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To greet the 1960s, American-International Pictures opened a new tier of productions with mid-range budgets and filmed in color. Although they'd continue to pair obscure horror and fantasy films in double bills (frequently cheaply-bought foreign productions) the distribution company couldn't continue bankrolling B&W pictures barely more than an hour long. Independent Hollywood companies ceased shooting $50,000 monster epics when new SAG rules forbade negotiated buy-outs for actors.
In addition to rolling the dice with Roger Corman on more expensive Edgar Allan Poe movies, A.I.P.'s James H. Nicholson took a stab at full-scale motion picture producing with 1961's Master of the World, a brilliantly conceived vehicle to crash the then-hot Jules Verne craze. Very aware of the millions made by Disney, Michael Todd and Fox with lavish Verne adaptations, Nicholson fixated on the Verne book Robur the Conqueror and tapped the title from the author's later Master of the World. Not only was Verne's story similar to the classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with an airship instead of a submarine, screenwriter Richard Matheson tossed off a screenplay that 'borrows' Captain Nemo's anti-war, anti-munitions slant. The parallels are so close that one would think attorneys must have been consulted to assess the likelihood of a Disney lawsuit. Although Master of the World bears a winning concept, the finished product suffers greatly from its relatively miniscule budget.
In 1848, "government agent" John Strock (Charles Bronson) accompanies a deputation from the Weldon Airship Society to investigate strange sights and sounds emanating from a mountain called The Great Eyrie. Their flimsy balloon is shot down, and the four aeronauts awaken intact but confused in what seems to be the cabin of a ship. It turns out that they are the prisoners of the visionary inventor & anti-war fanatic Robur (Vincent Price), a stateless rebel who intends to disarm the world's nations by threatening them with utter destruction. His persuader is The Albatross, an enormous flying machine powered by a newly discovered electrical force. The Albatross looks like a blimp but is actually a giant helicopter kept aloft by rows of rotors. Robur's plan is to drop leaflets stating his demands and to prove his power by sinking the warships of belligerent nations. He almost kills his captives when he discovers that one of them is the Yankee arms manufacturer Prudent (Henry Hull). Prudent's hotheaded associate Philip Evans (David Frankham) foolishly provokes Robur, much to the consternation of Dorothy, his fiancée and Prudent's daughter. Only Strock keeps a cool head. He admires Robur's pacifist ideals but concludes that The Albatross must be destroyed. Meanwhile, Robur bombs British ships in the Thames and elects to intercede in a tribal battle in North Africa. Strock and Dorothy regard their captor not as a madman, but a misguided idealist.
American-International's brilliant move in the middle 1950s was to avoid competing directly with films from major studios. Minor companies like Monogram and PRC muddled along producing cheaper imitations of product made by the major players; A.I.P. originally specialized in exploitation double bills aimed at the youth market. With Master of the World Nicholson broke A.I.P.'s own rule by attempting to film an epic on a shoestring. Their director of choice was William Witney, a maker of mostly anonymous westerns whose name was on a hit distributed by A.I.P., The Cool and the Crazy. Witney shoots live-action scenes as if asleep, all with one lens, from shoulder height. Admittedly, Daniel Haller's sets for the interior of the Albatross aren't that impressive, but with the exception of a few scenes in the wheelhouse, we always feel like we're on a sound stage, in a cheap set for a TV show.
The actors are left on their own to deal with a script that's 70% exposition and 30% awkward confrontation scenes. David Frankham's Philip is a total maroon who takes offense at almost every line spoken by Robur and Strock. We wonder why they all don't vote to push Phillip over the side. Henry Hull overacts terribly, blowing the film's vaguely pacifist message -- with his arguments about propellers on balloons (straight from the Frenchman's book) are too idiotic be taken seriously. Mary Webster's Dorothy serves mostly as a romantic bystander, leaving the interesting Vincent Price and Charles Bronson to make the movie watchable.
Price is better than good, and handles Robur's schizophrenic tendencies in fine style. Robur is a devout Bible reader but also goes nuts when his pride is hurt, dangling his prisoners at the end of a rope. Like abolitionist John Brown, he's a self-contradicting madman, throwing himself into pitched battles after claiming to be the original peacenik. Robur dispatches threats to governments and wonders why they don't cave in to his demands. And what makes Robur think that he can stop two warring tribes from fighting by enhancing the combat with an aerial barrage? The wonder of Vincent Price is that his basic authoritative delivery -- no cackling or fruity eye rolling -- gives life and authority to the crazy Robur character. As with James Mason's Nemo, we're always on the side of Robur -- may their ghosts continue sinking warships forever.
Charles Bronson didn't leap directly to star status after The Magnificent Seven but did get a boost to better parts, in bigger movies than Roger Corman's Machine Gun Kelly. He seems to have chosen Master of the World because John Strock is Robur's equal, the standout role. Bronson shines just by maintaining an even strain and talking calm sense. He owns the action hero scenes outright -- no more getting shot down by some clod in a white hat. What could go wrong?
