MOVIE REVIEW: Master of the World (1961)

Jules Verne is widely regarded, and with very good reason, as one of the fathers of science fiction. He built upon the technology of the time, and turned it into some pretty good adventure tales.

Alas, very little of his work could actually be called science fiction. It fits better in the genre of “pulp adventure”, and is mostly forgettable. Seriously, how many of his over fifty Voyages extraordinaires can you remember, or even name? Well, there’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which you undoubtedly know from the movie. Around the World in Eighty Days was also made into a movie that’s much better than the original novel. You may have heard of From the Earth to the Moon because of its use of a giant cannon to launch the spaceship…. But The Vanished Diamond or Facing the Flag? Nope.

Working for American International, Director William Witney took two of those forgettable novels – Robur the Conqueror and its sequel Master of the World – into one, well……

A small town in Pennsylvania has been beset by strange tremors and other occurrences coming from Cheap Matte Painting Mountain. John Strock (Charles Bronson!), an agent from the Department of the Interior, shows up in town and meets a few members of the local amateur ballooning society – club president and noted industrialist Mr. No-First-Name Prudent (Henry Hull), his daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster), and her boyfriend Philip Evans (David Frankham).

The quartet decide to take the club’s balloon craft (suitably modified at Strock’s obvious suggestion to end a stupid fight between Mr. Prudent and Evans) and fly it over the mountain on a recon mission. Apparently, climbing the mountain is out of the question. But as they near the peak, they are shot down by rockets coming out of the mountain’s crater(!)…… They all survive the crash landing (it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they didn’t), and come to aboard the Albatross, a huge airship of innovative design, commanded by one Captain Robur (Vincent Price).

The casting choice makes it clear that Capt. Robur is the Bad Guy. His EEEvil scheme is to bring about world peace by using his unchallenged air superiority to bomb the world’s governments into submission. Can our intrepid quartet defeat him and make the world safe for large scale armed conflict? Or at least escape the Albatross, which somehow never needs to land for anything?

There’s a lot in this basic premise to get your head around. The Albatross doesn’t use any of the usual balloons or gases to stay aloft; there are helicopter-like rotors on the “roof” The problem of the thing’s weight is handwaved away by saying that it’s made from a mix of cardboard and clay. The fuel source? “Electricity!” No, not that the motors are all electric, but that somehow, enough electricity is generated through some unmentioned method to power the huge craft. No explanation at all is given; no other fuel source is mentioned. There’s a cable and winch system to anchor the craft when necessary; presumably it’s also used to take on supplies. They can probably dump garbage and waste over the sides into the oceans.

And Robur seems to have forgotten that he himself used rockets to take down the Prudent’s craft. Has he forgotten that rockets and artillery could be used against him, too? The Albatross can get high enough to get out of the range of Victorian-era artillery, but if he intends his bombing campaign to take out armies and military installations, he’s going to have to get down pretty low for his dumb bombs to have any real effect!

One could get past that, and all the stock footage, and the Odious Comic Relief that comes in at inappropriate moments, if somehow the acting were up to task. For some reason, Price downplays Robur instead of hamming up his gentlemanly villainy, or even presenting his case for global disarmament with any seriousness. Bronson also downplays his role, when he ought to be showing more anger and resolve. Guess it took him a while to grow into his “tough guy” screen persona. Hull, Webster, and Frankham are pretty much along for the ride.

If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you may note that I try to find something good to say about every movie. Alas, the best I can do here is that it looks nice. The set design and costumes are all first-rate. Too bad there’s nothing else to recommend it. Consider it a “first draft” of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and let it go at that.

For Vincent Price completists only.

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