William Witney, 1961
Starring: Vincent Price, Charles Bronson, Henry Hull, Mary Webster
After a short opening documentary about man’s failures and successes with flying machines, we meet John Strock, a government agent hoping to investigate a strange crater in a small town in Pennsylvania. Recently smoke has been pouring from the crater and the town’s inhabitants heard a strange, booming voice quoting biblical scripture. A local arms dealer, Mr. Prudent, takes Strock up in a hot air balloon to investigate along with Prudent’s daughter Dorothy and her proud and somewhat difficult fiancé, Philip Evans. Their hot air balloon is shot down and they are taken captive aboard a massive airship by the charming, but determined Captain Robur.
Strock, Prudent, Dorothy, and Philip soon learn that the brilliant Robur and his loyal crew plan to end all war on Earth with the powerful weapons aboard his airship, the Albatross. He begins blowing military boats out of the water and attacks an army on land before the ship is eventually damaged. Even though Strock is sympathetic to Robur’s ultimate aims, he knows he must stop the man and help the others escape from the ship regardless of the cost.
With Master of the World, American International Pictures was trying cash in on the success of big budget sci-fi adventure films from the period, many of which were based on Jules Verne’s work, like Disney’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), and The Stolen Airship (1969), among many more. They may not have totally succeeded, due to the minuscule budget, but Master of the World is a lot of fun despite its flaws.
Overall Master of the World feels like someone filtered a Jules Verne story through the 1960s Batman television show. If this sort of pulpiness is your thing, there is a lot to enjoy. This campiness is partly due to AIP’s very cheap budget and partly to director William Witney, who had experience making comic book-like serials such as Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and early Dick Tracy films. Though the Albatross looks great in some scenes, there are very cheap special effects bolstered by matte paintings, miniature work, and lots of stock footage. Though, of course, I would always rather see cheap practical effects than lousy CGI.
Master of the World is based on Jules Verne’s novel Robur the Conqueror (1886) and its sequel, Master of the World (1905), his second to last book. The script is from horror and sci-fi legend Richard Matheson (I Am Legend and many of Roger Corman’s films, among other things). The script is overly talkie and doesn’t have quite as much excitement as it could, due to the paltry budget. Though it isn’t slowed down by too much comedy, there are a few unfortunate scenes involving Italian comic actor Vito Scotti (Godfather) as a French chef. Of course, it would be totally in character for Vincent Price to have a gourmet chef on board.
Price is great as Robur, riffing somewhat on Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo, and almost bests the dialogue-heavy script and cheapness of the production. Though he is removed here from his stereotypical horror role, there is a shred of similarity. Rober is polite, charming, and charismatic, but he is also dangerously idealistic, ready to destroy the world in order to end all war. As always, his character is incredibly morally ambiguous and the film benefits from not having a true, cut and dried villain.
Charles Bronson (yes, the one and only) is a little miscast as government agent and hero Strock, but hey, it’s still Bronson. Though he was fresh off The Magnificent Seven (1960), he had yet to establish his tough guy reputation and had actually previously appeared as Price’s muscle-bound, mute assistant in the horror film House of Wax (1953). Henry Hull (Werewolf of London) overacts with gusto as Prudent, the aged arms dealer who just happens to find his way on the airship. Mary Webster (The Onedin Line) is likable as Dorothy, though the film would have been a lot more interesting if her fiancé, played by David Frankham (Tales of Terror), had been killed off early in the proceedings. Plus, who can compete with Charles Bronson?
Oddly, Master of the World was not included in MGM’s Midnite Movies series that released a lot of Vincent Price films, though it has finally made it to DVD. It is certainly an acquired taste, but comes recommended for fans of classic fantasy, adventure, and sci-fi. And how can your resist a proto-steampunk movie starring Vincent Price as the captain of an airship who faces off against Charles Bronson?