The War of the Worlds (Special Collector's Edition) Review
In a gentle, southern Californian town, the locals are going about their business as usual when a meteor strikes out in the countryside. Sensing that they may have a business opportunity on their hands, they post a couple of men to look after it while they call in the police and a few university professors who're enjoying a fishing holiday up in the mountains. When one of the professors, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), arrives at the crash site, he notes that the meteor is not only radioactive but that the impact should have been much greater, suggesting that it is hollow. As he decides to remain in town for a few days to study the meteor, he is accompanied to a square dance in the town hall that night by Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) but the night's entertainment has not long started when the lights, phones and electricity all cut out.
Out at the crash site, though, something in the meteor is moving and it appears as though a hatch is being unscrewed open. As the three men posted at the site for that night come closer, waving their white flags as they do so, something fires on them that disintegrates them, leaving only piles of ash on the ground. As Forrester, Van Buren and others from the town arrive at the site, they find that a flying object has appeared out of the meteor and is using a heat ray to destroy everything in its path. Forrester calls in the army but they too find that nothing, not even the greatest firepower possessed by the armed forces, can stop the aliens, who soon being attacking the major cities of the Earth. As buildings lie in ruins, Forrester and his university colleagues consider options other than brute force but will they find a means to destroy the aliens in time or will the Martians become masters of the Earth...
It is probably a damning indictment of popular culture that, until but a few minutes ago, I didn't own a copy of the original HG Wells novel on which this is based. This film I have seen numerous times and as well as the DVD of this release being with me now, a copy of the 2005 version of The War Of The Worlds should be coming my way. I also own a copy of Jeff Wayne's musical War Of The Worlds and Orson Welles' 1938 radio production but not the novel. At least not until very recently and, even then, I have the very wonderful Gutenberg Project to thank rather than my local bookseller.
Now, though, I do rather wish that I had read the book sooner as this is a superb film and it's only on coming away from it that I remember The War Of The Worlds ought to have been on my reading list, much like the mental notes I used to make during the watching of the James Bond films before I actually bought the entire set of Fleming books. Of course, the book is set in the English countryside but The War Of The Worlds works as a generic text on which society can paint its current fears. In the 2005 adaptation - I'm rather loathe to call it a remake given that both it and this look back to a 1898 novel - there is even mention of terrorists whereas the 1938 radio adaptation was a study in how America might react when the news of an alien invasion was filtered in between the light jazz of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. Welles had his cast listen to recordings of the news of the Hindenburg disaster to get the right effect and by setting it in the all-American Grover's Mill, New Jersey rather than Horsell Common in Surrey, gave it a homegrown, aliens-on-the-doorstep feel that caused the local population to panic. Granted the extent to which Americans fled their homes and cities has doubtless been exaggerated over the years but some did indeed head for Grover's Mill armed with rifles and sidearms with which to repel the Martian invasion.
For this 1953 film, made eight years after the end of the Second World War, which had left much of Europe devastated, the principal concerns are those of military might and of faith but, unlike more recent American politics, they remain at some length from one another, divided by a certain optimism becoming a deepening feeling of an approaching apocalypse. As the film opens, and before a brief introduction that reveals Mars as the source of what is to follow, the newsreel footage suggests that the warfare that almost levelled much of Europe will be as nothing compared to a war that will determine the future of mankind. And so it follows that when the military are called in to the crash site, following mankind's first casualties - the three flag-waving Californians - they work on the notion of using an ever-increasing amount of firepower with which to destroy the invaders. Of course, this being The War Of The Worlds, this approach is only notable by its complete failure and despite Forrester realising that the aliens are defending themselves with a electromagnetic shield, which appears like a bell jar, the military continue their usage of weaponry to repel the aliens. Eventually, the gathered forces launch everything they have across the Californian valley towards the aliens following the death of the local minister, Sylvia's uncle Matthew (Lewis Martin) who walks to a certain death while quoting Psalm 23, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil" but it is to no avail and with the aliens destroying everything, Forrester and the military command retreat to rethink their strategy.
