Forgotten Films: Master of the World (1961)

This 1961 cheapie may have you wishing you'd watched 20,000 Leagues instead.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 165th in my series of Forgotten, Obscure or Neglected Films

What better way to celebrate Memorial Day than to watch Vincent Price try to stop war across the globe?

Back in 1961, I was still in the Fairbanks, Alaska, area on one of the military bases when I first heard about Master of the World, a film combining two Jules Verne novels into a cinematic masterpiece. I knew a little about Verne and some about Vincent Price and that was about it. The art and craft of moviemaking and cinematic quality were things beyond my comprehension at the time.

Fortunately, I never got to see the film in 1961 — or ever — until this morning. I had taped it a couple of weeks ago from Turner Classic. (How I miss that channel right now when I have no television in my Alpine apartment!)

This one is not one of the good Price movies, not one of the Poe films or the like. It has a Richard Matheson script (that’s the good part). It has Vincent Price, Charles Bronson and Henry (Werewolf of London) Hull! But, boy, does the story suffer!

What we have here is an American International attempt to cash in on 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and 1956’s Around the World in Eighty Days. But, being American International, they wanted to do this big epic story on a shoestring budget. According to Wikipedia, this was AI’s largest budget film to date, but it still came out as a B-film on a double bill with Konga.

Part of the problem may stem from the source material. Matheson worked with two Verne novels Master of the World and Robur the Conqueror. In the annals of great Verne titles, these are not the books you pick. Essentially, you have the peace message of Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues and its sea setting moved into the air, where the marvels are sorely lacking. No lost cities or giant squids up in the clouds. Just another mad captain trying to bring nations to peace by using the force he abhors.

Our story deals with Mr. Prudent (Hull), a Pennsylvania arms manufacturer; his daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster); her fiancé Phillip Evans (David Frankham); and US government agent John Strock (Bronson). Together, they are investigating strange noises, explosions and Biblical pronouncements from a vast mountain known as the Great Eyrie. Since the mountain cannot be scaled, they investigate via balloon, which is mysteriously shot down.

The group awakens aboard the Albatross, a huge flying contraption with many overhead propellers that provide lift and a rear propeller used from propulsion. It is commanded by the impressive Robur (Price) who calls no country home. It is his intention to get every country to give up war or suffer consequences.

They fly through the air with great ease and never appear to land. When they take on water, it is via a giant siphon hose. Phillip attempts to interfere with Robur’s plan and finds himself (and later Bronson) dangling from the ship at the end of a fraying rope.

I really wanted to like this film, but I can’t do it. According to Wikipedia, Price was very proud of his role. But he plays it a little heavy handed for me. Bronson is used as a romantic love interest for the already engaged Dorothy, eliciting some jealous posturing from Phillip. There are also a couple of “humorous” scenes involving cook Topage (Vito Scotti, absolutely abused, wasted and not funny).

But where the film really suffers is in the special effects. Yes, it is 1961. But still, the matte work is quite rough. The miniatures are pretty cheesy and the film uses a fair bit of stock footage. Where Nemo had underwater scenes, all Robur gets are shots of clouds and blue skies in his cockpit view. Very dull stuff.

As I indicated above, it’s really a cheap second cousin to 20,000 Leagues, and you would be better served watching it instead. But, of course, you may have loved this film in 1961 and found it to be hugely influential on your world view and cinematic experience. In that case, I salute you. My mileage varied.

Series organizer Todd Mason hosts more Tuesday Forgotten Film reviews at his own blog and posts a complete list of participating blogs.


Forgotten Book: The Caves of Karst by Lee Hoffman (1969)

The Caves of Karst is a science fiction adventure that delivers on what it aspires to do: entertain.

By Scott A. Cupp

This is the 181st in my series of Forgotten Books.

This week I decided to take a chance on a book published nearly 50 years ago by a well known science fiction fan who was also a highly respected writer of western novels. Lee Hoffman was the name used by Shirley Bell Hoffman for her writings and there were plenty of them. She did 17 western novels (she won a Western Writers of America Spur Award in 1967 for The Valdez Horses, which was later filmed as Chino starring Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland) and four science fiction novels, of which The Caves of Karst was the second.

I first became acquainted with Lee Hoffman through her novel Always the Black Knight, which was serialized in Ted White’s Fantastic Stories in 1970. I read that serialization then and was always intrigued by the cover to The Caves of Karst. Somehow, though, I never got around to reading it. Somewhere along the way my copy disappeared, but I found a British SF Book Club copy in 2013 at Half Price Books and I purchased the copy I read for this week’s column. (As an aside, over Christmas I was asked if I really read all the books I discuss in the Forgotten Books. The simple answer is “yes,” and I do it just before doing the review. My feeble brain finds it far too easy to mix and match story ideas among the thousands of novels I have read — and I try to adequately present the book as I see it.)

So, let’s get to the story. The novel takes place on the planet Karst, a remote colony that is part of the Earth Empire. Earlier, a rebellion in the Centauri sector had led to Earth giving less attention to their remote colonies and a deep rooted revulsion on the part of colonists.

Karst is covered with a lot of water and has many deep caves rich in gems and minerals. Divers who work for the Divers Guild are a very powerful force on the planet. Griffith (or Griff), one of those divers, is our protagonist. He’s also gone in for adaptive surgery and had gills installed to enable him to swim into the deep without scuba gear during his searches. This type of surgery is taboo in Earth and prevents Griffith from having the ability to leave Karst and see other worlds. Not that he wants to.

One day, he runs across the dead body of another diver during his search of a cave. Divers protect their claims jealously, so Griff gets his ID tag to report to the Guild anonymously. While exploring the cave he runs across some valuable gems and the incredibly rare thelemite.

Divers have legitimate sources for selling their finds and some not-quite-as-legitimate. Griffith sells some gems for the credits he needs to leave, but then he meets with merchant Captain Rotsler of the space ship Teick. Rotsler is hanging with Griff’s old girlfriend Sheryl, which irritates Griffith immensely. Rotsler is interested in the gems but goes nuts over the thelemite. He wants any and all that Griff can provide.

Griff also has an encounter with some folks who are expressing very anti-Earth Empire opinions and eventually end up in a fight. He gets rousingly drunk. When he sobers up two days later, he finds that the Teick has been destroyed and the Authority (the local, Earth-backed cops) see him as a likely suspect for the deed.

Suddenly, life is not quite so good. Illegal interrogations begin, he has a fight with his Guild lawyer who does not believe his alibi, and he gets busted out of jail by folks with homicide on their mind.

There is some pretty fun action and dodging the police in the final third of the book as Griff tries to figure out who is on his side and what the heck is really going on.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit. It does not try to be much more than a diverting science fiction adventure tale with murder. There are good guys and bad guys, moral ambiguities, dilemmas of the soul. Griff is an interesting character, and so are several others, including Irma, who wants to be the girl that Sheryl never was, and Czolgosz, the attorney who has to play within the system he is representing.

If I find my copy of Always the Black Knight (a title I really like), I will probably read it and cover it here. Lee Hoffman is worth seeking out. Not a brilliant writer, but a good, entertaining one — and that is always a worthwhile thing.

Series organizer Patti Abbott hosts more Friday Forgotten Book reviews at her own blog, and posts a complete list of participating blogs.