The War of the Worlds (Special Collector's Edition) Review

HG Wells would have loved DVD. In the early years of movie-making, when it was still seen as nothing more than a sideshow attraction with no more merit than a waxworks show or a bearded lady, he was one of the few to recognise the importance of film, and to see that it would become as important an art form as the novel or the play. This was an opinion generally derided but he stuck to his guns, particularly lamenting the fact that at that time a movie was only a transient event. “It is one of the misfortunes of the film at the present time,” he wrote in 1935, “that after a release you don’t get a chance of seeing the film. The trouble with films is that they all disappear.” He believed that for a movie to become a classic it had to be constantly accessible, in the same way a book was, and speculated that one day they would be, and that we would be able to keep a movie on a shelf next to our novels and records. Clever chap that Wells.

However, I’m not so sure he would have enjoyed this particular DVD, for two main reasons. Firstly, in later life he had no interest in his original novel, considering the story outdated and unimportant. The issues raised in it, he said, were no longer relevant in the modern world (a rare example of short-sightedness on his part). Others didn't agree. Although it wouldn’t be until 1953 until this first version of the book was produced, there had been several previous attempts to bring it into movie theatres, most notably in the 1920s when, amongst others, Cecil B De Mille considered an adaptation (De Mille finally decided making it would be a virtually impossible task, although he was eventually influential in ensuring the '53 version happened.) So even if Wells had lived to see it, he probably wouldn't have made the trip to the theatre to see it.

Secondly, if he had made the trip, he would have been extremely annoyed at the film's ending, with its coda being the exact opposite of the book’s. Although the Martians are defeated in the same way in both novel and film, the reasoning behind their defeat is attributed to two different sources. (For those few who don’t know how the Martians are defeated, look away now). The reason Wells chose something as simple as bacteria to bring down the mighty aliens was to reflect that the smallest quirks of the natural world can be enough to destroy the most ambitious of Man’s plans: we are all, in effect, hostages to the world we live in and, no matter how technologically advanced we become, we should never forget that we are not masters of our environment and never will be. Ultimately we have no more control over our destiny than a simple ant, and it will be a dangerous path we follow if we forget this, and become arrogant with the power new technology gives us. Pride comes before a fall, Wells warns us, and the more powerful we think we are, the more deadly will be the fall. In this film version, however, the bacteria is there because God put it there, a God who looks after us and protects us and listens when we cry out for help. The climactic scenes see our hero Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) dash through various churches in which terrified people have come to pray while, outside, their world is annihilated by the seemingly unstoppable behemoths of hell… and lo and behold, their prayers are answered and the unbeatable behemoths are beaten in a literally miraculous way. God is good and all powerful, and if you have faith in Him he will look after and protect you from all harm, whether it be Red (devil or Communist) or other-worldly creatures. Wells, a committed atheist and socialist, would have loathed that moral.

But then that’s what happens when you surrender all control of your intellectual property: you never know to what end it will be used. Fate dictated that the first time Wells' Martians should be brought to life would be during the height of Cold War paranoia in the early 1950s, a time when the United States was alive with nervous tension, fuelled by Joseph McCarthy, and the Government wished to encourage all American values of saluting the flag, going to Church and eating Mom's apple pie. Film, in particular science-fiction film, was swiftly becoming a useful propaganda tool in the war for hearts and minds. Despite the fact Hollywood itself was still essentially liberal, it had been hit hard by the McCarthy's assault on its members, and was quite happy to play ball and help along the war effort. The fact that its main weapon was in stories about invaders from Mars was a bit of a surprise: before 1950 sci-fi was seen as little more than trivial nonsense, best left to cheap old-fashioned serials starring Buster Crabbe and lurid periodicals for adolescent thrill-seekers. Where was the worth of silly stories about little green men when you could have gritty stories about the Old West, red-blooded tales for real men who weren’t interested in airy-fairy fantasy about life among the stars? The use of the alien as metaphor for man’s terrors only began to be appreciated in 1950 with the release of Destination Moon by Hungarian producer George Pal, which for the first time gave outer space a realistic sheen. Although adapted from a book aimed at the younger market (Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein) it treated its subject matter with the appropriate amount of seriousness and won an Oscar for Pal while, more importantly, it presented a battle with the Soviet Union in outer space. The metaphor was swiftly developed in such famous titles as The Thing From Another World (1951) and Invaders from Mars (1953), although the message wasn’t always so right wing: ripostes were to be found in such titles as The Day The Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space. However, the metaphor of Alien as Red was such an easy and attractive one to make, it’s unsurprising that a majority of films from this period featured invaders who weren’t interested in making new friends so much as conquering new worlds for their own nefarious ends. So it was with War of the Worlds, which was finally brought to the screen by none other than George Pal, who since Destination Moon had joined Paramount and made the classic When Worlds Collide in 1951.

