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Master of the World

by Glenn Erickson Jul 24, 2021

One of Jules Verne’s most fantastic sci-fi fantasies got the big screen treatment from American-International, which hopped on the Verne bandwagon that raked in big $$ for Disney and others. A production challenge given a minimum of resources, the colorful show is still admired for the performance of Vincent Price as Robur the Conqueror, a mad terrorist. Charles Bronson also gets high marks as the proto- G-Man dispatched to put an end to Robur’s Albatross, an aerial ‘weapon of mass destruction.’ We also fell in love with art director Daniel Haller’s magnificent design for the airship — even if the special visual effects no longer seem as special as they should be.


Master of the World
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1961 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date August 31, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Vincent Price, Charles Bronson, Henry Hull, Mary Webster, David Frankham, Richard Harrison, Vito Scotti, Wally Campo.
Cinematography: Gil Warrenton
Art Director: Daniel Haller
Film Editor: Anthony Carras
Original Music: Les Baxter
Written by Richard Matheson from Master of the World and Robur the Conqueror by Jules Verne
Produced by James H. Nicholson
Directed by
William Witney

This 100% wonder movie favorite from childhood grabbed my attention from the get-go. I first became aware of it when I was taken to a downtown Honolulu matinee of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty — across the street was a marquee proclaiming a great new movie from Jules Verne, on whom I was already keen through Classics Illustrated comics. I didn’t learn what the movie was about for several months, when it came to the Hickam Air Force Base theater in all its glory. The show had EVERYTHING a nine-year old wanted to see, that’s for sure. It was the first time I saw Vincent Price on a screen, although I’d stared at the posters for his ‘adult’ movies House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and The Bat.

New Screen Actors Guild rules for 1960 forbade negotiated buy-outs for actors, a residuals requirement that largely put an end to seventy-minute B&W pictures made on a shoestring and off the books. American-International Pictures had to change their game plan. When they could they continued to double-bill obscure horror and fantasy films, often cheaply-bought foreign productions. But the company also began producing mid-range features intended to compete with the majors, at the top of a theatrical bill. They rolled the dice on Roger Corman’s more expensive Edgar Allan Poe movie House of Usher, in color and Panavision.

A.I.P.’s James H. Nicholson soon took a stab at a full-scale epic with Master of the World, an excellent choice to crash the then-hot Jules Verne craze. Very aware of the millions made by Walt Disney, Michael Todd and Charles Brackett’s lavish Verne adaptations, Nicholson fixated on the Verne book Robur the Conqueror and cribbed the title from the author’s later Master of the World. Not only was Verne’s story similar to his classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — it substitutes an airship for a submarine — screenwriter Richard Matheson ‘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. Master of the World bears a winning concept but suffers greatly from its relatively miniscule budget — A.I.P. just couldn’t afford the special effects needed to properly tell the story.

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 banks of rotors.

Robur drops leaflets stating his demands and demonstrates his power by sinking a warship. He becomes furious at learning that one of his ‘guests’ is the Yankee arms manufacturer Prudent (Henry Hull). Prudent’s hotheaded associate Philip Evans (David Frankham) foolishly provokes Robur, much to the consternation of his fiancée Dorothy, Prudent’s daughter (Mary Webster). Strock and Dorothy regard their captor not as a madman, but a misguided idealist. Meanwhile, Robur proceeds to bomb British ships in the Thames and intercedes in a tribal battle in North Africa. Only Strock keeps a cool head. He admires Robur’s pacifist ideals yet concludes that the Albatross must be destroyed.

American-International responded to their new production challenge by switching to color for in-house work but continuing to make their films on the cheap. Their director of choice was William Witney, a maker of mostly anonymous westerns who owed the studio a movie. The best word for Witney’s work is ‘efficient.’ He shoots his scenes all with one lens, from shoulder height. Daniel Haller’s sets for the interior of the Albatross are imaginative, but the static camera and the angles chosen often make us feel we’re watching a TV show.

The actors must cope with a script that’s 70% exposition and 30% awkward confrontation scenes. David Frankham’s Philip takes offense at everything said by Robur and Strock — we wonder why the others don’t vote to push the insufferable Phillip over the side. Henry Hull tries to enliven scenes by overacting, blowing the film’s vaguely pacifist message. His arguments about propellers on balloons (straight from Verne’s book) sound foolish, as if meant to mirror the petty argument about which end of an egg to open in Gulliver’s Travels. Mary Webster’s Dorothy serves mostly as a romantic bystander, leaving Vincent Price’s volatile Robur and Charles Bronson’s cool-headed John Strock to give the movie some grit and dynamism.