So soon after the end of the Second World War, this might have been seen as a defeatist critique of the American armed forces, which would have been hugely controversial after their comprehensive defeat of the Axis armies alongside their British and Russian allies. Similarly, the pessimistic view of the typical American, who panics and riots in the streets - the rousing voiceover by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, however, praises the bulldog spirit of the occupants of the British Isles - does not appear to be one that would endear the film to the greater public. And yet, despite all of this, no one in authority is shown in a poor light with the military, despite their defeats, obviously being best placed to organise the evacuation of entire cities. Their doggedness in not allowing themselves to be defeated in spite of the ineffectiveness of the atomic bomb, which was, and remains, the ultimate weapon, is altogether flattering but in terms of the sheer size of the battle - the war of the worlds, no less - there can be no alternative but to turn to a higher power in search of salvation.
The film, then, flirts with the possibility of science providing a solution but, eventually and thanks to the hands of a street full of looters, this is swiftly passed over. At its most pessimistic, when the looters leave Mitch for dead in the street, The War Of The Worlds makes a good companion piece for the British film The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961), which took an equally dim view of ever more powerful weaponry. In that film, though, the action faded out with two headlines having been prepared for the next day's edition of the Daily News but The War Of The Worlds resolves itself, initially with religion and, subsequently, with a quirk of Earth's evolution. If that makes the scenes within the churches sound somewhat redundant then it shouldn't for they're amongst the most powerful in the film and amongst Hollywood's best depictions of a world in which there appears to be no hope. Where the makers of The War Of The Worlds could have left the churches intact, they don't and a minister conducts a service with his place of worship falling about him and those who've gathered with him.
In all of those scenes, The War Of The Worlds is a powerful and rewarding film with enough suspense and emotional punch to justify its reputation. However, the film is most famous for its stunning special effects, which look impressive even now. Granted, the use of Technicolor helps the film no end with the rich colours giving the southern Californian sunsets a natural beauty as well as the aliens a terrifying intensity. But even some fifty years on, there is little about the film that's aged badly and even though the impressively clear image on this DVD reveals the guide wires holding the alien ships aloft, that's but a minor point against a film that still looks awfully impressive.
But it's not the effects, good though they are, that make The War Of The Worlds such a wonderful film. Nor is it the military action, the sense of desperation or the search for hope within religion. Instead, it's the pacing of the film that works best with director Byron Haskin and producer George Pal prepared to let The War Of The Worlds rest between the action set pieces. Their following the military's attack on the aliens with Forrester and Sylvia hiding out in a farmhouse whilst meteors land nearby and aliens hide in the shadows outside should be considered a textbook example of how to seamlessly mix action and suspense without ever losing the interest of the audience.
Come its release date, we will be taking a look at the DVD release of the 2005 adaptation of The War Of The Worlds - you can, of course, read Gary Couzens' cinema review here - but, in the meantime, I thoroughly recommend two things. Firstly, this DVD, which is a superb presentation of a wonderful science-fiction film and, secondly, a trip to the Gutenberg Project, where a search for HG Wells will reward you with a plain text copy of The War Of The Worlds. Enjoy both and whilst you savour all things Martian, you could do worse than listen to Jeff Wayne as you do so.
Universal describe this as a Special Collector's Edition and whilst could be the usual flimflam by a distributor, they are really not far wrong. The picture quality is quite stunning and the film looks better than I can remember with the restoration providing a sharpness and a richness to the colours that is simply exceptional. Indeed, so clear is the picture that the strings holding up the alien vessels are now plainly visible but rather that than having them eliminated through software algorithms or so blurry an image as to disguise them. Otherwise, there is some bleeding of the rich colours within the Martian death rays but with The War Of The Worlds being filmed in rich Technicolor, avoiding this may have been tortuous.
The English audio track is presented in its original Mono as well as having been remixed into 2.0 Surround and whilst it may seem churlish to say so, they needn't have done so. The Mono soundtrack just sounds so much more natural than the remixed Surround track and was my first choice, only comparing the two later on. The main fault with the surround soundtrack is that it just sounds like a gimmick, like many 5.1 remixes, and there really is nothing wrong with the mono track at all, leading to the question of why bother to fix it? This aside, it's an excellent audio track with it being a good source for the alien sound effects with good range and clarity.
Cast Commentary: Gene Barry and Anne Robinson, who's long kept the flame lit for this film, have been recorded together for this commentary although, at times you may doubt it. Robinson only lets a few scenes pass without comment but Barry frequently says very little, content to either let his colleague do most of the talking or simply to enjoy the film. Their commentary, unlike the one that follows, will be of interest to those who want to know what was happening each day on the set and, in that sense, Robinson and Barry do not disappoint. They aren't, however, the most detached or critical of contributors but they would be atypical if they were given that few cast commentaries are.
