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.

Steampunk Disney: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (Walt Disney Productions 1954)

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When TCM aired this movie last week, I just had to watch. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and I was curious to see how well it held up with the passage of time. To my delight, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is even more enjoyable in adulthood, a joyous sci-fi adventure film thanks to the fine cast and the genius of Walt Disney.

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Based on the Jules Verne novel, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA takes us back to 1868, where rumors of a sea monster attacking ships are running rampant. Eminent scientist Professor Aronnax and his protégé’ Counseil are invited to join a voyage to investigate the matter, along with the free-spirited harpoonist Ned Land. They encounter the beast and are shipwrecked, only to discover the monster is actually a fantastic, futuristic submarine, The Nautilus. The sub is commanded by Captain Nemo, who picks up Aronnax, Counseil, and Ned and makes them his prisoners. The Nautilus takes the trio on a fantastic journey to the undersea kingdom, where they encounter everything from cannibalistic headhunters on an unchartered island to a giant squid that attacks the submarine during a gale-force storm.

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The four leads are in top form, especially Kirk Douglas as the rowdy Ned Land. Kirk has a ball playing the rambunctious sailor, and even gets to sing a song, “A Whale of a Tale”. Paul Lukas (Oscar winner for WATCH ON THE RHINE) adds dignity to the part of Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre is sarcastically funny as his sidekick Counseil. James Mason cuts a fine figure as Nemo, the anti-war warrior. Nemo’s a conflicted character; abhorring violence and wishing only to live in peace beneath the sea, yet attacking ships and sending their crews to a watery grave. Of all the screen versions of Verne’s Nemo (Herbert Lom, Robert Ryan, Omar Sharif et al) Mason is by far the best. And let’s not forget Esmerelda, Nemo’s trained seal who bonds with the boisterous Ned.

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This was Disney’s fifth live-action film (the first was 1950’s TREASURE ISLAND) and first under the Buena Vista Distribution banner. To direct, Disney hired Richard Fleischer , son of his former animation rival Max Fleischer (POPEYE THE SAILOR, BETTY BOOP, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS). The younger Fleischer handles the material well, from a script by Earl Fenton. He had directed several highly regarded noirs (ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, THE NARROW MARGIN) before taking on this big-budget adventure, and split the remainder of his career between crime dramas (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, MR. MAJESTYK) and fantasies (FANTASTIC VOYAGE, DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, SOYLENT GREEN, CONAN THE DESTROYER, RED SONJA).

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20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA won Academy Awards for Art Direction and Special Effects. The breathtaking underwater sequences were shot mostly off the coast of Nassau, and involved over 30 crew members to film. The giant squid scene features a larger than life animatronic monster, and still looks better than any CGI- created creature today (don’t get me started!). Walt Disney put together a masterpiece of sci-fi cinema that has indeed stood the test of time, as enjoyable now as when it was first released in Technicolor and CinemaScope. One of the all-time classic adventures of the screen, 20,00 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA belongs in every film fanatic’s collection.

 

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