Price’s Robur is a devout Bible reader yet also volatile and vindictive when his pride is hurt, veeing between gentility and mania. At one point he tortures Philip by dangling him beneath the ship at the end of a long rope, but shouts in remorse after forgetting to pull the man up again. Like the abolitionist John Brown he’s a self-contradictory madman, talking like a peace dove and then throwing himself into pitched battles. As a pacifist Robur earns poor marks; he should have done remedial work in diplomacy, or simple psychology. Captain Nemo just let his hatred be his guide and eagerly  sank munitions ships without warning. Robur seriously expects nations to capitulate to his ranting ultimatums. What makes him think an aerial barrage would stop two warring tribes from fighting?  Vincent Price’s authoritative delivery — no cackling or fruity eye rolling — gives life and authority to Robur’s selfrighteous tantrums. As with James Mason’s Nemo, we’re always on Robur’s side. May their ghosts continue sinking warships forever.

Charles Bronson didn’t leap to full star status after The Magnificent Seven but he did get a boost to more prestigious roles, in movies bigger than Roger Corman’s Machine Gun Kelly. Bronson has more conventional dialogue in this movie than in all his Death Wish movies put together. He shines just by maintaining an even strain and talking calm sense. Bronson owns the action hero scenes outright, and easily slings a man his own size over his shoulder. Bronson’s character even seems to get the girl — what could go wrong?

 

Not too many complaints were heard for Master of the World’s special effects. Daniel Haller’s design for the Albatross is handsome and clever, a semi-credible “Clipper of the Clouds” predicting a future of powerful airships. But Ray Mercer and Project Unlimited had to create the film’s visual effects on far too small a scale. The excellent Albatross model is filmed in dull 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. On a big screen the Albatross was a bit more impressive, but it mostly looks like a toy. (The three images above enlarge.)

The live-action aerial views are also accomplished with rear-projection, and the process plate scenes to be rear-projected are not the best. A shot supposedly leaving the Eastern coast of America depicts an arid seashore. ‘Ireland’ looks like the only green field a pilot could find in Southern California. In the film’s least-effective effects, The Albatross is RP-inserted into grainy stock shots of model boats, not all of them in color. ‘London’ consists of textless title backgrounds from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V that depict an Elizabethan-period Thames complete with a large Globe Theater. Representing Africa is faded Technicolor footage of the Fuzzy-Wuzzy battle from Korda’s The Four Feathers. None of this is at all convincing, as the Albatross never seems connected to the movie scenes of the battle below.

Daniel Haller’s wheelhouse set looks the best; with the view through its windows, it had to ‘live’ on a rear-projection stage. There’s only one locked-down angle, so it takes Price’s commitment to the role to make us believe that we’re flying. Haller adds what look like stained-glass window panes, expressing Robur’s religious commitment. The HD image reveals that the stained glass designs are hastily painted-on.

 

Composer Les Baxter worked overtime on his pretty music score, lending needed excitement to actions that occur off-screen. The main theme has always sounded derivative of the Borodin-adapted pop song Stranger in Paradise. Elsewhere Baxter fills the show with busy cues, doing 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 chaos, like Lucille Ball trying to cook in the gyrating travel trailer in Minnelli’s The Long Long Trailer, yuk yuk. The ten year-olds I saw the film with thought it very funny.

Robur’s main man at the tiller wheel is Richard Harrison, who soon followed other California musclemen to Rome to play in sword ‘n’ sandal epics and spaghetti westerns. 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.

Disney’s daringly radical 20,000 Leagues makes Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo’s into a clear-cut terrorist hero, striking back against ‘that hated nation.’ Richard Matheson’s script fumbles its political stance. Prudent and Phillip’s anti-Robur tantrums don’t put them in a positive light, but Master doesn’t make an anti-colonial statement — Robur just thinks he can extort compliance from the world, and make nations give up war the way someone might give up smoking or drinking. John Strock has the final word, simply stating that he admires Robur’s ideals but not his methods. Robur is a lot like a typical mad movie scientist, just another misdirected maniac that needs putting down.

 

Tie-in comics and photo-novels for Master proliferated in several languages. I read the pocketbook tie-in, which was actually a reprint of Robur the Conqueror. In Verne’s original book the Albatross was never posited as an Instrument of Mass Destruction, a convincer to demand obedience from stubborn nations. On its own the marvelous flying machine wouldn’t make a particularly formidable weapon, especially not when Robur flies so low that everything can shoot at him.

But little kids (this writer among them) hardly noticed these flaws. We were grateful for any show that catered to our adolescent interests. The Dell tie-in comic book adaptation sported visuals much more impressive than anything the movie had to offer (top image: ).

