‘A man-made monster with every human emotion’
Tobor the Great is a 1954 American science fiction spy film about a young boy-genius who befriends his grandfather’s titular robot. The latter was designed to be a test pilot for space travel and its design details are coveted by foreign spies.
Directed by Lee Sholem from a screenplay written by Philip MacDonald from a story by Carl Dudley. Produced by Richard Goldstone. Executive produced by Carl Dudley.
The Dudley Pictures Corporation production stars Charles Drake, Karin Booth, Billy Chapin, Taylor Holmes, Steven Geray, Henry Kulky, Franz Roehn and Hal Baylor.
“The film still has some appeal, from the basic concept of the plot, and that cast, plus the action that is there, but it ends up being more an assembly of scenes with a lot of potential than a diverting science fiction entertainment […] the movie is worth a look, as long as one doesn’t expect too much.” AllMovie
“Dropping an intimidation factor, Tobor the Great is mischief in a minor key, gradually softening period fears of metal destruction to play a lukewarm spy game with mediocre characters and plenty of padding.” Blu-ray.com
“Given the era, the budget, and Lee Sholem in the director’s chair, this is obviously gonna be pretty dumb, but it’s also pretty delightful. The surprisingly weighty premise is mostly squandered on exposition and clunky robot action […] with the latter being the obvious draw […] it’s amiable fun throughout.” Ira Brooker
” …the film missed out on becoming an important sci-fi classic … terrible acting and dialogue. A botched attempt at a heartwarming sci-fi comedy-thriller.” Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide 2009
“This is a pleasant, if undemanding, 77 minutes, delivered in a nice straightforward manner. There’s no subtext here; the usual ‘military vs. boffins’ conflict is never addressed and technology is portrayed in an unambiguous and totally positive light. It’s both charming and naive at the same time.” Mark David Welsh
“Clearly, a kiddie take on the whole robot and spies genre, that fails beneath the weight of its juvenile leaning. No adult is going to find much enjoyment from watching this little know-it-all run around being phoney tough. These 1950s sci-fi movies are usually handicapped by their ridiculous premises, to begin with, but when you throw in the ten-year-old mentality of this one, it becomes unbearable.” Monster Hunter
“Tobor the Great is a small budget film with minimal special effects. It is pitched at mainly younger viewers while maintaining entertainment value for older audiences. Lee Sholem’s direction maintains the film’s story at a steady pace and the acting is solid and genuine.” Sci-Fi Film Fiesta
“As a children’s film, the movie does its job. There are countless witnesses throughout the web that give testament to the fact that kids under twelve were mesmerised by the movie when it was released. Of course, it’s a bit unfair to go nitpicking logic in a kiddie film, but on the other hand, but this film is based on a few assumptions that are so dumb that even a kid will pick them apart.” Scifist
” …if there was one subject fifties sci-fi liked just as much as contemplating technology, it was contemplating what to do about those darn Reds across the Atlantic […] Alarmingly, they also threaten to torture Gadge with a blowtorch but don’t get the idea this was action-packed even if Tobor does knock a few things down in his rescue mission…” The Spinning Image
At an underground laboratory in Los Angeles, Professor Nordstrom (Taylor Holmes), worried that manned space exploration is too dangerous, enlists the help of Doctor Ralph Harrison (Charles Drake), who recently left the new government-appointed Civil Interplanetary Flight Commission.
The two scientists embark on a research project to create a robot that can replace humans for space flight. Nordstrom’s daughter, Janice Roberts (Karin Booth), and her eleven-year-old son Brian (Billy Chapin), nicknamed “Gadge”, become very interested in the project.
When a press conference is called to announce the creation of “Tobor”, reporters, such as the inquisitive journalist Gilligan (Alan Reynolds), are invited to Professor’s Harrison’s home to see the remarkable invention. In order to undertake space travel, the remote-controlled robot has been given some human capabilities, including the ability to “feel” emotions and react via a telepathic device built into his robotic brain.
