Tajemství Ocelového mesta [The Secret of Steel City] (1979)

I’l confess to being somewhat puzzled by this one.

Now, as I’ve pointed out before, it seems to be a point of honor that Jules Verne movies can’t be based on the original books, except in the most tangential sort of way.

And, I should note, frequently they’re played for comedy, no matter how serious the original was.

So, I’m hardly surprised when a Verne movie is radically different from the original.  But it is decidedly strange when it’s based on one of Verne’s most absurd comedies, The Begum’s Fortune, but isn’t a comedy.

Yes, there are a few comic moments here and there, but ultimately, the film resembles a Western Cold War spy movie more than anything else, and plays out quite seriously.  Which, unfortunately, is a bit of a let down when one expects a typically absurd Czech SF comedy.

Nor, as we expect from a Verne movie, does it focus on the Victorian age inventions.  Yes, as in the original, there is a giant cannon (although the villain’s failure to calculate escape velocity is ignored in favor of a more routine ending), but that’s about it, except for the car traveling around Steel City, with a series of exhausted servants hired to walk in front of it carrying a red flag (a historical reference, rather than a Jules Verne fantasy).

Instead we get a whole subplot about a young boy who is pawn in the war between the two cities.

It’s interesting to note that the French vs. German references in the original have vanished, with “Ville-France” conveniently becoming “Fortuna.”  As have the fairly wacky ideas Verne had for this Utopian state – like the fresh air fiend houses that would probably be breezier than not having any walls at all.

One other minor surprise came because I’d expected that the dictatorial state of Steel City would be used as a thinly veiled criticism of Communism, as was true in many of the later Soviet Bloc SF films.  Admittedly, this was rare in Czech SF after 1970 or so, thanks to the Soviet tanks that crushed the Prague Spring, but I still expected the book’s oppressive, militaristic, massively-centralized government would lend itself nicely to satire, while giving the filmmakers a little cover.  I suspect there might be more satire here than I realize, and yet it is muted at best.  Although it does come close with one element borrowed from the original, when the entire, centralized state falls apart once the man leading everything from the top is gone.

However, neither does the film place much emphasis on the villain’s Capitalism or on Ville-France’s Utopianianism, as one might expect from a Marxist bias.

This is not the best Czech SF film – nor is it their best Jules Verne film! It has a few good moments and looks quite good, with a lot of attention to period detail, but still seems a bit disappointing when one’s expectations for Czech SF are so high.

So file it under “modest”, and try not to watch it back to back with Adele Hasn’t Had Her Dinner Yet or Tomorrow I Shall Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea.

It’ll just seem more disappointing that way.


2 thoughts on “Tajemství Ocelového mesta [The Secret of Steel City] (1979)

  1. It clearly shows that Vogeltanz was more of a TV writer. This was his first “silver screen” credit until 1982’s “Poslední propadne peklu” (“The Last One Goest To Hell”), a teen low-fantasy story set in the eve of 30 Years War (loved that one as a kid, it’s delightfully grim).
    Incidentally, both these movies also share the same director, Ludvík Ráža, who was also chiefly a TV director, specialized mostly in fiction for the 10-15 demographic. Most of us grew up with his series “My z konce světa” (“We from the End of the World”, 1975, about a boy growing up in a secluded mountain village resort) and “Tajemství proutěného košíku” (“Secrets of a wicker basket”, 1977, a somber, bittersweet tale of a metropolitan girl who has to live in the country at her grandma’s because her parents have too busy work schedule).

    If I were to guess, I’d say that Ráža and Vogeltanz got this project as a reward for their merits in TV production. 😉

    By the way, Ráža also directed “Něco je ve vzduchu” (“There’s something in the air”, 1980), a somewhat weak and not very interesting time-travel paradox story that was presumably later stolen by Zemeckis and remade as “Back to the Future”. No, I can’t prove that 😉 but many points of the story are essentially a carbon copy – down to such details like time traveler carelessly teaching the 1940s “natives” how to dance to 1970s music.


    1. Sounds like I’ll have to keep my eyes open for “Něco je ve vzduchu”, although I haven’t found much about it yet! I’ll be willing to bet, though, that they didn’t have a Delorean. Thanks for the interesting background information!


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