The show opened in New York on September 15, 1961, on a double bill with Herman Cohen’s Konga. The ads touted non-existent ‘MagnaColor;’ UK posters proclaim Technicolor. When it finally arrived on television 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 epic that merits a lavish remake.

 


 

 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Master of the World is an excellent transfer of a film that hasn’t always looked terrific. It’s essentially the same as Shout! Factory’s 2016 Blu-ray release, with the addition of a few hours of digital clean-up: among other things, changeover cues have been removed. (image from an earlier disc )

The scan can only do so much with variable-quality RP background plates and old-movie stock shots that range from faded Technicolor to tinted B&W. The optical for the main title sequence has always been a mess of fine scratches, that almost look like duplicated workprint material. The only movie I’ve seen with a more damaged-looking main title optical is The Day of the Triffids.

The orchestral soundtrack is quite nice. Les Baxter tried hard to deliver an epic romantic score. His main theme helps greatly in upping the Albatross’s magnificence quotient. The apparent model is Victor Young’s score for Around the World in Eighty Days, with frequent changes in music style. Baxter’s score was released on a stereo LP, and a 1990s laserdisc retained the film’s original stereophonic mix. I don’t know how many theatrical engagements were in stereo, but the disc carries both a mono and a 2-channel stereo track.

As with other presentations, after the final fade-out we hear the film’s two tie-in songs over black, that we first heard on a 1990s laserdisc: “Come Dance With Me” and “Master of the World,” with jaunty romantic lyrics like, “A man is master of the world when he is loved.” These apparently weren’t tacked on for home video but served as exit music for original theatrical engagements.

That means that the film’s 102 min., 53 sec. running time has been slightly padded. Without the two songs that serve as exit music and the opening’s ‘funny aviation’ montage — it’s fully disposable — the body of the show is really seven minutes shorter.

 

Kino repeats older extras and adds one of its own. An earlier commentary gives us actor David Frankham in conversation with Jonathan David Dixon. At age 89 Frankham is delighted to tell the story of his three films with Vincent Price. He was hired for this one at the last moment because Mark Damon took a job in Europe, and Price recommended him from their experience together on Return of the Fly. Frankham predictably calls Price a nice guy, but it’s nice to hear about the actor from a fresh spokesman. He says that the production schedule was three weeks.

Also held over from previous releases is a 72-minute documentary that allows author Richard Matheson to speak his mind. Matheson has a lot to say about his career, his fellow writer Charles Beaumont and the movie business in general; he concludes with a speech about spiritualism.

A number of trailers are included; some online accounts list a pair of image galleries that I didn’t see in the menu. As with other new Kino special editions, the disc comes in a slip-sleeve cover.

Kino’s new commentary is from Tom Weaver, whose ever-more elaborate gab-tracks are turning into radio productions with guest experts, sound effects, and recitations of screenplay scenes not filmed. We hear reenactments of interviews with Richard Matheson, William Witney, Les Baxter, David Frankham and Loretta Nicholson, and new audio recordings give us Price biographer Lucy Chase Williams, writer Richard Heft and music expert David Schechter. The commentators note Vincent Price’s ‘outrageous’ bushy eyebrows, the first time I’ve ever heard a complaint about Robur’s facial hair.

Much of the track is devoted to the original Verne books and how Richard Matheson reinterpreted them for the screen; Ms. Williams handles Price anecdotes and Schecter talks quite a bit about a film score for which he has little good to say. Tom points out A.I.P. executive relatives among the bit part players and criticizes every special effect and visual choice (why not an iris-out in a movie taking place in 1848?). Taken from his exhaustive interviews, he relates more anecdotes from the filming, agrees with his co-hosts that Charles Bronson was terminally unfriendly, and uses dueling interviews to create a heated dispute between Matheson and director Witney. But then James H. Nicholson receives uncritical, glowing praise.

When listing Jules Verne film adaptations Tom makes no mention of the Czech Karel Zeman films, which are some of the best — especially Vynález Skázy. Tom slams the movie all the way through and then expresses great affection for it as he signs off. That’s an honest reaction. I do the same here too, except that actually having seen Master of the World as a small fry back in the day, I can attest that it only disappointed at the very end, when I was sad that it was over. I guess we were easy to please back then.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Master of the World
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good; Better for nostalgic fans
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: New audio commentary by Tom Weaver, David Schecter, Richard Heft and Lucy Chase Williams; archival commentary with actor David Frankham, moderated by Jonathan David Dixon; feature documentary Richard Matheson: Storyteller; Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 21, 2021
(6540mast)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.