Monday, 4 July 2011

Master of the World (1961)

The first impulses of what we now call steampunk were evinced in a glut of cinema adaptations of the science fiction pioneers Jules Verne and H. G. Wells in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, films that resisted updating them a la George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1953), and instead based a large part of their appeal in the juxtaposition of technology that never was with an historical era separated by two world wars and manifold social changes, and yet lingering in the common pool of fond, if quaint, remembrance. An adaptation of two Verne novels, this enjoyable, inventive, if rather too cheap AIP production casts Vincent Price as Robur, a genius inventor who, in the context of mid-19th century industrial imperialism, declares war on war, and hopes to browbeat the world into scrapping its armies and navies with his colossal airship-cum-helicopter made entirely from compressed paper. As the novels were essentially a redraft of Verne’s own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with a different conceptual gimmick and a similar inventor-rebel antihero, keeping impressed but offended witnesses captive aboard his fantastic machine, a similarity that Richard Matheson’s screenplay exacerbates by giving Robur an idealistic crusade to act out against the might of empires just like Nemo. Master of the World is far less well-produced and dynamically directed than Richard Fleischer’s Disney adaptation of that more famous book. But it’s also weighed down by far less dubious comedic silliness than both that film and Henry Levin's top-heavy version of Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959), and benefits from Matheson’s fluent and intelligent adaptation, especially the well-defined conflict of Robur (Vincent Price), Strock (Charles Bronson), and Philip Evans (David Frankham), representing a triangle of values and methods, rather more distinctly a Matheson trait than Verne’s.

Strock is a US government official assigned to investigate a mysterious phenomenon at the Great Eyrie in Pennsylvania, from which thunder and a booming voice quoting scripture seem to erupt, terrifying the locals. Strock secures the aid of Prudent (Henry Hull) and his daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster), and her fiancĂ© and Prudent’s foil Evans, representing as they do the controlling minds of a ballooning club working on propelled flight, who can get Strock up to the Eyrie to see what secrets it contains. Once they reach the Eyrie, however, the quartet are shot down by rockets, and all four awaken, after a crash landing, upon the Albatross, Robur’s fantastic aircraft, staffed by fiercely loyal men dedicated to Robur’s ideal of using the threat of untouchable force from above to attempt to enforce a pax aeronauticus. The smiles and pleasantries with which Robur greets his uninvited passengers don’t last long, as they bridle at being prisoners to a man with values deeply opposed to theirs: Prudent is, as well as a ballooning enthusiast, a fabulously successful arms manufacturer who’s afraid of landing in Ireland because he sold guns to the British. Evans, brave but obnoxiously bullish and self-satisfied, appoints himself representative of Yankee gentlemanly values, and determines to escape at the first opportunity, disdaining Strock’s apparent ambiguity and cowardice. That disdain flares into outright hate when Strock alerts Robur about his dangerous insistence on trying to shimmy down a water hose, and when both men are punished by being dangled from ropes beneath the Albatross, they fist-fight in mid-air, until Evans is knocked out and Strock has to hang onto him after his rope breaks during a buffeting storm.

Master of the World was directed by William Witney, an old hand from serials, including The Mysterious Dr Satan (1940), comic book adaptations, including several of the ‘40s Dick Tracy movies, and westerns, the genre in which he made his last film in the ‘80s. With his grounding in the speedy vicissitudes of the serials, Witney infused Master of the World with the rapid-paced energy and squarely illustrative verve of such fare. Except for the usual cheesy comic relief, provided by Robur’s French cook, Topage (Vitto Scotti), the film keeps admirably focused on personality conflict as the sounding board for larger dramas: the stiff-necked, tunnel-visioned Prudent and Evans contrast Robur’s well-intentioned messianic ruthlessness, and Strock’s pragmatic determination to find a way to stop Robur whilst not showing his hand for as long as possible. In such a way, Matheson’s screenplay cleverly teases out a depiction of the modern world being created not only through technology but through responses to situations and implicit values, as well as bolstering the often cardboard, but amusingly, florid, action. As the film rockets toward its climax, sexual jealousy is tossed into the mix as Evans sees Dorothy gravitate towards Strock, and he finally confirms his hypocrisy when he knocks out Strock and leaves him to die on the Albatross, which they’ve conspired to sabotage.

This was a project sadly a little beyond AIP’s financial resources, stretch them as they might. Master of the World is awkwardly filled out with stock footage from films like That Hamilton Woman (1941) and The Four Feathers (1939), more than a bit egregious when Robur rains bombs down upon a Napoleonic-era British fleet. The original special effects are pretty clunky, full of unconvincing back projection, but in a way such limitations only adds to their charm, especially considering that Witney rightly only uses them as a means to an end, unlike too many modern movies, to animate rather than dominate the drama. There are some interesting visions of the airship’s interior and external workings. Witney stages the first revelation of the Albatross with a simple but excellent flourish as his camera zooms out from a detail of the painted logo of the Albatross on the hull to a long shot of its majestic progress through the clouds. Throughout, he offers up a cheery, Technicolor-swathed sprawl that retains an appealing edge of retro charm mixed with comic-book hype, the film’s title leaping out an explosion, and expository titles in period typeface, amidst a film consistently rendered in lithographic hues and given a layer of lushness by Les Baxter’s florid score. The proto-arms control message is interestingly mediated by a critique of the terrorist mindset as Robur gives into exactly the sort of wild-eyed destructive pleasure he professes to hate, as he tries to force two clashing armies in Egypt into ceasing by raining bombs on them, but ventures so low in pursuing his pacifying bloodlust that he severely damages his own ship. Strock, having patiently awaited for Robur to reveal his plans and his mindset, determines quietly to destroy him, making sure his companions know this might mean they have to sacrifice their lives.

Price’s Robur doesn’t suggest the underlying pain and tragic grandeur that James Mason achieved playing Nemo, perhaps because Matheson’s adaptation seems less interested in his background motives than in the immediate matter of the schisms between the perspectives of the characters, emphasising rather Robur’s edge of domineering wilfulness, which contradicts his idealistic slogans even before his actions do. Bronson, just after The Magnificent Seven (1960) heightened his profile immeasurably, is surprisingly excellent playing a far more intellectual sort of hero than he was usually cast as, and like several of his roles in this period, suggest a talent diffused by endless glowering tough guy roles. The closing scenes generate an unexpected pathos as Robur’s crew amass, refusing to abandon him as his ship and dream both plunge into the sea, martyrs to a cause which the heroes have, perhaps tragically, brought to an end, without having their own values altered sufficiently. The result is a film that could be better known to matinee aficionados, even if it's far from being a classic. It’s a pity that Verne only receives adaptations in the form of tacky TV movies these days, because an imaginative, top-flight remake of this might actually be welcome.


Matthew Bradley said...

Welcome back to Matheson-Land! Enjoyed your LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE post back in September, and hope you and Sam Juliano got a chance to check out my book RICHARD MATHESON ON SCREEN in the meantime. I've long felt that the Albatross was a perfect progenitor of steampunk, and in terms of the production, it's certainly the best thing in the film. As you said, a remake---one with a bigger budget---might not be a bad idea.

Roderick Heath said...

Ah, that's some classy salesmanship there, Matthew, and I do still want to read your book, although it's a little out of my price range at the moment. I enjoyed this film enormously considering its modest merits, and it's both an excellent example of the strength of Matheson's writing as well as the elements I'm glad we agree on.

Matthew Bradley said...

Understood--you're not the only one who's found the price (in which, of course, I had no say) prohibitive. Matheson certainly did an impressive job of combining two rather different Verne novels, written many years apart.