Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Jules Verne's Master of the World (1961)

Vincent Price is one of the most well known and beloved celebrities ever to have graced the silver screen. Known primarily for his horror roles, especially in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and other films for American International Pictures, Price was a true Renaissance man. In fact, horror films comprised less than a third of his total film output! Between films, Price was a noted appreciator of American art and poetry as well as a chef and author of numerous cookbooks (his leather-bound Treasury of Great Recipies is perhaps the ultimate Gothic kitchen item). But with regards to film, Price did comedy, romantic leads and starred in several Science Fiction films, including 1958's original The Fly and Return of the Fly. One of these Sci-Fi films was the Jules Verne adaptation in the mold of the Atomic Age, Master of the World.

In Master, released in 1961, Price starred as Robur, the infamous conquerer of the sky and aeronautic equivalent to Captain Nemo. Opposite Price, Charles Bronson played (barely) U.S. Agent of the Interior John Strock, Henry Hull played balloonist and arms manufacturer Mr. Prudent, Mary Webster played his daughter Dorothy Prudent, and David Frankham played her gentlemanly fiance Philip Evans.

The first thing one has to admit is that the plot is lifted almost directly from Disney's famous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The United States government sends a group of people to investigate mysterious goings on. They soon become prisioners aboard a mad scientist's amazing craft and confront his insane plan to rid the world of violence through this same craft. In the end, the mad scientist's zeal proves to be his undoing. When compared to 20,000 Leagues, Master of the World has both its hits and its misses.

First the misses: produced by American International and directed by B-movie maestro William Witney, the cost that went into Master was terribly low. About the only thing that is really worth its weight is the fantastic Albatross flying machine, a design easily the equal of the Nautilus in Disney's production. The sets look cardboard, though this is amusingly explained by a characteristic of the Albatross... The walls look like paper becuse they are paper, compressed and glued to a stiff building material to help make the airship lighter.

The Albatross, however, sails across clumsy stock footage vistas. I don't know where they pulled this footage from, but at least they could have checked it out first. London at the height of the Victorian era looks suspiciously like London at the height the Elizabethan. Blue screen is par for the time, but much of the acting isn't any less flat. The players are all subdued, and Bronson is practically a manniquin. Only Price is able to really affect anything, that is only by the strength of his natural charisma.

So why bother watching this movie at all then? Where this movie gets a hit on 20,000 Leagues is the script. Written by Richard "I Am Legend" Matheson, the story of Master is far more ambiguous and therefore compelling than Disney's counterpart. The Disney story is fairly simple: Nemo is plainly rendered mad by grief, Professor Arronax swings from scientific sympathy to moral outrage, and Ned Land and Conseil are just along for the ride. Master isn't quite so simple.

While the romantic interest and her rather reprehensible arms-dealing blowhard of a father are your average stock characters, their companions are not. Strock is a suspicious character... Beyond his secret machinations which we are privy to but the other characters are not, he still manages to confound the viewer when one thinks more deeply about him. He claims that he is all for Robur's plan to bring peace, but that he merely disagrees with his methods. Is this so? After all, Strock is an agent of the United States government and thus his loyalty is to that government. Strock also tries to galvanize his allies by saying that Robur is a threat to the world... But Robur is not a threat to the world, merely its governments and armies and especially the American government. Is the cardboard Charles Bronson really a master manipulator of all around him? Could Strock be using obfusicating and passionate rhetoric for his own purposes? Would the American government ever do that?! Noooooooooo...

Then there is the fiance, a gentleman's gentleman. He is the idealist who lives by his codes of proper conduct. He is forthwright, two-fisted, polite but steadfast. For a while, at least. Jealousy and the demands of the "real world" see him become unhinged as Strock is stealing his girl and threatening the validity of his ideals. This confusion eventually drives Evans to duplicity and near murderous madness.

Finally comes Robur, who is even more conflicted than Evans. His motives and personality are far less discernable than Captain Nemo's... We don't know why Robur has decided to wage war on war. The only clues he gives are his apocalyptic quotes from Scripture, and his cause is imbued with far less certitude. He's obviously sure that he wants to do this - to use the threat of invincible power to force the governments to lay down their arms or else - but he is also quite obviously shaken at the destruction he causes for this mission. When the Albatross launches it first assault on an American naval vessel, the whole crew seems grieved and confused over it.

Over the course of the film, Robur becomes increasingly unglued. He treads a fine line between compassion and cruelty, both in his interactions with his captives and in his mission. He is stern with Strock and company while at the same time polite in the extreme. When they are caught in a plot to escape, Robur punishes Evans and Strock by dangling them on ropes beneath the ship. But after passing through a storm, he remembers the two men and panic-stricken, pulls them back aboard and is profusely appologetic. In his mission, after finally growing cold to the destruction he causes and doing away with even the fig leaf of justification in giving the soldiers time to escape their ships and battlements, he cracks and begins a mad bombing run on helpless soldiers.

The picture painted of Robur is that of a man who desires peace but is driven cynically to the means of war, and is slowly unhinged by becoming exactly like what he hates. It is hard to say how Master was intended by its makers or received by its audiences (it is entirely possible that they alike thought that Robur's desire for disarmament was itself mad and that Strock was the red-blooded hero), but today the films speaks as a negative affirmation of pacifism and non-violence.

Instead of a preachy message from a saint, Robur gives us an example of the futility of violence, showing the madness of trying to end war through war. The use of violence destroys him both spiritually and phsyically... Within he is driven insane by the dueling desires of peace and hate, while in the end his mission becomes a victim of its own use of violence. In his zealousness to destroy, Robur damages his own ship. Meanwhile, the very existance of the armoury helps the captives to sabotage the ship, symbolic of Robur's own turmoil and representative of how even admitting violence as an option plants the seeds of one's own destruction.

In the end, Robur experiences a final moment of clarity... Realizing that his own madness was the cause of his undoing, he finds final solace in Scripture. Not the warnings of apocalypse this time, but the stirring hope of the Prophet Isaiah: "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Despite its artistic failings, Master of the World is a masterful and meaningful film which uses Victorian Scientific Romance to critique modern society. For this reason, it is well worth seeing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree. The PLOT had nothing to do with anything remotely connected to disney. . Had you read any of Master of the world or Journey instead of just watching the movies you would know this. Disney may have made a movie , but we need to acknowledge that disney had nothing to do with either PLOT. In fact they are not very good at much besides corruption of classic stories.