Although not too many complaints were heard in 1961, the special effects to keep Master of the World in the air are really weak. Daniel Haller's design for The Albatross is both handsome and clever, a "Clipper of the Clouds" that predicts a future of powerful airships. But Ray Mercer and Project Unlimited had to create the effects on far too small a scale. The model of The Albatross is filmed in flat angles in front of a rear projection (RP) screen. The aerial scenery plates for these effects are haphazard at best -- ragged pans of the horizon and unstable views of clouds and waves. The real killer is a shallow depth of field, which often leaves part of the airship in soft focus. On a big screen The Albatross was a bit more impressive, but it mostly looks like a toy.
Even worse, A.I.P. goes cheap on other aerial footage. "Ireland" looks like the only green field a pilot could find in Southern California, and a shot supposedly leaving America for the Atlantic depicts an arid seashore. The Albatross is RP-inserted into grainy stock shots (not all of them in color) of model boats. "London" consists of textless title backgrounds from Laurence Olivier's Henry V, that depict an Elizabethan-period Thames complete with a large Globe Theater. The entire African conflict is faded Technicolor footage of the Fuzzy-Wuzzy battle from Korda's The Four Feathers. None of this is at all convincing. The film's most successful effect, really, is the view through Robur's wheelhouse bridge, which simply shows a variety of pretty clouds. It takes Price's commitment to the role to make us believe that he's flying.
Les Baxter worked overtime on his pretty music score, which lends needed excitement to actions that occur off-screen. An average auditor will probably think that the main theme sounds suspiciously close to the Borodin-adapted pop song Stranger in Paradise. Baxter does what he can with the film's weak comedy relief scenes. Cook Topage (Vito Scotti) works in an impractical aerial kitchen forever being reduced to a chaos of pratfalls, yuk yuk. All I can say is that the ten year-olds in the theaters thought it was funny. Robur's main man at the tiller, by the way, is Richard Harrison, who very soon joined other California musclemen in Rome to play in sword 'n' sandal epics and spaghetti westerns. As if getting ready, he does without a shirt in this film quite a bit too. Robur's multinational crew goes Disney one further by being multiracial as well, but all hands appear to be devout Christians.
Unlike Disney's daringly radical 20,000 Leagues, which ends up earning a lot of admiration for a violent terrorist hero, producer Nicholson's film muddles its anti-war message. Several of Verne's proto- science fiction stories demonize munitions manufacturers and war profiteers, charging them with responsibility for bloody wars. Colonial abuses are given somewhat less of an emphasis. Matheson's Master of the World script sidesteps extended political discussion by having the no-nonsense Strock simply state that he admires Robur's ideal of disarmament but takes exception to his method. Robur is just (sigh) another misdirected maniac that needs putting down.
Written fifty years before the advent of strategic bombing, Verne's helicopter warship expresses well the rational disconnect of maintaining the peace by threatening to level cities with aerial bombs. But Robur's ship really isn't formidable enough to follow through on his threats. With a fat target like The Albatross, a solution for shooting it down would be formulated in short order.
Little kids (this writer among them) were dazzled by Master of the World and hardly noticed its flaws. Movie special effects were not criticized so severely then, mainly because we were grateful to see any show that catered to our adolescent interests. The Dell tie-in comic book version (pictured) sported visuals much more impressive than anything in the movie. When the film finally showed up on television later in the 1960s I was profoundly disappointed to find that most shots of the flying machine looked, well, feeble. But there's always Vincent Price's haughty performance, Charles Bronson's stone-faced tough guy and the frequently impressive music score. This is one movie idea that merits a lavish remake.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD-R of Master of the World is a good enhanced transfer that does what it can with a movie made from a wide swath of source material. The show begins with a 'funny' stock footage montage about the beginnings of flight modeled on a similar montage in Around the World in Eighty Days -- but the prologue looks like a dupe of a B&W work print, as if A.I.P. wanted to dodge a licensing fee. The opticals are decent if grainy and the many RP shots of The Albatross in flight betray an even more exaggerated granularity.
The audio is quite nice. Les Baxter's score was released on a stereo LP, and a 1990s laserdisc retained the film's original full stereophonic mix. Separation can be heard in some of this DVD-R's track and it is indeed in true stereophonic sound. The presentation is missing the film's exit music, which was present on the old laserdisc. The song contains jaunty romantic lyrics like, "A man is master of the world when he is loved." The disc includes the film's exciting trailer.
A final note: after reviewing a number of these MGM Limited Edition Collection discs, it has finally dawned on me that that name doesn't jibe with the fact that these are said to be Made on Demand (MOD) discs. What's limited about that? I doubt that MGM going to start turning down orders after an arbitrary quota is reached.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Master of the World rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.