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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Master of the World

Richard Matheson, who wrote the original "I Am Legend" novel and numerous Twilight Zone" episodes, adapted two of Jules Verne's stories into one screenplay. "Clipper of the Clouds" (1886) and "Master of the World" (1904) both featured the main character named Robur. The well-adapted writing and big name stars such as Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, yield a result above AIP's usual low-budget average. Overall, Master of the World (MotW) fits well into the film portfolio of Verne stories.

Quick Plot Synopsis
After a prelude of some silly (failure) flying machines footage, the movie begins in earnest. Fearful rumblings, flames, and voices quoting Scripture come from atop a mountain near Morgantown, PA in 1860. The US Department of Interior sends John Strock (Bronson) to investigate. He enlists the aide of a dysfunctional balloon society to peer inside the mountain's crater. They are shot down by a missile and taken prisoner aboard Mr. Robur's flying ship, the Albatross. Robur plans to issue ultimata to the leading world powers, demanding that they disarm or be bombed. The ensuing trip across the Atlantic provides time for the usual Hollywood love triangle between Strock, Dorothy Prudent and her fiancee Phillip, with an innuendo of Strock being a traitor. Once London, Madrid, Washington and some other capitals are bombed, Robur sets out to stop a war between some arabic armies and native african armies. He bombs both, but in his zeal to stop war, the Albatross is too low and suffers damage from her own blasts. Narrowly escaping a mountain pass, the Albatross anchors off an island to effect repairs. While the crew is busy, Strock sets a bomb in the ship's armory. Dorothy and her father escape down the anchor rope. Phillip knocks out Strock to remove a love rival. They both manage to escape the Albatross before the blast. The crippled Albatross flies off. The crew refuse to abandon Robur, so all (presumably) perish when the Albatross hits the sea and blows up. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Price is excellent as Robur. Bronson does a fine job as the classic hero. The Albatross model (and sets) are a fun example of steampunk and go a long way to disguise the low-budget reality of the film.

Cold War Angle
This is more subtle, but still present. Robur thinks that the way to end war among nations is to threaten them with destruction by a super weapon. The anti-war sentiment is more prevalent in Matheson's screenplay than Verne's novel.

Flying Nemo -- Jules Verne liked the character of the ambitious inventor genius. The early Industrial Revolution thrived on such images, though post WWII folks had a less romantic view of well-meaning ruthless tyrants. Matheson's Robur is cast very much in the same mold as Disney's Captain Nemo. Both despise war, yet ironically, use death and destruction to try and end it. Both were brilliant inventors and strong leaders. Both had a hint of misanthropy. Both considered themselves above petty nationalism and were "citizens of the world." Both go down, nobly, with their ships.

War To End War -- Verne, writing before World War One, did not have benefit of seeing the colossal failure of the notion that one could use force (or the threat of force) to end war. WWI, the "The War to End all War," was a disenchanting disaster at the task. Modern audiences can then catch a bit of poignant irony in both Nemo and Robur thinking that a show of overwhelming force will persuade mankind to play nice. In this, there is a subtle cynicism at nuclear deterrent logic. This is enhanced by the catatonic reaction of Mr. Prudent (the smug arms merchant) when he sees the brutality of war up close. Moral? War is bad.

The Albatross -- An uncredited star of the film is the model of the Albatross. It gets as much (or more) screen time as Price or Bronson. It is a well done example of the steampunk ethos. It's intricacy and gadgetry are well used to mask the lack of other special effects. In the usual Verne mode, its propulsive power is left vague and mysterious. The power consumed by such a mega-helicopter would be, of course, huge. Yet, refueling is never mentioned.

Taint of Hollywood -- Dedicated Verne fans will spot the obligatory Hollywood insertions to "help the story." The two most obvious were the usual beautiful young woman and inevitable love triangle, and the comic relief character. Vito Scotti provides his usual humor as Topage, the cook.

Bottom line? MotW is a creditable addition to the Verne film library. For AIP, it was a surprisingly well done low-budget movie. The extended flying scenes tend to pad the running time, but the model is cool to watch, so it's not so bad (especially for steampunk fans). Price and Bronson do good jobs in their roles. The result is quite watch-able.


Mike Scott said...

I love a good Verne movie and this is one of my favorites! As you say, Price and the Albatross are what make it fun. A pretty nice score by Les Baxter, too. We really need this on DVD!

Nightowl said...

I think it's one of my favorites too. In some ways, I like it better than 20,000 Leagues, for its lack of Disney cuteness elements.

Gideon Marcus said...

Fine review!

Like you, I am crawling through all the sff movies. Master of the World was my favorite for 1961.