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Film / Master of the World

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"I am a man unto myself, Mr. Prudent, who has declared war against war! That is my purpose, sir! The purpose for which this ship was built! To end for all time the scourge of warfare!"

A 1961 Steampunk Science Fiction film directed by William Witney and based on Jules Verne's novel Master of the World, with elements from Robur the Conqueror thrown in for good measure.

Charles Bronson stars as John Strock, a police investigator assigned to get to the bottom (er, the top) of the mystery surrounding the Great Eyrie outside of Morgantown, North Carolina; someone or something has taken up residence atop the mountain and begun issuing booming proclamations to the people below like a god up on high.

In an effort to see what's up there, Strock enlists the aid of industrialist and balloon enthusiast Prudent (Werewolf of London's Henry Hull), to allow him to use his dirigible, the Goahead. Along for the ride are Prudent's daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster) and his employee Phillip Evans (David Frankham), who also happens to be Dorothy's fiance. Strock and Dororthy hit it off swimmingly, much to the ire of Evans. The four aren't in the air very long before they're shot down and captured by the self-proclaimed "Master of the World" Robur (Vincent Price), who holds them prisoner aboard his flying warship, the Albatross.

The screenplay was written by Richard Matheson, adapting and combining Verne's novels Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World. Although Matheson insisted Bronson was miscast as Strock, it's a pretty basic hero role that just calls for him to be square-jawed, stoic and punch Mooks. The stoic and square-jawed Bronson is perfect for punching Mooks. As for Price, he's in top form as the Anti-Villain, providing a less manic and composed alternative to James Mason's intense Captain Nemo in Disney's earlier 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Tropes used in this film:

