Matthew Kresal hasn't got choc-ices. He's only got the albatross. Albatross!
By the late 1950s, the works of Jules Verne had proved a rich ground for filmmakers. The decade had seen two highly successful films based on Verne's best known works - Disney adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and the Oscar winning Around The World In Eighty Days - so it was no surprise that the years that followed saw a number of other films based, to a greater or lesser extent, on Verne's novels. One of the more notable is this 1961 film starring Vincent Price and Charles Bronson from a script by another master of science fiction, Richard Matheson. The results are intriguing and watchable if at times frustratingly lacking.
Vincent Price was at the height of his career when Master Of The World was made and he is without doubt the star. Despite not coming on screen until about fifteen minutes or so into the film, Price owns the film from that moment onwards. It's hard not to see echoes of Nemo in Price's character Robur, and more especially the version of Nemo played by James Mason. Both are mysterious inventors and captains of vessels very much out of their time who seem bent on a mission that is in some respect admirable if not misguided in their methods. Price has considerable screen presence which he uses to great effect throughout from moments of crazed anger to quieter moments where he tries to convince his captive passengers of his mission. It's a solid performance and one of the film's highlights.
Besides Price, the real star of the film is the script. Richard Matheson, author of the oft-filmed I Am Legend and writer of some of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone, was a natural choice to adapt not one but two of Verne's works for the screen (1886's Robur the Conqueror as well as the 1904 work that shares the film's title). Matheson's script draws on elements and characters from both novels to create a composite of them that works surprisingly well so that the seems never show. The result is an early example of steampunk that, as the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea did a few years earlier, creates a fairly believable but fantastic adventure story set in the Victorian era. Despite being well thought out and developing its characters rather nicely as the film progresses, Matheson is guilty of delving into the occasional cliché at times, especially in regards to how it handles the film's sole female character and her relationships with the younger male characters. On the whole though, Matheson does an excellent job and it's a shame that other aspects of the film don't quite match the scripts standards.
Move beyond Price and Matheson's script and the rest of the film is a combination of mixed results. The supporting cast features Henry Hull as arms manufacture Prudent and Charles Bronson as square jawed US government agent John Strock. Both are particular highlights (Matheson considered Bronson mis-cast in the role though he's perfectly acceptable and excels in the film's action sequences), as is Vitto Scotti as the the chef Topage in a role that is entirely comic relief and calls to mind Cantinflas as Passepartout in the earlier Around The World In Eighty Days. Other roles go from satisfactory (Wally Campo as Robur's First Mate Turner and Mary Webster as Prudent's daughter Dorothy) to cringe-worthy (David Frankham as Philip Evans, Dorothy's fiancé). The cast though is just part of the mixed bag that makes up the larger part of the film.
Nothing helps nor hinders the film more than its production values. The influence of the Disney 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is clear as Master Of The World centers around its vehicle of choice (the giant airship The Albatross) in much the same way that the earlier film centered on the Nautilus submarine. The Albatross, both as an exterior model and as interior sets, is a triumph and can lay as much claim as the Nautlius to inspiring steampunk fashions and designs. Yet, for those triumphs, the magnificent model is let down by poorly realized model shots that are almost entirely made up of the Albatross being superimposed over stock footage (or in several cases, scenes from other films including the 1944 Laurence Olivier, Henry V) that is entirely unconvincing. Another place where effects let the film down is in the aerial keelhauling sequence which, while intriguing, is let down by the simple fact that Bronson and Frankham are suspended on ropes in front of stock footage while also at one point trying to dodge a couple of fake tree limbs. Combined with pedestrian direction from William Witney, the results let down both Matheson's script and Price's performance. Given how much previous Verne based films are on it (including a prologue showing the evolution of flight à la the prologue of Around The World In Eighty Days) it's sad at times to see how much a lack of budget hampers this film.
The result then is that Master Of The World is a perfectly watchable piece of work. Price's performance, Matheson's solid script and the design work all see to that. Yet looking at how much it is let down by poor special effects and uninterested direction, it's hard not to wonder what might have been if the film had been given both a larger budget and a different director. As it stands, it's a decent and memorable movie but it leaves you wondering what might have been...
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.