When DVD first hit the home video scene, MGM soon found a niche amongst vintage horror and sci-fi geeks under an exclusive banner called “Midnite Movies.” Over the course of several years, they released a number of Vincent Price classics — many of which had been made or released by American International Pictures (AIP). Strangely enough, some titles never made it to disc; one of which was AIP’s 1961 oddity, Master of the World — a moving picture fantasy that was inspired by the works of Jules Verne, but, in all honesty, stirred by the success of Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea several years prior.
With a script penned by the great Richard Matheson, Master of the World not only derived its foundation from the Verne story of the same name, but also from that novel’s predecessor, Robur the Conqueror (aka The Clipper of the Clouds). In this somewhat despoiled take on Verne’s characters, strange happenings in Pennsylvania cause Federal Agent John Strock (Charles Bronson — yes, the Charles Bronson) to investigate. Strock teams up with arms manufacturer/aviator Prudent (an overacting Henry Hull), Prudent’s daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster), and her fiancé Phillip Evans (David Frankham), and go about investigating via Prudent’s big balloon.
Struck down by a rocket, the four soon find themselves in the grasp of Robus (Vincent Price), the crazed inventor of a giant flying warship known as the Albatross (all of you Monty Python fans out there just chuckled, I’m sure of it). With his faithful crew at his side, Robus is intent on disarming the entire world of the 19th Century for purposes of peace. Even if he has to kill people to prove his point. And he does so, too — by dropping bombs on seafaring naval vessels who refuse to abandon ship as he instructs them to do.
While Robus definitely lacks that certain laissez-faire one who is intent on beguiling the world into peace should probably possess, his prisoners — especially the government guy — seem to be missing that necessary amount of diplomacy needed when confronting a lunatic whose ideals are correct, but whose methods will only resort to mayhem. The production of this film also had several deficits of its own: it’s a rather cheap-looking flick (even for AIP) and uses a lot of stock footage from other movies. The characters seem too cut-and-paste when compared to other fantasy “epics” of the time, the special effects are pretty cheesy (again, even for AIP) and the whole project from the era of steam-powered contraptions loses its own steam by the time the first act is over.
Still, it’s worth it just to see Vincent Price ham it up alongside his former House of Wax henchman, the hopelessly miscast Charles Bronson (who has a killer hairdo in this one) in this less-than-classic directed by Cliffhanger Serial veteran William Witney. Fans of The Abbott and Costello Show will spot Mike Jones at the very beginning of the film.
For those of you that have been waiting for it, Master of the World is finally here: available from MGM’s Limited Edition Collection of Manufactured-On-Demand discs. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen picture is pretty grainy (the transfer hasn’t been restored or remastered for this release), but its still in pretty good shape. Collectors should also take note: MGM’s DVD-R release of Master of the World presents the film with its original prologue intact, and the runtime is listed as 102 minutes. This disc also houses the original theatrical trailer as its only special feature.
The bottom line: em>Master of the World is by no means a classic, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to see this interesting footnote in the histories of AIP, Price and Bronson.