The War of the Worlds (1953) [DVD]
Director : Byron Haskin
Screenplay : Barré Lyndon (based on the novel by H.G. Wells)
MPAA Rating : G
Year of Release : 1953
Stars : Gene Barry (Dr. Clayton Forrester), Ann Robinson (Sylvia Van Buren), Les Tremayne (Maj. Gen. Mann), Bob Cornthwaite (Dr. Pryor), Sandro Giglio (Dr. Bilderbeck), Lewis Martin (Pastor Matthew Collins)
Producer George Pal’s film version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was quite a shock to audiences in the early 1950s, which is why it is described as frequently as a horror movie as it is as a science fiction movie. Despite coming on the heels of Allied victory in World War II and landing right in the midst of American economic prosperity and growing international power (with its concomitant increase in tension with the Soviet Union), the film did not play up our sense of security and strength. Rather, it functioned just as Wells intended it to: as a cautionary tale about the limits of human power.
There had been science fiction movies before The War of the Worlds, even doomsday scenarios like Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951) and Robert Wise’s cautionary fable The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Yet, neither of those films depicted with such simple brutality the human race completely at the mercy of foreign invaders, a genuine fear in the era of the Cold War. When Worlds Collide showed the destruction of planet Earth on an impressive scale, but it was under the thumb of a natural occurrence that couldn’t be stopped; The Day the Earth Stood Still suggested the power of an alien race to destroy us, but gave us the benefit of the doubt in the end. It reassured us that rationality and decency were paths to peace and survival.
The War of the Worlds had no such pretensions; in fact, when people try to act benevolent toward the invading aliens, they are summarily annihilated. The film posits the idea that an alien race of “cool and unsympathetic” intelligence could invade the planet and destroy us with impunity. In fact, screenwriter Barré Lyndon (The Greatest Show on Earth) even upped the stakes by making the alien spacecraft literally impenetrable by all of humankind’s weapons, from machine guns, to tanks, to rocket launchers, to the most dreaded of all--the atomic bomb.
Lyndon structured the story in terms of growing escalation, as meteors mysteriously crash on Earth and give way to humming, pulsating flying machines that show their vicious intentions by first vaporizing three yokels who wave a white flag and try to welcome the invaders to California and then by zapping a pastor trying to make peace by steadily approaching the craft and reciting the 23rd Psalm. If a man of God could be killed with such relentless impunity, what chance did the rest of us stand?
In its images of destruction and mayhem, The War of the Worlds is a near masterpiece. Especially given the limits of special effects technology in the early 1950s and the film’s limited budget (it was shot almost entirely on a single soundstage), the resulting imagery is undeniably impressive. The manta-like flying ships, which are given additional anthropomorphic creepiness by a snake-like extension at the top from which the heat rays are shot, cruise slowly and methodically through the world’s most recognizable cities, laying waste to everything in their path. A montage shows destruction taking place throughout the world (except the Soviet Union, which curiously goes unmentioned), but the focus is on the firestorm in the United States, particularly southern California (perhaps a stroke of Hollywood masochism?). The imagery of an American city ravaged by war and in flames, something that hadn’t happened since the Civil War, is as potent today as it was 50 years ago.
Of course, in his zeal to give The War of the Worlds the grandest possible stage, director Byron Haskin (Robinson Crusoe on Mars) and screenwriter Barré Lyndon largely ignore the humanity that’s being destroyed. More to the point, they take humanity for granted, which results in dull, cardboard characters who are more archetypes than human beings. Most of the characters are scientists and military men (typical of sci-fi in the 1950s), and the story ends up centering around an intelligent, but sensitive scientist (Gene Barry) and the young woman who fawns over him (Ann Robinson). The filmmakers’ decision to use unknown actors so that star wattage wouldn’t get in the way of the breadth of the alien invasion was a good move, but they should have paid more attention to the way the characters were developed. If The War of the Worlds had had an effective human core, one that put a face on its epic of death and destruction, it might very well have reached a pinnacle of true greatness.
|The War of the Worlds Special Collector’s Edition DVD|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||November 1, 2005|
|The new transfer of The War of the Worlds, which was probably taken from one of the new prints struck for its 50th anniversary, is excellent, a definite improvement over the transfer available on the previous bare-bones DVD release. The Technicolor image is bright and appropriately saturated, with deep shades of red, blue, and green. Detail level is good--a little too good, in fact, since it makes it plainly obvious that the Martian spacecraft are being held up by strings. The image is also much cleaner than the original DVD, with only minor traces of scratches, dust, and excessive grain.|
|Sound-wise, the big improvement on this disc is the inclusion of a recreated two-channel stereo soundtrack (the original 3-track masters were lost) that was included on the laser disc, but inexplicably not on the first DVD. The two-channel mix is a nice improvement over the monaural mix, since it allows for some openness and directionality. Both tracks are quite clean and sound very good for their age.|
|There are two audio commentaries on this disc. The first, by actors Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, is definitely the lesser of the two, although still worth a spin. The second track, by fan/film director Joe Dante (Gremlins), film historian Bob Burns, and sci-fi expert Bill Warren (author of Keep Watching the Skies!, one of the definitive books on science fiction), is definitely worth a listen. Between the three of them, they offer all kinds of interesting insight into the film and the lore surrounding it. More information about the film can be found in “The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds,” a first-rate 30-minute retrospective featurette that features interviews with a wide range of participants, from actor Gene Barry, to assistant director Mickey Moore, to special effects guru Al Nozaki (who, having passed away, is seen only in archival video footage). Some of the highlights include Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation tests for the Martians, some hilarious stories about the creation of the Martian suit, and a bit about how George Pal used to always slip Woody Woodpecker into his movies (yes, he’s in The War of the Worlds). The shorter featurette “H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction,” which runs about 10 minutes, gives a brief rundown of the life of the great sci-fi innovator. A nice inclusion is the complete Mercury Theatre radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which starred Orson Welles and famously sent some people running for the hills when they mistook it for the real deal.|
Copyright © 2005 James Kendrick
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