Sunday, 5 May 2013

Master of the World (1961)

Movies based on the works of Jules Verne had been very successful at the box office in the 50s so in 1961 AIP decided to get in on the act with an adaptation of Verne’s Master of the World. This was to be a spectacular action movie, but done on a very low AIP budget.

Therein of course lies the problem. Had a studio like Disney done this film it might have been every bit as good as their superb 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. AIP just didn’t have the money or the resources, or the expertise, of Disney. Despite this Master of the World is still a good deal of fun.

We start in a small town in Pennsylvania, a town sheltering under the slopes of a huge mountain known as the Great Eyrie. Loud rumbling noises are heard and the earth begins to shake. It looks like the Great Eyrie is about to erupt. Which is strange, since the mountain range of which it forms a part is not volcanic. How can a mountain that is not a volcano erupt? And what is the explanation of the booming voice heard at the time?

The US government, not unnaturally, wants to find out. They send out a man from the Department of the Interior to investigate. The man is John Strock (Charles Bronson). Strock decides that the best way to find out what is going on inside the Great Eyrie is to go have a look-see. That’s a sound idea, but the Great Eyrie is unclimbable. That’s awkward, but Strock is undaunted. If he can’t climb the mountain he’ll fly over it. Since this is 1868 the only way to do that is in a balloon.

He calls on the services of a ballooning society. The president of this society, an arms manufacturer named Prudent (Henry Hull), has designed a modern motor-driven balloon in conjunction with Phillip Evans (David Frankham). Evans is engaged to be married to Prudent’s daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster). Dorothy insists on coming along and soon she, her father, Evans and John Strock are flying over the mountain peak. At which time they are shot down by missile fire.

The four intrepid balloonists survive the crash of their balloon and wake up in what appears to be a ship. But this is no ordinary ship. It is an airship, the Albatross, and they are now the guests (or in practical terms the prisoners) of the airship’s captain, Robur (Vincent Price). The Albatross is many years ahead of its time. It is powered by electricity generated by some kind of magnetic engine.

Robur is not just a brilliant eccentric inventor and explorer. He is a man with a mission. His mission is to stamp out war, and he intends to do this no matter how many people he has to kill in the process. Robur intends to blackmail the governments of the world into disarming by threatening them with destruction from the skies. Like most people who want to save the world Robur doesn’t bother to ask if the world if the world wants or indeed needs to be saved.

It is apparent to our four adventurous balloonists that somebody has to stop Robur, and it’s going to have to be them. This is made more difficult by the fact that Evans and Strock dislike and distrust each other.

While Vincent Price will always be best remembered for his horror roles he was also superb in adventure movies as a tragic, flawed hero (as in War Gods of the Deep). Robur is dangerous and deluded but he is also charismatic and charming. He can be capriciously cruel but he is also capable of kindness, and even on rare occasions remorse. It’s a fine performance.

Charles Bronson might seem to a modern viewer to be miscast, but it has to be remembered that when this movie was made he hadn’t yet been stereotyped as the dark brooding killer type. He actually makes a decent adventure story hero. Mary Webster is quite adequate, Henry Hull is fun as Mr Prudent, but sadly David Frankham is rather bland as Evans.

The special effects were always going to be potentially the weak link. They are in fact variable but better than you might expect in a movie made under the budgetary constraints imposed by AIP’s lack of resources. There are some very obvious matte paintings, especially in the opening scene, but on the whole they’re reasonable enough. Most importantly the miniatures work is excellent. The Albatross looks very impressive and very convincing, in fact more convincing that it would probably look if done with modern CGI. Director William Witney does a competent job. With a script by the always interesting Richard Matheson Master of the World is really a surprisingly good movie. Great entertainment ad highly recommended.

MGM’s made-on-demand DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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All the best,