Every once in a while, my faith is restored in Hollywood, and I remember why I sit through the schlock to get to the gold.
My daughter and I sat through 90 minutes of the execrable, so bad it’s bad Konga because we had been lured in by the exciting posters for Master of the World. It promised to be a sumptuous Jules Verne classic a la Journey to the Center of the Earth, and it starred the inimitable Vincent Price to boot.
It was worth the wait–the movie is an absolute delight.
The year is 1868, and a team of intrepid adventurers takes off in a steam-powered balloon to investigate what appears to be a volcanic eruption in the midst of Pennsylvania. They include the doddering but genuinely humorous arms maker, Mr. Prudent, his lively daughter, Dorothy, her outwardly chivalrous but really quite petty fiance, Philip Evans, and the enigmatic yet utterly capable government agent, John Strock.
As it crests the crater of the Mid-Atlantic’s newest volcanic crater, the balloon is shot down by a stream of missiles. When the aeronauts awake, they find themselves on a tremendous flying ship, part helicopter and part battleship. It is captained by the fearsome Robur (Price) festooned with shaggy facial hair appliques. The skipper’s goal is mad yet laudable: to end war on Earth by destroying each nation’s ability to make war. With the captured Pennsylvanians in tow, Robur launches a crusade of terror against the navies and armies of the world. Can this madman be stopped? You’ll have to watch to the end to find out!
It is an amibitious movie for American International Pictures, an attempt at an epic from a studio better known for it’s “B”-level drive-in fare. It very well could have been a classic-based dud like last year’s The Lost World. Certainly, the special effects are nothing special–primarily rather limp model-work, back-projection, and liberal use of stock footage.
The script is by Richard Matheson, possibly the best fantasy/science fiction screenwriter in the business. The performances turned out by the five stars are excellent. Price’s Robur conveys single-minded fanaticism sublty tinged with resignation and regret. Here is a villain one can sympathize with, even admire, despite the insanity of his vision. Henry Hull’s Prudent captures the archaicisms of early 19th Century speech and manners. The clear attraction between Dorothy Prudent (Mary Webster) and John Strock (Charles Bronson), much to the dismay of Mr. Evans (David Frankham), is convincing.
Moreover, there is a consistent tone and pacing to the movie. It is never dull. The story twists and turns such that you are never certain what will happen next. It is fun in an over-the-top way that mitigates the enormity of Robur’s actions, making them watchable rather than sickening. The humor is intentionally funny. The action scenes are exciting. The doffing of shirts by the ship’s muscular crew mid-way through the film is inexplicable, but not unwelcome (for at least half of the audience).
And in the end, it is both satisfying and touching. More, please.