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It wasn't until 1977 and the advent of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that Science Fiction films topped the initial 1950s wonder movies, the ones made before Hollywood decided that spaceships and aliens were best left to the quickie producers. And the great 50s color "A" pictures from big studios could practically be listed on the fingers of one hand: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, This Island Earth, Forbidden Planet and this Technicolor shocker, The War of the Worlds. Advertised as a class offering -- the posters showed only the title and an abstract hand clutching at the Earth from Outer Space -- The War of the Worlds is an ambitious, intelligent and exciting adventure that combines H.G. Wells' original tale with 1950s fears of invasion: What if there were enemies out there with unopposable weapons of super-destruction? What could we do?
Paramount's Special Collector's Edition replaces a blah 1999 disc that had indifferent encoding, mono-only sound and no extras. The Steven Spielberg remake clearly inspired this reissue, which is fine and dandy; I only wish the industry could see its way clear to also do lavish remakes of great movies that didn't turn out to be classics, like John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids.
Savant saw The War of the Worlds in 1964 as a surprise feature on a kiddie double-bill; the audience was amused by the accompanying horror film but were soundly shaken by the sheer power of George Pal's exciting blitzkrieg from outer space. We weren't used to 'monster movies' with such effective filmmaking; the tense pacing and alarming scares in the picture had kids screaming. It seems hard to believe now, but I remember audible expressions of true nervousness when the unseen aliens were preparing to launch their attack, and screams with the first blast of the heat ray. And when the alien crept into the crushed farmhouse there were kids ready to cry. The sound track was a constant barrage of weird noises and threatening explosions. It was a real thrill ride with emotional highs and lows and special effects that at the time simply looked real - smoke and flame and melted telephone lines as the war machines crept down city streets. The imitative Japanese The Mysterians had been an imaginative fantasy, but it was scary only once or twice. For The War of the Worlds I was at the edge of my seat, mouth agape for the entire running time.
The motivating factor behind the show's mood is war fear, something that its producer George Pal knew well having been more or less chased from Europe by the Germans in the 1930s. Capitals of great and beautiful cities fell one after another in a matter of weeks in 1939, a trauma that Americans hadn't experienced directly since our Civil War. H.G. Wells' 1898 book could be interpreted as a fearful look forward at a coming century that promised Brave New Wars employing ever more lethal applications of technology. Pal's movie version updates the story to the Cold War years and removes Wells' mostly first-person POV, which was limited to an everyman hero who just wants to reunite with his wife. The generalities of the basic tale are retained - the onslaught of the alien invasion is "a rout of civilization, a massacre of mankind."
The updating of the alien menace is brilliant. Albert Nozaki's sinister fighting machines have an extra-terrestrial appeal, even though they're a combination of the familiar animal forms of a manta ray and a cobra snake. They seem to fly, even though it is established that they're supported by an invisible electronic tripod correlating to Wells' original mechanical juggernauts. Charles Gemora's makeshift Martian is a hideous crab-like biped with a three-hued color television camera for an eye. Wells' investigatory tentacle becomes a spy camera that looks like a gladiator helmet from the God of War.
The swift pacing and jarring set pieces keep us on edge by alternating relatively serene passages with intensely violent or suspenseful highlights: a nervous newsreel (shades of the other Welles' Citizen Kane) is followed by a real estate tour of planets for possible invasion, using Wells' poetic preamble spoken by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Frightening scenes at the landing site are broken up by a bucolic square dance. Pal and Haskin bridge transitions to jarring actions with loud noises and abrupt cuts, like the unscrewed lid falling from atop the alien landing craft. The beginning of the big battle builds with unbearable tension as Lewis Martin's gentle preacher greets the alien vanguard with a pacifist plea ... a thematic repeat of Dr. Carrington's altruistic gesture in The Thing from Another World. The War of the Worlds was nominated for best editing and sound effects, which I think has to revolve around the dynamic moment when the aliens open fire. A yellow heat ray blast cuts to a red-tinted close-up of Ann Robinson screaming -- Colonel Heffner (Vernon Rich) shouts "Let 'em have it!" and the barrage begins. It's a stunning sequence.
No conventional war movie was ever edited so dynamically. Ordinary battle scenarios stress the glorious efficacy of American firepower but here we watch while guns and cannons blast away to no effect whatsoever. The aliens sit behind their protective blisters for a few moments as if calmly relieved to be met with such puny resistance. When they cut loose with their counterattack, two kinds of rays (and their associated weird sound effects) blast out in a cyclone of white-hot sparks and green 'meson flux.' It's like using a blowtorch on an ant's nest.
