rope bridge that the slavers are crossing, and release the gondola — the ultimate lightening of the load, as the balloon continues to drop into the river, and our heroes are heading towards a deadly waterfall. Everyone makes it to the edge of the river, except for Ahmed who can’t swim — and O’Shay swims to save him, resulting in them both going over the waterfall. And one surviving slave trader has swum to the other side, with their flag, and is shooting at them — until Ahmed’s dagger puts an end to his threat.

O’Shay swims to the rest of the group — with the British flag — and all is well, complete with some comedy and romance at the very end.


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