Pal’s film is not as bad as some of the more blatant propaganda efforts. The US military get completely slaughtered, shown to be utterly ineffectual against the Martians’ onslaught. Even the fearsome Atomic Bomb couldn’t stop these marauders, who emerge unscathed from the supposedly terminal blast, quite an avante-garde thing to suggest. (A-Bomb imagery was also used for those who fall victim to the Heat-Ray itself, who become little more than silhouettes of ash on the ground, similar to the afterimage of an A-Bomb explosion). But common decency still wins out in the end, good old fashioned US values. If you say your prayers, look after your loved ones and don’t give in, you’ve still got a pretty good chance of getting through. When the first meteorite lands in the town of Linda Ross in California, where much of the action takes place, it is only the avaricious locals who see it as a money-spinner who are struck down. “We should put out picnic tables,” one of them suggest. “No,” another one replies, “then they will bring their own food (and not buy ours.)” Less than five minutes later: ZAP! They’re a pile of ashes on the floor. (It doesn’t help they waved a white flag at the thing either: you’d never see John Wayne waving a white flag at a tribe of Comanche). True, the town’s pastor also gets heat-rayed when he goes out to try and parley with the invaders (although, to be fair, if I was visiting somewhere and someone came and started quoting biblical passages at me I’d either want to run away or suggest they stop before I get cross) but that is only to show that you can’t parley with the devil: these things are unreasonable, purely evil, and can’t be bargained with (you listening there in Moscow, Mr Stalin?) and it’s sheer folly to try. “No one’s tried reasoning with them!” the pastor exclaims shortly before going to his doom. Well, no, there’s no point, is there? If Satan popped up and started making trouble in your local town square, you’re not exactly going to be able to reason with the fellow are you? This is not a movie for those who want to make love and not war.

That said, if one throws subtext aside, it’s also rollickingly entertaining, with one of the main attractions being the sumptuous production values. This is a minor miracle (no pun intended) as there were numerous budgetary problems pre-production, mainly due to the fact that the commissioning VP of Paramount Don Hartman thought it was a pile of rubbish (literally throwing the screenplay into his bin at one point). Indeed, the film was only greenlit at all when De Mille, who at that point didn’t have the slightest interest in making the film himself but was still keen to see it on screen, persuaded Hartman to give it a go. To get around the limitations of the relatively small budget of $1.2 million allocated to it, Pal employed all the regular tricks in the book: reversing shots to use them twice, multiple re-dressings of sets and so on, even cheekily at one point borrowing extras from another film, Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17. (although no stock footage was used, as the film was in colour: ironically for years afterwards it itself would be veritable goldmine for other films wanting to borrow shots). This canny producer knew exactly where the money should go: on the Martians themselves and their fearsome machines. From the very first moment when the initial eye emerges from the smouldering meteorite you know you’re in for a treat. The smooth elliptical design of the war machines, infused with a glowing green luminescence, are both strange and wondrous to behold. Dispassionate and cold, despite the warmth of the green and the Heat-Ray, they are the embodiment of the faceless, emotionless enemy. These are vehicles quite evidently designed on another world, functionality fused with ruthlessness fused with deadly efficiency, an aerodynamic terror that hovers in the sky as though it weighs no more than a feather and which glides through the air towards you with the same deadly intent as a killer shark who has scented fresh blood in the water. These are weapons of mass destruction with a strange, ethereal beauty to them, bewitching to watch even as they bare down on you to strike: its victims become the deer trapped in the headlights of the car that it knows will kill it but cannot move anyway, having a hypnotic deadliness that enthrals then executes. Designed by Al Nozaki, they are the very epitome of all that is most dangerous about the alien invader, and it's little surprise they became icons (even if they're not tripods). Although on close-ups in this new DVD transfer we can espy the strings that, in the real world, help these craft to hover, in the film itself it matters not one jot: the viewer filters them out.

But the Machines could be the most wonderful things in the world, but if they don't have a suitably realistic environment to move around in they are not worth a hill of beans. Fortunately, the model work is superlative when these machines invade the city you believe it, and while the crash into the farmhouse is obviously not life-size, it is nonetheless a thrilling moment. When the Machines enter the city in the film's climax, the level of detail in the buildings ensures their destruction has a proper resonance: one doesn't feel these great structures being cruelly brought down are anything other than the real thing. Even the Martians themselves, glimpsed in full only once in a wonderfully teasing moment, look good and subtly detailed: watch the moment Robinson gets a tap on the shoulder from the thing, or the pulsing veins of the creature as it dies at the end.