The authorities don't take long to reach a conclusion that's already been decided on by every 8 year-old kid in the audience ... let's nuke these bastards, and fast. A delegation of military brass and media descend on the La Puente hills 1 fully expecting to liquidate their foe. They're more than a little distressed when the A-bomb just puts a nice shine on the alien fighting craft. That's where the film's camp dialogue cuts in, with hardbitten Major General Les Tremayne's tantrum: "Guns, tanks, bombs - they're like toys against them!" So much for the arms race.
From this point forward the fate of the world is in God's hands. George Pal was a sincerely devout fellow with a genuine desire to put Christian values into his films. At times this was awkward, what with the Old Testament judgmentalism of When Worlds Collide and the religious-maniac mutiny in Conquest of Space. This picture builds to a miraculous conclusion, which might as well be divine intervention by way of natural selection. The aliens appear to be susceptible to ordinary bacteria and fall faster than innocent South Seas Islanders when they penetrate our (presumably filthy) population centers. So once again, humanity is saved by God's verminous microscopic creations.
George Pal's scripts often retained moods and styles years out of date, and the film's effective emotional finish is melodramatic in the extreme. But it is both tasteful and appropriate to the dire circumstances -- Sylvia and Clayton are reunited among refugees in a church, cowering helpless as war machines close in for the kill. The War of the Worlds has survived with only a few unintentional laughs, and its uplifiting finale is still impressive.
Paramount has given its Special Edition of The War of the Worlds everything that fans might have hoped for. Besides the mono track, the much more lively stereophonic track heard on the 1995 laserdisc makes its reappearance and is a big plus. It may be a Chace reprocessing job or the original stereophonic track heard on some magnetic prints when the film was new -- Savant thinks he heard this in the Filmex marathon screening of 1976 but after 30 years is no longer certain ... some sources (and Joe Dante in his commentary) say the real stereo audio was lost long ago.
The picture has been given a fine new transfer and looks far better than the earlier disc in both film mastering and digital formatting. Many scenes that appeared blurry or poorly composited (this is an original 3-Strip Technicolor picture) are now crystal clear. This means that the forest of fine wires supporting the fighting machines is now more visible than ever, so we can't have everything. There was no CG wire removal in 1953 and it would be detrimental revisionism to change the picture now -- today's enlightened filmmakers like George Lucas would never do such a thing! So be an adult and learn to live with it.
Paramount has added a number of good extras. The entire 1939 Orson Welles radio show is here ready for Halloween thrills, along with the original trailer that gives only one brief view of a Martian invader. The Sparkhill company provides two featurettes. A making-of reappraisal has the film's assistant director, some videotaped remarks from designer Al Nozaki and input from stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. Robinson appears to have been given a script of facts to recite about the film and does so charmingly; both actors appear in an audio commentary to talk about the picture and discuss their careers at length. Barry seems finally to have realized that this is the picture that's going to make him immortal.
The two best extras begin with a Sparkhill short subject on H.G. Wells that provides a good overview of his life as a science fiction writer. It mostly skips his less successful career as an erratic pundit, free-sex advocate and espouser of socialist and futurist causes. He's contrasted interestingly with Jules Verne and we see hm in some rare newsfilm. A second commentary track is an informative and often very funny teaming of a great trio: Superfan and artifact custodian Bob Burns, Science Fiction film authority Bill Warren and congenial director Joe Dante. Dante has often served as a classy host at Cinematheque screenings and on DVD extras. Bill Warren regales us with little-known facts about the original 1924 Paramount script prepared for Cecil B. DeMille and points up numerous interesting aspects of the film Savant hadn't considered. Leave out the Hardwicke prologue and a wild guess by actor Paul Birch, for instance, and there's no direct reference in the story that the invaders even come from Mars. Dante brings up the influential Classics Illustrated comic book design for the alien tripods, to which Spielberg reverted for his interesting remake. The chrome monsters from the comic were ingrained in Savant's childhood as well; they sent me right to the book The War of the Worlds, which became the first novel I can remember reading.
The trio also points out the film's prodigious host of name bit players, including many that are almost unrecognizable ... Paul Frees, Bill Phipps, Henry Brandon, Jack Kruschen, Edgar Barrier, Russ Bender, Russ Conway, Ralph Dumke, Ned Glass, Carolyn Jones, Alvy Moore and Walter Sande. Elsewhere we're directed to admire an image of Woody Woodpecker in a treetop as a cylinder descends over the National Forest ... Savant must be going blind, for he hasn't found Woody yet, even in a docu grapic that points it out. Maybe the reason I can't see it is because the hanging Munchkin is in the way.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The War of the Worlds rates:
1. La Puente is pictured as practically a wilderness, a last-ditch stopgap at the gates to Los Angeles. A large crowd of extras also watch from the hills, ready to witness the the invaders face a heavenly atomic inferno. The visual suggests a rather weird inversion of The Sermon on the Mount. Today that part of L.A. and San Bernardino County is solid suburbs as far as the eye can see.