MASTER OF THE WORLD – The DVD Review
The 1961 fantasy adventure MASTER OF THE WORLD starring Vincent Price and Charles Bronson is finally available on DVD as part of MGM’s ‘Limited Edition Collection’. Though not considered to be a great film, it’s one I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for, mostly because of the cast (those are my two favorite actors) and its frequent television airings decades ago. I’ve been showing an 8-minute cut on Super-8 sound film of MASTER OF THE WORLD at my Super-8 Vincent Price Movie Madness show that I’ve presented several times promoting Vincentennial and younger audiences seemed to really enjoy discovering this film even in the abridged version. MASTER OF THE WORLD was produced by American International to not only create their first prestigious epic color adventure but to cash in on the wave of adaptions of Jules Verne novels that were so successful at the time. Disney’s first feature length live-action film, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA in 1954, was the best known and the first Jules Verne film (unless you count George Melies’ A TRIP TO THE MOON in 1902 – loosely based on a Verne story and filmed when the author was still alive!). Others included AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (which won the Oscar for best picture in 1956), JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959) and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961).
The plot of MASTER OF THE WORLD is similar to 20,000 LEAGUES but instead of a submarine, it takes place aboard an enormous invincible flying warship called The Albatross. The ship is something to behold and AIP’s special effects crew did a fine job of designing the elaborate aircraft remarkably close to the way Verne described it. It’s sort of a cross between a zeppelin and a flying steamship with lots of propellers, trap doors, rockets, and other fun details. Set in the 1860′s, Price plays Robur an inventor and philosopher who flies the Albatross around the world declaring war on war, bombarding military targets in the name of humanity. The ship causes a disturbance over Pennsylvania so millionaire munitions manufacturer Mr. Prudent (Henry Hull) manages to use a hot air balloon to board the Albatross accompanied by his daughter (Mary Webster), her fiance (David Frankham), and Department of Interior geologist John Strock (Bronson). Robur’s guests soon see that he is serious about destroying the world to rid it of evil when he demonstrates his power by bombong an American battleship. When Robur begins destroying parts of Europe, it’s up to Strock to stop him and save the world.
Richard Matheson, who wrote scripts for six Vincent Price films (a seventh, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH was based on his novel I Am Legend) adapted two of Jules Verne’s lesser-known novels Clipper of the Clouds (aka: Robur the Conqueror) and its sequel Master of the World. Director William Witney, who had helmed many Republic serials in the 1940′s, was hired to make the best of the film’s low budget and his innovation shows. He uses a lot of rear-screen projection and miniature tricks to make the most of what he had to work with. Stock footage from other films including Laurence Olivier’s HENRY V was incorporated into the battle scenes and MASTER OF THE WORLD does look like a much more expensive film than it was. In MASTER OF THE WORLD we essentially get to see how Vincent Price would have played Captain Nemo and Jules Verne’s anti-war philosophy is captured in several speeches by Price about the futility of war. Price, while certainly not low-key, is quite intense in this role, squinting beneath some oddly bushy fake eyebrows. It’s interesting to watch Price and Bronson, with their opposite acting styles, play off of each other. The two had co-starred together 8 years earlier in HOUSE OF WAX and had gotten along well but Bronson was unfriendly to Price on the set of MASTER OF THE WORLD. This was a point in his career when his TV show Man With a Camera, had just ended, he was turning 40, and, though he’d just scored a decent role as one of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, probably thought stardom had eluded him. He was miserable on the set and looked ridiculous in a top hat and later a silly blue and white striped sailor’s shirt. Interviewed for book The Complete Films of Vincent Price by Lucy C. Williams, Price said of Bronson “He was miscast and knew it. He was very unhappy. Testy is more the word. I could not get through to the guy or make friends with him. I guess Bronson’s always been that way. Very strange…..”. It would be more than a decade later, when he was in his 50′s, that Bronson would be king of the world-wide box-office.
MASTER OF THE WORLD received middling reviews in 1961 but performed well enough that a sequel was soon in the works. Concept drawings and models were made but for some reason, the plug was suddenly pulled. There’s so much to like about the film. AIP’s in-house music director Les Baxter’s provided a rousing score (released as an LP) and the poster art for the film is spectacular, one of my favorites from the early ’60s (an original one-sheet was displayed at the Vincentennial, the Legacy of Vincent Price exhibit in St. Louis in May). The ubiquitous Dell Comic Book adaption is a fun read and I recently corresponded with an artist named William Wardrop who creates intricate hand-made scale replicas of vintage military ships and he made a spectacular cardboard model of The Albatross (see pic – his other works can be found at his website HERE ) MASTER OF THE WORLD was a staple on TV in the ’60s and ’70s but I had never seen it in widescreen until now (though it was available on laserdisc). MGM’s new disc opens with the disclaimer that it was made with the “best elements available”. This is often a bad sign but I’m pleased to report this colorful film looks and sounds splendid and watching this disc from MGM’s “Limited Edition Collection” is like seeing MASTER OF THE WORLD for the first time.
Lobby cards from MASTER OF THE WORLD
Foreign re-issue posters. Notice how they play up the presence of co-star Charles Bronson
The soundtrack LP and the Dell comic book adaption
Hand-made cardboard model of the Albatross by artist William Wardrop