Director Byron Haskin (who had already made another definitive version of a classic novel in Treasure Island three years earlier) handles the action with aplomb, helped along by Leith Stevens suitably epic orchestral score. Although by today's standards the film is leisurely paced, it is never dull and manages to build up the tension nicely. He handles the bigger scenes particularly well, whether it be the hysterical crowds in the city streets, the grave demeanour of those in the church, or the army swiftly falling apart in the face of an implacable foe.

His main visual advantage is the way he saturates the film with colour. Relatively speaking, colour films were still in their infancy, and the look of the movie now is very vivid and in your face, yet works perfectly. The three colours of the alien camera, the subtle red heat given off by both the pulsating meteor and then, later, the glimpses inside one of the war machines, the white-hot intensity of the Heat-Ray itself and the deadly green glow as another victim falls prey to its force, all combine to give the film an exciting and immediate quality. (On a side note, it's interesting to note that initially Pal wanted to film the last third of the film, from the moment the A-Bomb goes off, in 3D, which would have resulted in even more primary colours dotted around.) We even get to see the world the way a Martian sees it, a symbolic moment when we see its dull distortion of the real world’s palette, a blatant nod to the fact we will never see matters in the same way as they do. There is also an excellent job done of switching between outdoor locations and their soundstage equivalent. Although at no time could the viewer ever mistake one for the other, the look of both match exactly, making suspension of disbelief all the easier: grass matches grass, sky matches sky while even the light feels the same, ensuring that a scene in which we first see troops haring along a real road and then entering the set with the meteorite feels like a smooth progression rather than a sudden jump. It might have been early days for Technicolor, but this film was a good argument for its eventual success.

In any film which has impressive SFX there is the criticism that the actors can’t live up the spectacle, and here it’s very true, with the two leads – Barry and Ann Robinson – distinctly unmemorable, albeit partially intentionally so. Barry, in only his third film role, plays a scientist who achieves absolutely nothing when he tries to help stop the Martian menace, the character essentially the same everyman who narrates the Wells novel (although at least the film’s version gets a name).It’s a typical anodyne leading man role of the time, the hero not expected to do much but react to events around him and attract the leading lady, and the script (by Barre Lyndon, who had just won an Oscar for The Greatest Show on Earth) does little to help to inject his part with anything approaching a three-dimensional character. Robinson, in her first lead, is similarly bland, again being blessed with a dull character whose main role is to go into hysterics whenever something happens (women, eh? Simple, emotional creatures who belong in the kitchen with a pinafore cooking dinner for little Jimmy). That said, they carry the film well enough, but you’ll be hard pressed to remember either of them a week after watching it. They are supported by a collection of regular character actors who are much more fun to watch, among them Les Tremayne and Robert Cornthwaite, who had also appeared in The Thing From Another World.

Ultimately, how one reacts to the film depends on what baggage is brought to its viewing. Taken at its surface level, it’s a cracking romp, an iconic rendering of the classic novel and, for many years, the definitive alien invasion film. Superb effects and design, together with a gripping plot, ensured it kept audiences on the edge of their seats over fifty years ago, and still manages to be a thoroughly entertaining hour and a half now, one of the greats of 1950s creature feature cinema. However, as soon as you introduce politics into the equation, things become less easy, but, as mentioned above, it’s not as difficult for the more liberal viewer as other on-the-nose entries into the genre. It’s not a great adaptation of the novel (not a single tripod is to be seen, and England, the setting of the book, only gets a brief look in) but as a film it works supremely well. Of course, the conservative message it ultimately puts out is not dissimilar to the one the United States seems enthralled by again today, remarkable for a piece of cinema over half a century old but which does give viewing a slightly uncomfortable edge. What goes around comes around, it seems, and just as Wells was mistaken in his belief that his book no longer had any relevance, so it is with this film. The War of the Worlds is not yet over, and won’t be for a very long time, ensuring that the film (and the book) remain timeless: in other words, based on Wells’ own definition, a classic, and now one you can now watch from your very own home.

Maybe HG would have approved of this DVD after all.

The Disk
The film is presented on one single-sided dual-layered disk. The disk is housed in an attractive fold-out box illustrated with lurid art-work and stills from the movie itself, while the box is housed in a slipcase which is similarly well-designed. The film also comes with a twelve-page booklet detailing the film's background and production, one which is extremely well researched and written and is well worth a read.

