Tuesday, May 5, 2015
MASTER OF THE WORLD (1961)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological*
The frequent aphorism that "films are never as good as the books on which they're based" will find no support in 1961's MASTER OF THE WORLD.
Since I recently finished chronicling my impressions of Jules Verne's two Robur-books in this blogpost, I was anxious to re-screen the film and draw comparisons to the source novels. Scripter Richard Matheson, who around this time was also adapting Edgar Allan Poe for AIP, compensated for many of the weaknesses of the Verne novels by borrowing key incidents from both of them and giving them a more consistent theme-- albeit one probably indebted to the theme of Earl Felton's script for Walt Disney's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, cited as the second highest-grossing film of 1954.
I noted in my review of the books that the first novel, ROBUR THE CONQUEROR, proves the better of the two, while the sequel MASTER OF THE WORLD is weak at best. That said, though ROBUR benefits from a strong "villain-protagonist" and an engrossing situation, it has structural weaknesses. Verne apparently created Robur as a sort of "Captain Nemo of the air," in that Robur is as fascinated with the domain of the sky as Nemo was with the sea. Further, both are reclusive mystery-men who build fantastic vehicles in order to emancipate themselves from the world of ordinary mortals. However, while in LEAGUES Verne gives the reader tantalizing hints about Nemo's nature, the reader gets nothing about Robur except mystery piled on mystery. And whereas Nemo's actions are reasonably consistent-- though somewhat less so in the 1954 film adaptation-- Robur's amount to, "look, I've built this great thing and you had better admire it!" The books give Robur a few acid remarks on the backwardness of the most advanced nations, and he uses his flying ship the Albatross to intervene in a Dahomeyan sacrificial rite. But Verne's Robut isn't explicitly devoted to crusading against the sins of man.
Matheson's Robur, however, is such a crusader, for his express purpose for building the Albatross is not because of an *amour fou* with the sky, but to force mankind to give up warfare by demonstrating the superiority of air power, which he alone wields. The proximate source of this dedication is probably the script for the 1954 LEAGUES, which presented Nemo as engaged in a ceaseless war with the corrupt nations of the world, not least because of his hatred of slavery. Matheson's Robur simply amps this up to a desire to control the unruly nations through an act of intimidation, which surely seemed relevant to the audiences of 1961, having experienced over a decade of nuclear brinksmanship.
Matheson's only important borrowing from the second Verne novel is the character of John Strock, a rather bland viewpoint character who gets taken aboard Robur's flying machine, in a manner more or less identical to what happens to the viewpoint characters in the first book. From that book Matheson borrows most of the film's structure as well as two of Verne's viewpoint characters, young man Evans and older man Prudent. Matheson happily jettisons another viewpoint-character, the comic relief Frycollin, and substitutes a female lead, Dorothy, who is the daughter of Prudent and the fiancee of Evans.
Initially set in early 1900s America, the film opens with an absurd debate about the right way to steer a lighter-than-air craft, which is basically true to a similar scene in Verne; this scene serves to introduce government investigator Strock (Charles Bronson) to Dorothy, her father and her fiancee-- the last two of whom Strock wants to enlist in investigating a mystery centered around a mountain in Pennsylvania. The four of them end up piloting a hot-air balloon over the mountain, but a rocket knocks them out of the sky. The foursome are saved from death and taken aboard the Albatross, whereon they meet the fantastic ship's creator Robur (Vincent Price). Robur, though capable of killing his unwanted guests outright, elects to let them live as his prisoners aboard ship, as long as they obey his laws.
An internal conflict develops between Strock and Evans. Evans is presented as a stuffy prep-school type who incites Prudent and Dorothy to attempt a half-baked escape; Strock reports them to Robur in order to save their lives. This antagonizes Evans, who considers Strock a traitor, but causes Dorothy to become more interested in Strock's motivations-- which in turn signals a shift in her affections.
The battle lines are thus drawn: Evans is the bull-headed idealist, seeking to ignore the reality of their situation, while Strock is the realist, willing to temporarily side with the enemy in order to gain an advantage. An incident taken from the first novel, in which Frycollin is punished by being dangled in air from a rope, is transferred to Evans and Prudent, though Strock nobly takes the older man's place on the suspension rope. This too demonstrates Strock's superior character, for Evans' rope breaks and Strock saves him until the two of them can be reeled back to the Albatross.
The struggle of the captives to get free from Robur's ship roughly follows the first novel, though without the novel's reprieve for the Albatross and its creator. Evans even tries to sabotage Strock out of jealousy, though nothing more comes of this, since this comes near the climax, which is concerned with Robur's inevitable demise.
Though the script makes clear that Robur's actions are folly, Matheson never allows the viewer to forget-- as the Disney LEAGUES often does-- that the villain's folly is a noble one. Vincent Price, whose character still occupies center stage for all the wrangling of the co-stars, is in fine form railing against the evils of war, and the scene in which he and his crew elect to "go down with the ship" provides a note of tragedy amid the adventurous goings-on. But though the script makes a good case for the superiority of Strock over Evans, one wonders if his "get the job done no matter what" ethic isn't far removed from the ethics of the warmongers whom Robur despises.