Under the watchful eyes of Harrison’s trusted assistant Karl (Franz Roehn), the giant robot Tobor is unveiled and then demonstrated. Unknown to the scientists, a foreign spy chief (Steven Geray) has quietly joined the group of reporters; he quickly draws up a plan to steal the robot.
While trying to perfect the robot’s control systems, an inadvertent episode involving Gadge, who sneaks into the laboratory and turns on Tobor, shows that the robot can make emotional connections with people. Gadge not only controls the robot, but when he is accidentally tossed about, Tobor appears to comfort him, as if he is sorry for hurting the boy.
After cleaning up, the scientists realize that an additional chair was brought to the news conference, leading them to believe that someone has infiltrated the closely guarded laboratory. Aware that their robot could fall into the wrong hands, they construct a small transmitter in a fountain pen that is able to communicate with Tobor.
An organised assault by the foreign agents is thwarted by the defensive devices at Nordstrom’s home, so the spies create another scheme. Sending Gadge and his grandfather an invitation to a space flight presentation at the Griffith Park Planetarium, they intend to hold them hostage. When Gadge and Nordstrom show up, the spies kidnap them. Doctor Gustav (Peter Brocco) tries to force Nordstrom to provide the crucial information needed to control Tobor.
When Nordstrom and Gadge do not return for the military demonstration of Tobor’s abilities, Doctor Harrison contacts the local sheriff with his concerns that something dire has happened to them. Tobor is suddenly activated, reacting to messages sent by Nordstrom, and storms out of the house, driving away in a military Jeep. Nordstrom is actually controlling the robot remotely with the pen transmitter while trying to fool Doctor Gustav. One of the spies realizes that the pen is important and snatches it away, breaking it.
Guessing that Tobor is going to rescue the professor and Gadge, Harrison and the military follow. At the agents’ lair, when the transmissions stop, Tobor comes to an abrupt halt, but Harrison successfully re-activates the robot using telepathic commands. The spies threaten to hurt Gadge, who instinctively reacts and uses his mind to call out to Tobor. Nordstrom relents, writing out the control formula.
With Harrison and the military, the robot breaks down the lair’s door and attacks the enemy agents, rescuing the professor and Gadge. When one of the spies attempts to drive away with the coerced information, Tobor yanks him out of his car. Gadge is then gently carried out by the robot.
Later, when Tobor has been successfully reprogrammed, a spacecraft is launched with the robot in full control of the mission.
Cast and characters (in credits order):
Charles Drake … Doctor Ralph Harrison
Karin Booth … Janice Roberts
Billy Chapin … Brian Roberts
Taylor Holmes … Professor Arnold Nordstrom
Steven Geray … Man with Rimless Glasses
Henry Kulky … Paul
Franz Roehn … Karl
Hal Baylor … Max
Peter Brocco … Doctor Gustav (uncredited)
Steve Carruthers … Reporter (uncredited)
Jack Daly … Scientist (uncredited)
Franklyn Farnum … Government Representative (uncredited)
Norman Field … Commissioner (uncredited)
Griffith Observatory, 2800 E Observatory Rd, Los Angeles, California
Iverson Ranch – 1 Iverson Lane, Chatsworth, Los Angeles, California
Republic Studios, Hollywood, Los Angeles, California (house interior)
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.66:1
Contrary to common assumption, Robert Kinoshita, creator of Robby the Robot did not design Tobor. According to both production sketches and “movie robot” authority Fred Barton, the robot was designed by Gabriel Scognamillo and built by Mel Arnold, who also worked on Gort for The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The film inspired a Tobor the Great comic book story series, written by Denis Gifford (author of A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Hamlyn, 1973) and with artwork by James Bleach; it appeared in Star Comics #1-2 (1954), from D Publications.
The original Tobor prop and remote control device are still in existence, having been in a private collection for more than fifty years.
There is an online company, Fred Barton Productions, that sells screen-accurate, full-size replicas of Tobor as seen in the film.