Sunday 12 August 2007

Master of the World (1961) William Witney

I'm a sucker for those old Jules Verne scientific romances that, along with those of H G Wells, provided the foundation for science fiction, but the films made of them have been, shall we say, somewhat inconsistent. Certainly the obvious painted backdrops, rear projection shots and dubious models of the first ten minutes suggest that this will be far closer to the worst than the best. At least to counter the quality of the production, it also has what seems to be a completely bizarre pairing of lead actors: Vincent Price and Charles Bronson. Then again, as Charles Buchinsky, the latter provided an interesting performance in the former's first horror film, House of Wax, so this was a reunion for them.

Here Bronson is John Strock, a government agent tasked with investigating a mysterious mountain called the Great Eyrie, outside of Morgantown, PA. It's 1848 and so the locals really weren't expecting it to bellow forth with quotes from scripture and cause earthquakes in the process. Strock enlists the help of the Weldon Balloon Society in Philadelphia to fly over the crater to see what's really what, but they're shot down by missiles and find themselves captives on a mysterious and garish flying machine called the Albatross that functions far beyond their wildest dreams.

The thrust of the story is that great wish of many people, that with the world heading in the wrong direction on whatever issue happens to be of personal importance, one man can use superior technology to stand alone above everyone and everything else and discipline the world like it was a five year old child. Verne obviously thought this often, as it's the theme in many of his novels, not least 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's been a while since I read the Robur books but I remember them being a lot more serious than this adaptation and I don't remember Robur declaring war upon war, fundamental to this adaptation.

I'd like to see a decent version of the original source novels, Robur the Conqueror (aka The Clipper of the Clouds) and its sequel, Master of the World, but this isn't it. Even though the two were combined by scriptwriter Richard Matheson, hardly a lightweight name in the fantasy genre, I felt that this was a huge disappointment. Price is fine as Robur and it was fun to watch him dominate Prudent, the rich American arms manufacturer played by a blustering Henry Hull, and his daughter's fiancee, a young upstart named Philip Evans. Only John Strock really has a brain but he's played very quietly by Bronson, who is firmly defiant and surprisingly good. Prudent's daughter Dorothy, engaged to Evans, is fine but almost as inconsequential as her fledgeling romance with Strock.

It isn't the story that disappoints most, though. It's consistent, at least, and poor rather than awful, and the cast do it as much justice as possible, but they're stuck with a production designer who deserved to be on something like Gilligan's Island, which is where the cook would soon find himself for four episodes. In fact the cook and the production design fight it out here to determine who or which is most embarrassing. It isn't the heightmeter and the speedmeter particularly, but the props, sets and costumes that look like they belong in a Dr Seuss adaptation. Even the usually reliable Les Baxter's score is poorly overdone but it still sounds much better than the film looks. It really looks terrible, embarrassingly bad, and it's an insult to the talents of those involved. Certainly the worst Vincent Price film I've yet seen.

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