Historical Commentary: Joe Dante is quite infuriating given that his appearance here confirms what I'd often thought of him - a genuine fan of films such as this one who has an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of them. It's such a shame, therefore, that he has not recently produced anything as good as his early Gremlins, The Howling, Rock 'n' Roll High School and Piranha. He's on here with film historian Bob Burns and Bill Warren, author of Keep Watching The Skies, a study of American science fiction films of the fifties, and they've recorded a chatty, informal commentary that's both heavy on the history of the production and the original novel as well as gently humourous. Dante, in particular, keeps it ticking along quite nicely and it's among the better commentaries that have been recorded for films of this era, which, admittedly, tend to enjoy bare-bones releases on DVD.
The Sky Is Falling (29m57s): This making-of interviews many of those still alive - Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, for example - as well as archive footage of an interview conducted with Art Director Al Nozaki, to present a fairly complete picture of how The War Of The Worlds was produced. It's not a particularly long documentary but it covers much in its short running time, including the appearance of Woody Woodpecker in the film, Ray Harryhausen's early test footage and Bob Burns showing off an alien craft.
HG Wells - The Father of Science Fiction (10m28s): Featuring Nicholas Meyer, director of The Wrath of Khan, and Forrest J Ackerman (Famous Monsters of Filmland, although he is billed here as Mr Sci Fi), this is a short overview of the life of Welles and his impact on popular culture as well as the more niche genre of science-fiction. The most interesting aspect of the documentary is in hearing how Welles was feted by world leaders and how he was put on the Most Wanted list of Britons by the Nazis, which would have resulted in his execution had they succeeded in their invasion of Britain.
The War Of The Worlds (1938) Radio Broadcast (59m17s): We may laugh at the idea of Americans falling victim to what Welles described as, "the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying boo" but we needn't laugh too hard. After all, Ghostwatch, the modern, British equivalent of The War Of The Worlds radio broadcast was only produced by the BBC in 1992, which caused a similar amount of controversy and post-broadcast hand-wringing. It's easy to see how the public might have been taken in by this radio broadcast as it is an enormously effective piece of radio, particularly when Welles breathlessly states, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed... Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow top."
It would have been good, though, to have had this recording placed in some sort of context and to explain that many people were taken in by it because they hadn't been listening to CBS when the warnings about the nature of the radio play were given. For examples, it is thought that many listeners retuned their radios during the popular Edgar Bergen show, which was running on a neighbouring radio channel, and only heard the news broadcasts. Equally, the general lack of telephones prevented the spread of information from Grover's Mill other than what the Mercury Theatre company was broadcasting. We may laugh but in more technologically advanced times, many of us fell for Ghostwatch and that was also in spite of warnings and a cast list in the Radio Times. Let's not congratulate ourselves too quickly on our lack of gullibility.
Original Theatrical Trailer (2m20s): It doesn't quite promise screaming terror but what it does promise, it does so loudly. This trailer for The War Of The Worlds is very much of its time but still entertaining enough.
In the fifty-two years that have passed between the making of this film and now, much has changed in American politics. As has already been mentioned, the military and the church are closer together than they were then - although censured, Gen. William Boykin described the war on terror as a Christian battle against Satan - whilst evolution, something that Wells was a firm supporter of, is being shooed out of the US education system in an increasing number of schools by a Intelligent Design or, more simply, creationism. Indeed, Wells intended The War Of The Worlds as a story of the struggle for survival inherent within the theory of evolution.
In terms of its remarkable special effects and in its neatly potted views, The War Of The Worlds offered us a glimpse of a brave new world that lay in wait, in which faith, science and the particular quirks of Earth's development all contributed in their own, unique ways to the defeat of the Martians. And what did time reward us with? Independence Day, a virtual remake of this, down to some of the key shots in the film, but with an implausible resolution involving an Apple Mac and Randy Quaid's alcoholic veteran. This, though, is a marvellous film - hugely entertaining with a spectacle of effects and a story that, although dated in terms of the roles of men and women, is wonderfully succinct. With a superb transfer and a great selection of extras, this is one of my favourite archive releases of the year and is one that I'll certainly be coming back to again.