While some people speculate on what Alfred Hitchcock or Ray Harryhausen might have done in adapting this H.G. Wells novel to film, Appellate Judge James A. Stewart considers what George Burns and Gracie Allen might have done with the 1938 radio broadcast. Good night, Martians.
Our reviews of Tom Cruise Collection (Blu-ray) (published November 17th, 2011), War of the Worlds (2013) (published November 11th, 2013), War Of The Worlds (2005) (published December 16th, 2005), and War Of The Worlds (2005) (Blu-ray) (published June 2nd, 2010) are also available.
"It's coming! The biggest story that could ever happen to our world…"
The name of the hero—Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry, Bat Masterson, Burke's Law)—might be viewed as a bad sign if you liked Mystery Science Theater 3000, but don't write this movie off…as many people did before it was even made. Since the film rights had been obtained during the silent era, as IMDb notes, Paramount had to stop filming briefly to figure out whether they were allowed to do a "talkie." The "making of" documentary states that H.G. Wells himself had long thought any potential movie would fail as a Victorian-era relic.
Facts of the Case
When you want to get it away from it all, a fishing trip's nice, but be careful…you don't want to catch any Martians. That's the problem faced by Forrester, who is called to the spot where a strange meteor has landed. It's glowing red-hot, and there's more. "Whatcha got in here, fella. It's ticking like a bomb," the Sheriff notes, pointing to Forrester's frantic Geiger counter.
When the three sentries who've been watching over the meteor see something coming out, they fashion a white flag and prepare to make truce, only to be zapped by a laser ray and reduced to ashes. Meanwhile, Forrester's enjoying the company of the lovely Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson, Fury, 2005's War of the Worlds) at a square dance in town, where the lights suddenly go out. Even the watches have stopped. Holding a pin to his watch, Forrester discovers that the watches have all been magnetized. The dancers race out into the street to see that it's not so dark outside, thanks to the fire that's raging at the gully. Soon the military's on the scene, and war will soon begin…
Going by the opening newsreel footage from the two world wars, you might get the idea that this is going to be a war movie. That's producer George Pal's concept. This is the biggest war of them all, The War of the Worlds. War imagery and themes are always present in this 1953 version of the H.G. Wells novel. When the people of a small California town find that the three men who were watching the strange red-hot meteor that landed in a nearby gully have been laser-rayed to ashes, they call in the military. The meteor is soon surrounded by military tents and tanks. Battle scenes featuring the alien flying ships, though they have an unusual weapon in laser rays, echo the London Blitz—trucks with portable air raid sirens patrol the streets, calling on people to evacuate Los Angeles. When the military finds its conventional weapons are no match for the Martians, it turns to the atom bomb. With Cold War tensions following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this plot addition reflected what was on everybody's minds at the time.
Beyond the war scenes, the narrator returns at the movie's midpoint to enhance the epic scope, via accounts of destruction elsewhere and the world's efforts at eluding the alien onslaught. "It was plain the Martians appreciated the strategic significance of the British Isles," the narrator intones, thus tying this Americanized story into the original and recalling Britain's role in World War II in a few words. One great scene here shows hundreds of Angelenos fleeing their great city on foot.
Take note that humans pursuing peace tend to escalate the war here. The military's called in when the Martians zap the three men brandishing a white flag, and the shooting war breaks out when Sylvia's Uncle Matthew (Lewis Martin, The Seven Little Foys), a minister, takes to the battlefield alone to call for peace, his last words before being zapped being a Psalm ("Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil."). This reflects then-recent war experiences as well. Remember Neville Chamberlain?
Instead of running for cover, our hero Forrester lends his services to the military. His flight—which brings in the famous farmhouse scene, this time with the lovely Sylvia along—isn't just for cover and to meet up with loved ones, but to Los Angeles to join scientists working on a means of combating the aliens. His personal journey is also overwhelmed by the war footage, taking up little of the screen time and leaving out great moments from the novel, including the famous speech from the cowering madman. (If you don't know it, you can hear it in the Spielberg movie, or in the radio version found on this DVD.)
The roles are now clichéd. Gene Barry plays a typical movie scientist—bespectacled when we first see him, but without glasses when he's needed to take action. Ann Robinson is there to cry and scream as the aliens surround the farmhouse in which they've taken refuge. But the leads are likeable. Supporting characters get a lot of dialogue of the "They're after the plane with the ray" variety, covering plot points that Pal and Director Byron Haskin couldn't show on screen. The dialogue doesn't always match the action, since the cast thought the aliens would be marching in tripods as in the novel.
I saw a few flaws in the transfer. The flashes of red and yellow light with the Martian death rays have a little bleeding, and some of the vintage war footage shows its grain, but it does a good job of capturing California sunsets and alien destruction. The guide wires that hold up the alien craft aren't immediately evident, but if you watch the film twice in a row (as a reviewer would to catch the commentary), you'll catch a glimpse or two of them. The typical electronic weirdness of the sound effects (often with reverb effects added to cymbals and electric guitar) is preserved, though occasionally soft-spoken lines are lost.
The background here is split into two featurettes. "The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds" looks at the making of the film, with looks at the visual FX test footage, the miniature buildings destroyed, and the reasoning behind the spaceships that replaced the tripods. It also takes in Orson Welles' historic 1938 broadcast, shows clips of a George Pal "Puppetoon" to give you a glimpse of his earlier work, and considers two versions of the movie that weren't made: one an Alfred Hitchcock project, the other a Ray Harryhausen project, for which he shot test footage of his octopus-like aliens. "H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction" looks at the life of the author, noting that he was always predicting concepts like the "world brain" (which we now have in the form of the World Wide Web) through his "remorseless logic," and showing him speaking publicly, mostly to demonstrate his high-pitched voice. If that's not enough, you also get the movie's trailer and the 1938 Mercury Theatre on the Air radio broadcast. (Note that the photo accompanying the audio here changes every few minutes or so.)
The commentaries here were above average. Ann Robinson has been a "champion" of the film, so she had a lot to say here and in "The Sky is Falling." She points out a Hitchcock-style cameo by George Pal, talks about life in the "Golden Circle" of young Paramount "stars of tomorrow," and reveals that "Willie Lump-Lump" was the name given on the set to the Martian seen at the farmhouse. Director Joe Dante (whose low voice is a bit surprising from someone you'd imagine yelling, "Cut! Cut!") and the two film historians point out a number of character actors, including Alvy Moore (Green Acres), and Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family) in a non-speaking role. While noting flaws and budgetary restraints, Dante concludes that "these pictures are all the more impressive" because of the limits of the times.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Though I enjoyed this version of The War of the Worlds, the 2005 movie has a big, unexpected advantage. The 1953 movie, made in the wake of World War II, works hard to give the Martian attacks the epic scope of a world war. Despite some cheesy moments, it does this with surprising effect. A $2 million budget doesn't sound like much, but it went a long way back then. The 2005 movie has big-budget set pieces, but returns the story to its roots; like the original H.G. Wells novel, it's a personal account seen through one man's eyes.
I found Steven Spielberg's take on this classic novel a bit more faithful than George Pal's version, but both are fun nights at the movies, each reflecting their times. Science fiction fans probably will want to add both to their collections, and this edition has a lot of extras that make it worthwhile.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Ann Robinson and Gene Barry
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