On June 28th, 1971, Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory was released into the world. Though its initial run at the box office was merely respectable, over the 50 years that have passed since Charlie Bucket and a band of obnoxious brats entered the eccentric Mr Wonka’s world of Pure Imagination for the first time, clutching that most coveted of prizes – a Golden Ticket – Stuart’s film has grown (rightfully) to become one of the most beloved family films of all time. A huge part of the film’s continued appeal is its devilishly delightful melding of the fantastical and the frightful, a combination that served the original book’s writer Roald Dahl well throughout his career. And so, to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary, I invite you to revisit the single most thrilling, chilling, and utterly brilliant sequence in the film – the infamous tunnel scene – with me. All aboard the SS Wonkatania folks – round the world and back again, that’s the sailor’s way!
The first time we meet Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka in Stuart’s film, we see the reclusive factory owner slowly limp towards the Golden Ticket winners and their parents, propped up by his cane. Right at the last moment however, he jams the cane in a brick, theatrically rolling forwards before springing up to surprise his new guests. Wilder insisted on being able to do this stunt before accepting the role of Wonka, and with good reason. He wanted to create a sense for both the children in the film and the children watching in the cinema that we can never really be sure of what Wonka is up to right from the outset, and in one moment of acrobatic dazzlement he achieves that and so much more besides.
Building on this opening gambit for Wonka’s character, Stuart and Wilder were both keen to heighten Wonka’s status as a presence capable of disturbing and enchanting at the flick of a switch, which makes the timing and execution of the tunnel sequence early on in our journey into the factory perfectly pitched to up the ante. Having just sent Augustus Gloop up a pipe after the ‘big, fat, greedy nincempoop’ has fallen into Wonka’s glorious chocolate river, his exit accompanied by the insidious singing of the orange-faced and green-haired Oompa Loompas, the remaining ticket holders – and us – are keen to keep things moving forwards (and a little keener to get to the exit I would suggest). Right on cue, two of Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas arrive aboard the beautifully designed SS Wonkatania, and Willy Wonka swiftly invites the remaining ticket holders aboard for a boat ride.
In Dahl’s novel, the boat ride and tunnel sequence is a far cry from the scene as it plays out in Stuart’s film. While both book and film see the kids and their parents board the Wonkatania, head into a dark tunnel, experience Wonka’s madcap poetry, and then end with the lights going up to offer a rapid release from the clutches of madness so as to stop younger viewers/readers becoming too scared, the novel is – surprisingly for Dahl – a lot less threatening than the film. The book sees Wonka ‘hooting with laughter’ as his poem begins, the barmy genius jumping up and down, laughing and clapping as he looks around to see whether his guests are enjoying themselves as much as he is. Wonka in the book is clearly a few nuts short of a full Snickers, but his eccentricity is played as an almost child-like hyperactivity, and his kinetic characterisation counter-balances the low-key horror of a voyage into the unknown. In the book, the boat ride also offers us a little glimpse into Wonka’s clear affection for Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe – he gives them a warm cup of cocoa from the river and seems shocked by how starved Charlie looks.
There is no such tenderness and gaiety in Stuart’s version of the tunnel sequence but, truth be told, it’s all the more exciting for it. After a disarming orchestral reprise of Pure Imagination, set against a backdrop of the SS Wonkatania leisurely cruising The Chocolate Room, Wonka’s vessel (which suspiciously only has eight seats, even though 10 guests entered the factory) heads towards a black tunnel. “Hey Wonka, I want off!” nervously shouts Leonard Stone’s Mr Beauregarde, to which Wilder’s Wonka determinedly announces “Round the world and back again, that’s the sailor’s way!” And in we go, with Willy Wonka and co, plunged into flashes of shadow and light as Wilder’s wide eyes and hollers of “Faster!” are lit in Giallo-esque violent reds and greens.
The two defining features of the scene as it plays out in the film are, firstly, what Stuart has often referred to as his “montage of evil”, and secondly, of course, Wilder’s incredibly intense rendition of Wonka’s poem. For the “montage of evil”, Stuart initially shot footage of traffic tunnels in the film’s shooting location, Munich, at varying speeds. This enabled the director to create a sense of an indefinable space through which Wonka’s vessel moves, while also at the same time palpably evoking a velocity within the sequence that propels us as viewers through the scene. As for the montage itself, there are only actually five shots used, but they are deployed to startling effect in an almost avant-garde way. First we see a centipede crawl over a man’s face (FUN FACT: That man is The Wild Bunch screenwriter Walon Green); then we get a close-up of an eye nervously glancing from side-to-side; next up – most shockingly – is a chicken’s head being decapitated; Gunter Meisner’s glowering Mr Slugworth stares at Charlie and Grandpa Joe next; and then, the last of the primary shots in the montage is a horned lizard eating a worm. Separately, these shots are disconcerting but not so deeply – together though, the cumulative effect is one of feeling we have descended into hell, or if not hell then the realms of the childrens’ darkest fears. Many theories have abounded about religious metaphors and Freudian subtexts within the tunnel sequence, but the most compelling explanation is that Wonka is simply showing his guests that fear and excitement are inextricably linked, and by overcoming fears when faced with them we afford ourselves a chance to experience exaltation renewed. In this case, the reward is entry to Willy Wonka’s Invention Room, but it is also escape from the fate that befell Augustus Gloop too.
Concurrent with the unholy imagery in the “montage of evil”, we get that iconic Wilder poem reading. Give it a listen below:
This poem is the only one directly taken from Dahl’s novel, and it’s not hard to see why it wasn’t drastically altered between page and screen. Whilst the sing-song lyricality of the piece, in the context of the book’s characterisation of Willy Wonka at this point, only has a low level of menace to it when read aloud, Wilder’s unhinged performance of it in the film elevates it to new heights, drawing out the latent terror of Dahl’s words. It is noteworthy though that the lines ‘Is it raining? / Is it snowing? / Is a hurricane a-blowing?’, and ‘Are the fires of hell a glowing? / Is the grisly reaper mowing?’ are new ones not in the original, potentially in the latter lines’ case for their more explicitly unsettling connotations. Either way though, with an almost shrill, lullabic beginning, building eventually to a roaring, wide-eyed and lip-trembling climax, Wilder portrays Wonka through the poem as a man possessed. In his emotionless physicality, juxtaposed with an alarming vocal intensity, the enigmatism of Wonka as a character is shown powerfully.
Such is the commitment of Wilder to the role here that his delivery, which alike many of the film’s big scenes saw the child actors’ first-time reactions captured on camera, convinced Violet Beauregarde actress Denise Nickerson that Wilder really had lost his mind. In truth, part of the beauty and bewitching nature of Wilder’s work here is that even 50 years on, it would be hard not to sympathise with Nickerson’s response. And yet still, with those golden curls and that unique ability to spin a scene on a dime, Wilder’s Willy Wonka segues out of this passage into the realms of charming entertainer extraordinaire with preternatural ease.
The tunnel scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory has endured in the cultural consciousness for half a century now, and it is easy to see why. It is a masterclass in the art of adaptation, combining the wonderment of Wonka himself and his factory with horror-filled imagery and a poetic performance that is quite singularly psychotic, Stuart’s entire film and all that it sought to achieve is focused into this one four minute sequence of genius. The fact that oddball auteur and Gothic visionary Tim Burton didn’t even try to replicate it over three decades later tells you all you need to know. There truly is no life I know to compare to pure imagination, and here is imagination at its purest. Happy 50th Anniversary Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, and here’s to the next 50 more years beguiled by the ultimate dreamer of dreams.