By the early 1960s, several stories by the legendary science fiction writer Jules Verne had already been translated into quite a few cinematic adaptations. These include such classics as Walt Disney’s TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), Michael Todd’s lavish AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS (1956), FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958), JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1960) and of course 1961’s MYSTERIOUS ISLAND featuring astounding Ray Harryhausen stop motion effects and a magnificent Bernard Herrmann musical score. In 1960, American International Pictures (AIP) noted for their low-budget, black and white horror/science-fiction films geared for a teenage audience, began to produce more expensive films in color and widescreen adapted from great works of literature. The first venture was an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER starring Vincent Price as the tormented “Roderick Usher.” The film was a box office smash and AIP’s next literary take with their new star was an adaptation of two Jules Verne novels, Master of the World and Robur the Conqueror written by noted science fiction/horror scribe, Richard Matheson. The result is a fun, well written film that does not quite make it as far as special effects are concerned, but remains interesting nonetheless thanks to a good performance by Vincent Price. Now as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection line of DVDs, MASTER OF THE WORLD makes its long awaited DVD debut.
In 1848, an expedition consisting of government agent John Strock (Charles Bronson), arms manufacturer Mr. Prudent (Henry Hull), his daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster), and Dorothy’s fiancée Phillip Evans (David Frankham) is aloft in Prudent’s state-of-the-art balloon investigating strange volcanic activity in the Appalachian Mountains. While hovering over the area in question, a rocket hits the balloon rendering the occupants unconscious. When they awaken, they find themselves aboard a bizarre flying airship commanded by the mysterious Robur (Vincent Price). After witnessing the wonders of the futuristic aircraft dubbed the Albatross by its creator, the reluctant guests soon realize Robur’s true intent. In an effort to eradicate war and the misery that goes with it, Robur has constructed his ship with the specific purpose to destroy all warring factions throughout the world thus enforcing a kind of vigilante force to ensure peace. While Strock admires Robur’s vision of world peace, he rejects his methods of achieving it and sets out to stop him before Robur can “willingly destroy the world in order to save it.”
As a film, MASTER OF THE WORLD has many wonderful things going for it such as a sincere, non-hammy performance by Vincent Price that offers the actor a multi-layered characterization which never once boarders on camp (like his later Dr. Goldfoot spoofs). Price’s Robur is both formidable and sympathetic, but never truly evil as his goals are honorable even if his methods are misguided. In addition, this film features one of Les Baxter’s best AIP scores. In fact, the soundtrack was released by American International Records on LP in 1961 in high fidelity and is something of a collector’s item today. Also, Richard Matheson’s script is literate, interesting, and well-developed, skillfully capturing Jules Verne’s pacifist vision about man’s responsibility to his fellow man. The ending is particularly moving as Robur’s men unanimously refuse to abandon their leader at his darkest hour.
On the down side, the film features a rather miscast Charles Bronson as John Strock. According to the late Mr. Price’s own memories, Mr. Bronson did not really seem comfortable in this type of film and really did not enjoy the period costumes he was required to wear. Mr. Bronson would later find his niche in his legendary action films made both in the United States and Europe. Also, Henry Hull overacts as the blustery Mr. Prudent while David Frankham is annoyingly arrogant as Mr. Evans to the point that one wishes that he did not make the trip. In addition, the special effects and process/rear projection photography are pretty weak by today’s standards. This is a reminder that despite their recent respectability and the addition of color and Panavision, this is still a low budget AIP film. This is most evident is some bizarre mismatched stock footage from older black and white war films which are tinted in color. In one scene, stock footage showing Shakespeare’s Globe Theater can be clearly seen as the Albatross is flying over London even though the action of MASTER OF THE WORLD takes place in 1848. Also, the scene where Strock and Evans are dangled outside the Albatross as punishment for attempting to escape suffers from poor rear projection photography although Les Baxter’s excellent music redeems the scene.
A bit of trivia…when MASTER OF THE WORLD was first released in 1961, it was double billed with AIP’s release of Herman Cohen’s KONGA. Even though AIP was upping the ante with more expensive films (compared to their 1950s films), they still believed in their tried and true formula of the drive-in double bill.
Limited Edition DVD is a very good looking transfer in 1.85:1 with anamorphic
enhancement for 16x9 televisions. Colors are fairly sharp and there does not
appear to be any measurable print damage. Of course, the stock footage scenes
are somewhat grainy as they are culled from so many different sources. The audio
is also fine and there is an anamorphic theatrical trailer which looks very
good itself. There are chapter stops at ten minute intervals.
As MGM continues to dig into its vaults and bring out long neglected cult classics, it is hoped that they finish the Vincent Price series of films with a release of two absent titles: HOUSE OF 1,000 DOLLS (1967) and Mario Bava’s DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS (1966). Time will tell, but there are definitely other goodies already in the works for the near future. (Joe Cascio)
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