  • Abandon Ship: When the Albatross is fatally damaged by Stross' sabotage in the final act, Robur orders his men to abandon the ship while he has full intent on Going Down with the Ship. Robur's men decide to go down alongside him.
  • Adaptation Distillation: Matheson's script mixes and matches different elements from both of Verne's novels.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Robur. Sort of. While still an antagonist willing to commit evil acts, he is more of a Well-Intentioned Extremist.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Evans. In Robur the Conqueror, he's The Hero. Here, he's an intensely punchable, weaselly little jerk.
  • Anti-Villain: Robur. The man wishes to end conflict, and has no problem bombing a lot of people from above to make it clear he's got the Bigger Stick to make his demands with.
  • Arms Dealer: Prudent is pretty damn proud of having made his fortune manufacturing and selling guns and at a couple of points wonders how much money he could make replicating the technology that makes the Albatross. Also, even after it's made clear that Robur hates everything Prudent stands for thanks to being a war profiteer, Prudent still can't fathom why Robur has such a beef with him making guns. He straddles the line between being a Honest Corporate Executive and being a Corrupt Corporate Executive.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Robur is fond of quoting Bible verses, and even keeps a particularly handsome leather bound copy of the book in his stateroom. His last words are him quoting Isaiah 2:4 (the "Swords to Ploughshares" passage).
  • Badass Cape: Robur is prone to wearing a long black cape with red lining.
  • Benevolent Boss: Robur treats his men quite well, ensuring their Undying Loyalty.
  • Bigger Stick: Robur's plan to end all wars is to demonstrate the awesome firepower of the Albatross to the world and order the governments of the Earth to disarm themselves under penalty of Death from Above if they decide not to.
  • Canon Foreigner: Dororthy Prudent. She isn't in either Robur the Conqueror or Master of the World.
  • Chekhov's Pocket Knife: Strock carries a pocket knife with him throughout the movie (handed to him by Mr. Prudent as a demonstration of his products). It ends up coming in handy in the climax.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Evans is punished for his efforts to sabotage the Albatross by being keel-hauled in midair, suspended by a rope from the ship's undercarriage and nearly slammed against the craggy peaks of mountains as they fly past them. Fortunately, Strock, who volunteers to suffer the same punishment, is there to save him.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Strock, in spades, and much to the disgust of Evans, who insists it "isn't honorable." Strock's got no time for honor.
  • Composite Character: In many ways, Strock is a combination of the actual John Strock in Master of the World with a dash of Robur the Conqueror's Phil Evans (the actual Evans in this movie being a weaselly Jerkass).
  • Cool Guns: Robur's Mooks carry "futuristic" flintlock pistols.
  • Cool Ship: The Albatross, a heavier-than-air warship in a time when the most advanced airborne vehicle is the hot air balloon.
  • Death from Above: How Robur plans to force the world to capitulate to his demands. He proves he's serious by destroying an entire naval fleet and a city.
  • Defiant to the End: What Evans and Mr. Prudent wish to perform, but are unable to for various reasons (being a coward and being too old, in order). Strock downplays it by the fact he's not loudly defiant like the other two (as he points out, Robur would probably have him executed immediately if he did), but is biding his time to see how to destroy Robur (and thus causes conflict because it seems like he's taken Robur's side to the other two men).
  • Dirty Coward: Evans. He repeatedly insists that openly resisting Robur is the best option (to the point of opposing Strock's more subtle approach of becoming a Fake Defector), but when push comes to the shove, the guy is a worthless wimp.
  • Easily Forgiven: Evans. Even after he knocks Strock out and leaves him behind on the Albatross to die, Strock pretty much just lets it slide.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Robur and his entire crew, with their last words being It Has Been an Honor and Robur quoting the Bible.
  • Fake Defector: Combat Pragmatist Strock realizes there's no way he can fight off an entire airship's worth of Mooks, so openly resisting Robur is a no-go. Instead, he pretends to knuckle under and go along with the villain's plan while waiting for the right moment to strike and sabotage his ship.
  • Film of the Book: For both Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World, although it owes more to the former.
  • Funny Foreigner: Topage, the Albatross' "French" cook.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Prudent, who pretty much does nothing but complain the whole movie. Fortunately, he's likable enough that it never becomes too annoying, and he has enough good debate scenes with Robur to make it plain that, grouchy old curmudgeon or not, he's still a very intelligent man.
  • Honor Before Reason: The beef both Prudent and Evans have with Strock is that they, as gentlemen, decide to make clear to Robur that they will be Defiant to the End and constantly talk to the guy about how much they loathe him while Strock tries to bide his time to strike by pretending to follow instructions (thus cementing himself, in their eyes, as a Dirty Coward). At one point Strock even promises that he will do nothing to impede Robur's plans and Evans (who overheard this) points it out as iron-clad proof of him being a collaborator (because gentlemen don't break their word) while Strock fires back that he said that out of mere survival and has no intent of keeping his word (which pisses off Evans equally).
  • I Gave My Word: Defied. At one point Strock promises to Robur that he will not try to impede Robur's plans any further and then tells Evans (who overheard this and believes this is more proof of Strock being a Dirty Coward) that if he had decided to use that moment to cement his decision to be Defiant to the End, Robur would have ordered him killed immediately.
    Strock: Honor be damned!
  • Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy: Robur's Mooks can't aim for beans (although Turner does manage to wing Strock once during the climax).
  • Lead Police Detective: Strock is the chief inspector investigating the mysterious goings-on in Morgantown.
  • Limited Wardrobe: The main cast. Robur never intended to have "guests" (prisoners) aboard, so the only change of clothes Strock and co. have are the same crew uniforms worn by Robur's Mooks.
  • Men Act, Women Are: Dorothy Prudent is little more than someone for Strock and Evans to fight over and for her father to act protective toward. She does, though, try and help Strock and the crew get the damaged airship past a dangerous mountain range.
  • Money Is Not Power: At one point of the film, Mr. Prudent offers Robur ten million dollars (in Victorian money — which many other people would have considered would have set them (and at least a couple of further generations) for life) if he just surrenders the Albatross to the United States Government. Robur makes it clear that he has no desire to give up his quest for any reason, and chides Prudent for even thinking bribing him was an option.
  • Mook Lieutenant: Turner, the Albatross' first mate.
  • Mooks: The crew of the Albatross.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: According to Topage, there are many different stories about where Robur comes from. Each one contradicts the last.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Evans, suspecting Dorothy is beginning to become attracted to Strock, tries to indirectly kill his romantic rival by knocking him out and leaving him behind on the doomed Albatross at the end. Fortunately, Strock awakes up and gets out in time.
  • Nothing Exciting Ever Happens Here: Discussed by two residents of Morgantown at the beginning, right before Robur makes his presence known to them - and the world at large.
  • The Only One: Strock is no Chosen One, and he'd rather be anywhere else but aboard the flying doomship, but he's the closest thing there is to a trained professional in the situation, being a police inspector and all, so he and his trusty pocket knife may as well save the day.
  • The Philosopher King: Robur is a very educated man who's done a lot of thinking about his worldview and his course of action, and while he may not actually be master of the world just yet, he is master of his immediate surroundings.
  • Scenery Porn: The film features a lot of beautiful aerial shots of mountains and forests.
  • Undying Loyalty: Robur's Mooks are loyal to him even to their own deaths, refusing to abandon him even when he orders them to save themselves.
  • Utopia Justifies the Means: Robur believes that everything he does makes his dream of a world without war worth it.
  • Walking Shirtless Scene: Alistair, the Albatross' helmsman, is frequently seen without his shirt on.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Robur isn't entirely evil; he's just willing to do any heinous thing he can think of in order to achieve his goal, a world without war; even if it means starting a war.