On putting the disk in, you are first presented with a language option screen (fortunately only one page, unlike some other recent high-profile titles I could name). Those with a nervous disposition should beware as, once you have made your selection a voice suddenly yells out "War of the Worlds!" in case you'd forgotten what disk you'd just put in. The main menu is a nicely designed animatic of the soldiers hiding from a group of Machines which move around the screen, presumably searching for them, playing over an extract of the film's score. The four options present are: Play, Set Up (for audio and subtitle options), Special Features and Scene Selection. All submenus are static and silent but illustrated in a similar way to the main menu. The film itself and most of the extras are subtitled (including the commentaries, in three different languages), with only the Orson Welles play and trailer missing them.

In all, the contents are exactly same as the Region One release (reviewed here) but with different packaging.

A beautiful new transfer which is a joy to watch. The exaggerated palate brings out the colours vividly and clearly, making the film a technicolour treat to savour. Admittedly on odd occasions the colours blend but this is rare and shouldn't detract from the pleasure of the viewing experience. The film was originally shot with an intentionally softer focus than normal, which results now detail being lost for objects and faces at a distance (see the screenshot of Barry and Robinson running from the house for an example) but aside from that no problems or artefacts at all, while you'll be straining to see much grain (aside from the location shots). Very nice.

The audio is pleasingly remastered but doesn't escape a slight muffling in the dialogue at times, standard for films of this vintage, accompanied by a crackling during the (rare) quiet moments. The music comes across suitably dramatically though and the sound effects, which are so important, come across nice and clearly with the exception of explosions which are a little muffled, again in line with how the technology at the time was originally recorded.


Commentary by actors Ann Robinson and Gene Barry
It’s great that these two are still around to do a commentary like this. That said, Gene Barry shows his age – his voice is worn and he doesn’t contribute much at all: occasionally he’ll say something, often incoherently, and then seem to fall asleep again. This leaves Robinson to carry the track, which she manages to do. It’s evident from the well-worn feeling these reminiscences have that she had spent much of her life talking about the film, as she is fairly fluent with what she says and can name all the other actors who pop up and reel off a few of their credits. That said, there’s a lack of actual detail about shooting the film beyond the superficial: we don’t hear much about Pal, and nothing about working with the effects. Instead, we get plenty of admiration for the film, how it’s lasted, and how good it all is, which is genial enough, just not especially revealing. A pleasant doze of a commentary, it’s a bit like listening to your grandparents recalling far off days.

Commentary by Joe Dante, Bob Burns and Bill Warren
A better commentary, this sees director Dante, film historian Burns and author Warren (who wrote Keep Watching the Skies! one of the best guides to 50's Science Fiction movies you could ever hope to read) exchange stories about the making of the film and those involved. Works as both an informative track in its own right and also an appreciation of this film, this is a conversation between three enthusiasts which is very enjoyable to listen to.

The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds (29:59)
Excellent documentary with contributions from those from the production still alive and modern historians. Covering the complete production, from the initial battle to secure the rights straight through to the fact there was no premiere, in between covering everything you could think of, with useful and relevant contributions from all. Particularly interesting is the appearance of Ray Harryhausen who details what he would have done had he got the chance to make the film, complete with the test footage he shot of the alien (looks good, but shows far too much: the film’s approach works better).

HG Wells: The Father of Science Fiction (10:28)
Bullet-point-like featurette that skims all the major aspects of Wells’s career without going into any detail. Features contributions from Nicholas Meyer (who, of course, directed Time After Time the film which pitted Wells against Jack the Ripper), the editor of the HG Wells Society’s magazine The Wellsian, and some chap calling himself Mr Sci-Fi – surely a more appropriate title for the author himself? Okay as an introduction to the important points of the author's life.

The Mercury Theatre On The Air Presents The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
The complete, infamous, 1938 radio adaptation by Orson Welles that sent most of the Eastern Seaboard of the US into a panic believing the Martians were invading for real (quite why, considering there are several reminders during the play's length that it is just a play, I've never been able to work out). Obviously excellent, although it's always been my opinion that to appreciate just how good this is you have to listen to a lot of other OTR shows to see just how ground-breaking this particular drama was. The sound quality on this disk is just as crackly as my old copy.

Theatrical Trailer (2:20)
“The biggest story that could ever happen to our world,” proclaims the beginning of this trailer which gives away quite a lot of the money shots but, in doing so, gives a very good impression of the film as a whole.

Oh, if only all DVDs could be like this one. A classic film gets a superb new transfer and an excellent bunch of extras. Obviously put together with much love and attention by all involved, it's difficult to imagine what else could have been put on the disk - there aren't that many, but what there is is close to perfect. Very good indeed.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:12:25

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