Flight of Fancy: Vincent Price in MASTER OF THE WORLD (AIP 1961)

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MATSER OF THE WORLD is AIP’s answer to Disney’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA . Both are based on the works of Jules Verne, and involve fanatical protagonists commanding futuristic ships (an airship in this case). The difference is in budget, as studio honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson didn’t have the financial means to compete with the mighty Walt Disney. They did have Vincent Price though, and within their monetary constraints came up with an entertaining mini-epic enhanced by another solid Richard Matheson script.

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Price stars as Captain Robur, who’s fantastic flying airship Albatross rules the skies of 1868. When his amplified voice bellows some scripture from a mountain (does this make Vinnie the Voice of God?), balloon enthusiasts Mr. Prudent, daughter Dorothy, and her fiancé Phillip Evans, along with government agent John Strock, investigate, only to be shot down by Robur’s rockets and taken prisons aboard his flying fortress.

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Robur and his crew (dressed in striped shirts ala 20,000 LEAGUES) plan to force the nations of the world to end war by bombing the crap out of any warships they fly over. This “peace through strength” tactic doesn’t go so over well with the prisoners, whose escape attempt winds up with Evans and Strock being dangled from the Albatross at high altitude. To make matters worse, there’s a budding rivalry between the two men for Dorothy’s affections.

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The fact that Strock is played by Charles Bronson   and Evans by little-known British actor David Frankham should tell you who wins in that department! Bronson’s good in an early good-guy role, especially his impassioned “honor be damned!” speech. Mary Webster, another Brit, is the object of their affections. Veteran Henry Hull overacts as bombastic munitions manufacturer Prudent, but it’s still good to see the former WEREWOLF OF LONDON onscreen again. Vito Scotti is the supposed comic relief as chef Topage, and muscleman Richard Harrison and AIP vet Wally Campo are Robur’s main crewmen.

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Vincent Price stated this was one of his favorite roles. As the Nemo-like Robur, Price tones it down and offers an intelligent portrait of a man who uses his genius to try to end the folly of war. His end soliloquy, quoting from Isaiah 2:4 (“All the nations will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never shall they learn war anymore”) while the Albatross descends to its inevitable doom, is stirring stuff. I know, Robur’s supposed to be a madman and the nominal villain of the piece, but I found myself rooting for him more often than not.

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I couldn’t root for the not-so-special special effects of Tim Baar, Wah Chang, and Gene Warren though, but hampered by the low-budget, I guess they did their best. There’s tons of stock footage interspersed throughout the film, including an opening montage of early attempts to fly you’ve seen a hundred times. Director William Witney puts his experience with serials (CAPTAIN MARVEL, SPY SMASHER, MYSTERIOUS DR. SATAN) and B-Westerns to good use, moving things along at a brisk pace. Daniel Haller’s art direction stands out, but Les Baxter’s score is intrusive. MASTER OF THE WORLD is an uneven film, certainly not in the category of Disney’s Jules Verne classic, but an okay way to spend an hour and a half. If you shut your brain off and don’t expect too much out of it, you just might enjoy it.

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