While film history is certainly not lacking in bad ones, adaptations of popular literature are pretty common in cinema of any budget. After all, you don’t have to spend months and months drafting up an original story and characters: just snatch ones already in existence. This is especially sweet if said work is either A) in the public domain (hence why we have dozens of movies based on, say, Dracula or Frankenstein) or B) by a famous author, but is not as well-known or highly valued as their other works. Both save money, especially important on a tight budget, and usually come with name recognition, which in turn, equals a guaranteed audience.
Never looking to miss a chance to cash in, cheap-meisters American International Pictures saw the popularity of Jules Verne adaptations like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) and Around the World In 80 Days (1956) storming the box office. Wanting a piece of the action, they hired sci-fi legend Richard Matheson (I Am Legend) to pen a combined adaptation of Robur The Conqueror (1886) and the titular sequel, The Master of The World (1904). Essentially, these were 20,000 Leagues, but in the sky. With legend Vincent Price as the aerial engineer and war hater Robur, the film sees him go on a worldwide mission to bring about the end of war via his flying airship, the Albatross. In the process, he abducts an arms manufacturer, his daughter, her fiance and a government agent who were on his trail.
To say it’s Price’s show would be like saying water is wet: he effortlessly commands the screen and gives Robur the needed gravitas and intelligence to buy and even, to a point, empathise with his grand dreams (even if how the plot presents them makes them seem even nuttier). His velvet tones, his refined speech, his composure with an underlying hint of madness, it’s a joy to watch. Henry Hull, Mary Webster, David Frankham and a young Charles Bronson make up his reluctant entourage and are competent, but they lack many dimensions and easily get overshadowed by Price’s bombast. Based on this performance, you’d never suspect Bronson would become a face of 60s Westerns and 80s action.
Indeed, ‘lacking’ is all too apt: the cheap production values, in what amounts to a lesser version of Disney´s 1954 technical powerhouse, were tacky, even for the time. The Albatross model doesn’t look too bad, but the garish interiors of the ship and especially the rather blatant stock footage (including Tudor London from Olivier’s Henry V (1944) standing in for Victorian London) is beyond laughable. The action, from chases and escapes to battles with ground armies and bomb runs, is a nice attempt at variety, but when it’s not obviously models superimposed on stock footage, it all feels the same presentation wise, thanks to William Witney’s pedestrian direction. Seriously, for a veteran director, you’d swear he’d never heard of shot composition, based on this film, as it operates on a ‘point and shoot’ mentality.
What does half-salvage the film, Price aside, is the rather sizeable and bombastic score by Les Baxter, giving the film more gusto than its limited budget could really allow. Honestly, even the more mundane sets and the costuming isn’t half bad. What does finally bring it down is the ludicrous plot: by trying to give Robur more dimension (making him an extreme pacifist over simply an arrogant engineer like the book), they make the story more nonsensical. Robur plans to bomb anything military in order to stop a war. Which means one target at a time.
With just the Albatross.
Which is also made of paper.
It even almost gets destroyed during a desert battle, and yet Robur carries on anyway like it was nothing.
The anti-war message is an admirable attempt to give the story both depth as well as contemporary relevance, but its own internal logic completely ruins it. Perhaps this could’ve worked had we focused more squarely on Robur’s mad mind, like with Nemo, but the film loves to pad itself with soap opera antics concerning the two younger male hostages and their botched escape efforts instead.
In the end, slow pacing and clumsy execution leaden a film with a good message. It has a few elements that shine, but it just makes you wish you were watching Disney’s Leagues instead. Read the books instead, if you must get your fill of Verne’s aerial adventures.
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