[Jan. 23, 1961] 20,000 Leagues over the Air! (Master of the World)

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.

And yet…

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. 

Four stars.

11 thoughts on “[Jan. 23, 1961] 20,000 Leagues over the Air! (Master of the World)”

      1. Honesty, is there any role Vincent Price can’t play? I’m so glad we have him doing genre films. In this case, he had good material to work with, but he just seems to be able to elevate anything he’s in.

        Charles Bronson put in a nice performance as well. Some of our little group thought he was underplaying the hero type, but to me it felt like a solid, centered take on the character. I think it helped ground Vincent Price’s larger drama.

        Was Mr. Bronson on Playhouse 90 a few years ago, or am I remembering someone else?

        1. I couldn’t tell you, but he is in The Magnificent Seven, which is still in theaters if you want to go see it (you’ve probably heard the theme on the radio, both the cinematic version and the pop version; it’s pretty hummable).

          1. You know, I had ignored that film, as I’ve never really enjoyed westerns. (That might be a bit blasphemous for a westerner to say, but that’s never stopped me before!) But I think now I’ll give it a shot. And as you say, it certainly has a jaunty theme!

  1. One of Verne’s lesser known, but reasonably good works. Though Robur and Nemo do have a lot in common, don’t they.  Vincent Price is simply magnificent. He’s one of those people who you could listen to just read the phone book aloud.

    And it’s nice to see AIP breaking out of their B-movie mold. I have a relative who works in their publicity department, so what’s good for them is good for him. Movies like this make his job a lot easier. Let’s hope they can keep this up.

      1. Well, yeah. But he’s more on the advertising end of things. And seriously, people who say things like that don’t belong in PR, no matter how true it is.

  2. I really like this one.  One thing that impressed me was the fact that Robur’s minions sincerely believe in his mission, as evidenced by the remarkably effective ending.  A nice example of “steam science fiction” by all concerned.

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