Few scenes from classic children's movies have done as much damage to and terrified as many youngsters as the notorious tunnel scene from 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The scene starts out almost innocent as the Golden Ticket winners board the SS Wonkatania, a beautiful fairy-tale boat that flows down a lazy chocolate river. But soon, the tone shifts as the candy master seems to become unhinged and the boat moves faster and faster down the tunnel, projecting nightmarish images along the walls as the passengers turn frantic.
As disturbing images flash on the screen, the boat patrons begin to scream while Wonka appears to have a small nervous breakdown, reciting lines of poetry among the madness. Then it all stops and everyone gets an Everlasting Gobstopper.
This scene has stayed with many viewers as one of the most jarring moments in a non-horror movie. To understand why the moment is pure nightmare fuel, here is a deep dive into the classic movie scene that examines everything from the disturbing imagery on the walls to a few behind-the-scenes facts.
Buckle up. It is one hell of a ride.
The SS 'Wonkatania' Was Originally A Sailboat
The original design of the SS Wonkatania by art director Harper Goff was a classic sailboat, complete with mast and sails. But sadly, the original design could not be used due to the size of the finished product.
According to director Mel Stuart:
[The boat] was originally conceived as a 16th century three-masted sailboat. However, we couldn't fit a vessel that huge on the stage.
The Boat Ride Rhyme That Gene Wilder Recites Was Written By Roald Dahl
The rhyme Willy Wonka speaks in the tunnel is also known as "The Rowing Song." It's actually a poem written by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Here are the full lyrics:
There's no earthly way of knowing
In which direction we are going.
There's no knowing where we're rowing,
Or which way the river's flowing!
Is it raining, is it snowing?
Is a hurricane a-blowing?
Not a speck of light is showing,
So the danger must be growing.
By the fires of hell a-glowing,
is the grisly reaper mowing?
Yes! The danger must be growing,
For the rowers keep on rowing,
And they're certainly not showing,
Any signs that they are slowing!
The Boat Ride Was Scary For The Actors, Too
Gene Wilder was so committed to the scene that he delivered his lines with complete conviction, which gave off an air of madness. The other actors weren't expecting his delivery to be quite that intense. According to Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt, a few thought he might be going a little "loopy." Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Bucket, said in an interview:
Gene just kind of went off and we had not seen that side of him. I wouldn’t say it was disturbing - but it was, "Whoa, Gene is really getting into it today."
What Does Willy Wonka Say When They Get On The Boat?
Before they board the ship, Willy Wonka says the following in French:
Mesdames et messieurs, maintenant nous allons faire grand petit voyage par bateau. Voulez-vous entrer le Wonkatania?
Translated into English, he says:
Ladies and gentlemen, now we're going to take a big little boat trip. Do you want to enter the Wonkatania?