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Following the surprise success of the trendsetting Edgar Allan Poe adaptation Fall of the House of Usher in 1960, drive-in specialists American-International Pictures decided to cash in on their newfound public credibility by adapting another respected literary figure, Jules Verne, whose Around the World in 80 Days, From the Earth to the Moon, Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea had all become successful cinematic properties within the past few years. Meanwhile, Ray Harryhausen was putting the finishing touches on his version of Mysterious Island (1961), and Fox was prepping another Verne tale, Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962)... and thus, the race to the box office was on!
Though not the finest Verne adaptation, AIP's Master of the World (1961), a composite of Verne's 1904 novel of the same title as well as the much earlier Robur the Conqueror, is certainly one of the most fascinating. After honing his villainous chops under the guidance of William Castle and Roger Corman, Vincent Price was easily in his element here playing the role of Captain Robur, a power-mad millionaire disgusted at the rising military presence around the world and the pointless prevalence of war circa 1848. In his tricked-out airship, the Albatross, Robur welcomes a group of survivors from an air balloon mishap above Pennsylvania and, before long, announces his unique plan to achieve world peace: by bombing all of the major military targets around the globe into submission. Not surprisingly, government man John Strock (Charles Bronson) takes exception to this scheme and, with his other passengers, conspires to save the military leaders to invade another day.
Released perhaps a few years too early to appeal to peace-lovers, this unique pacifist fantasy marked a rare big screen directorial job for William Witney, a busy journeyman who turned out dozens of westerns before settling into television starting in the 1950s (with a few rare exploitationers like The Cool and the Crazy (1958) to keep him current). Master of the World is certainly one of the more high-profile installments of his credits, thanks to an able cast courtesy of AIP, and he used the experience to continue working busily both on the small and large screen until the mid-1970s, most notably with the brutal grindhouse classic I Escaped from Devil's Island (1973) and the astonishing 1975 blaxploitation biker classic, Darktown Strutters. Though the special effects team was hindered by the usual AIP cost-cutting, the team of Projects Unlimited (soon to establish themselves with The Outer Limits) managed a few striking images, with future FX maestro Jim Danforth providing the unusual airship model. Likewise, the script by Richard Matheson (one of the century's finest writers of fantastic fiction and the screenwriter for Corman's first few Poe films) managed to converge the two very different Robur adventures into a coherent whole, skillfully conveying the madness and frustrating dichotomy at the center of the story's thesis.
However, not all was harmonious on the set itself. According to Denis Meikle's Vincent Price: The Art of Fear, Price and method actor Charles Bronson did not get along well on-set despite the former's attempts at friendliness, and the AIP penny-pinching resulted in several unfortunate production compromises including the frustrating inclusion of stock footage to stand in for some of the film's wilder adventures. Nevertheless, AIP bestowed upon the film a generous release strategy complete with a roadshow-style overture (presumably to draw attention to their new use of four-track stereo sound, complete with a lush and wonderfully romantic Les Baxter score); unfortunately a vocal theme song was excised from the film when it was deemed to be not strong enough to compete on the pop charts.
Ultimately, Master of the World did not perform well enough at the box office to justify further Robur adventures, but it quickly became a fast favorite among young matinee audiences who continued to sing its praises well into the following decades as it became a perpetual favorite on television and home video. Seen today, the film's message of achieving peace through brutal warfare and its images of terrorism striking unexpectedly through flying vehicles carry far more weight for modern viewers than its creators could have ever anticipated, making this a rare period "message" film that will still remain relevant for many years to come.
Producer: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Anthony Carras, Bartlett A. Carre, Daniel Haller, James H. Nicholson
Director: William Witney
Screenplay: Richard Matheson, Jules Verne (novel)
Cinematography: Gilbert Warrenton
Film Editing: Anthony Carras
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Music: Les Baxter
Cast: Vincent Price (Robur), Charles Bronson (John Strock), Henry Hull (Prudent), Mary Webster (Dorothy Prudent), David Frankham (Philip Evans), Richard Harrison (Alistair).
by Nathaniel Thompson