The War of the Worlds: Special Collector's Edition (1953)
More than 50 years before Steven Spielberg gave H.G. Wells' Victorian novel The War of the Worlds a loud 2005 interpretation, producer-as-auteur George Pal gave the material his own update spin, scoring big with an A-list actioner that became Paramount's must-see thriller of 1953. For his Martian sturm und drang, Pal shifted the action to Atomic Age California, bringing the monstrous "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" up against the post-war era's as Paul Frees' baronial narration puts it "terrible weapons of super-science." For a movie that already succeeded in scaring the Grape Nehi out of every ten-year-old in the audience, how disquieting it must have been for the Cold War-agitated grownups to witness U.S. might, tanks and A-bombs alike, brushed away helpless as the Martians' "skeleton rays" destroy world capitals and give all America the Dresden treatment. They watched L.A. get pummeled and refugees by the thousands flee the sinister, graceful, cobra-headed war machines. These attackers' stance on interplanetary relations trumped the previous invasion by the lone marauder in The Thing from Another World, and rendered moot Klaatu's preemptive finger-wagging about our WMDs in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Today Pal's version endures as one of the most favored and muscular of the 1950s science fiction spectacles.
Pal stamped his personality on each of his films. His adaptations of literary sources display Pal's hands in the clay more than the original authors'. In this case, at least, that suited the film just fine. The smart script (by Wells enthusiast Barré Lyndon) never talks down to the audience or treats the material as merely kids' matinee fare. When Gene Barry (as scientist Clayton Forrester) and 18-year-old Ann Robinson (as his librarian-in-distress) get trapped together in a farmhouse, their torpid romance scene pays off with a close encounter and a mushroom-body Martian running away shrieking and waving its arms like a little girl. The Oscar-winning visual effects, supported by sound effects that have since become stock standards, were state-of-the-art, and they still impress us today even when modern prints reveal the wires suspending the Martian juggernauts. The richly saturated three-strip Technicolor, restored to its vibrancy for this DVD, probably caused the entire nation to stop dreaming in black-and-white. Director Byron Haskin kept "the rout of civilization and the massacre of mankind" galloping forward at a stylish clip. Pal's fingerprints are awkward only at the conclusion. When the Martians face defeat by "the littlest things which God in His wisdom had put on the Earth," what Wells the atheist wrote in irony Pal the devout Catholic literalized with Sunday-school piousness. We wince and Wells would scowl, but give Pal's deus ex bacteria credit for prodding the evolution-vs.-"intelligent design" rhubarb two generations early.
Speaking of Barry and Robinson, Joe Dante (in one of the two very good audio commentary tracks on this disc) notes that when Paramount's marketing department advertised the film they didn't even mention that it had a cast. But the scientist and the redhead on the run ably occupy the boy-meets-girl melodrama Paramount forced Pal to shoehorn into his apocalypse. Ann Robinson's emoting, Max Factor'd screamer is one of the less appealing love interests of the decade, and Barry's likable, hero-jawed professor brings the film quiveringly close to self-parody. A pilot who remains Time magazine handsome even in horn-rims, he's the can-do, outdoorsy celebrity-genius every "top man in astro and nuclear physics" fantasizes he could be. Yet despite his "Pacific Tech" creds and his gardyloo about neutralized mesons, it's a sobering twist to see that even he can't save the world with a stroke of that super-science, like Hugh Marlowe's anti-saucer ray in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Although Barry punches his way through the sometimes gigglesome dialogue like a trouper, because Lee Marvin had been considered for the role we can wonder how movie history might have turned on that casting choice.
And speaking of alternate histories, Pal and Spielberg weren't the first big-shot talents to take a cinematic interest in Wells' interplanetary blitzkrieg. In the 1920s a version slated for Cecil B. DeMille resulted in an interesting, albeit unproduced, screenplay. In the '30s Alfred Hitchcock approached Wells directly about securing the novel's movie rights. But Hitchcock wasn't with Paramount, who owned the rights. The studio ultimately archived five unproduced WOTW scripts over the years. They even offered Sergei Eisenstein the job when the great Russian director was briefly working in the U.S. Finally, in '51 it was Pal's friend and fellow Paramount director DeMille who handed Pal then completing another erstwhile DeMille could-have-been, When Worlds Collide the book's movie rights. Grouping Pal with DeMille, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, and Spielberg doesn't happen often; nonetheless, the Wells estate was so satisfied with his treatment of The War of the Worlds that they offered him his choice of any other Wells property. Pal chose The Time Machine, which arrived the same year Hitchcock delivered Psycho. A timeline in which Hitchcock had, thanks to Wells, instead become Hollywood's first master of science fiction, thereby putting Cary Grant in the Tom Cruise role, bears thinking about.
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Compared to the 1999 DVD edition, Paramount's "Special Collector's Edition" is superior in every way except the box art. The source print is flawless, definition and clarity are excellent, and that vivid Technicolor knocks our socks off. While this new transfer reveals the wires supporting the Martian attack force more than before, we're grateful that nobody "fixed" the film by CGIing them out of the picture. Along with the DD 2.0 monaural audio, a new and seriously good DD 2.0 stereo surround track gives the audio enough dynamic range and soundspread gusto to take forty years off its age.
The menu of extras kicks off with two enjoyable commentary tracks. The first features charming and loquacious Ann Robinson, with Gene Barry barely even trying to get a word in edgewise, reminiscing about the production, Pal, their careers, and yesteryear Hollywood. Robinson, now 70, is a chatty encyclopedia of trivia and anecdotes. She's also the bawdy one, as when she points out her "radioactive" breast or observes that her line "I could ball my head off!" now carries connotations that were unspeakable in '53.
The second commentary brings together three fan-pros we'd want joining us at a drinking spot Joe Dante (director, authoritative enthusiast), Bob Burns (genre film historian, obtainer of rare antiquities), and Bill Warren (author of Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties). Their lively commentary annotates every scene, pointing out filmcraft details, offering backgrounders on the cast and crew, and being infectiously fanboyish.
Further production history with first-hand accounts comes in a new making-of featurette, "The Sky is Falling: The Making of War of the Worlds" (30 mins.), which includes Ray Harryhausen's portfolio footage of his own Martian octopoid emerging from its cylinder.
In "H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction" (10 mins.), author-director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time), Forrest J. Ackerman, and others (including archival footage of Wells himself) give the author his due.
Of course the original theatrical trailer is here, remastered admirably.
And we get yet another edition of Orson Welles' famous Mercury Theatre radio adaptation, the hour-long broadcast that on Halloween 1938 gave a timorous America the freaking fantods. It's illustrated with studio stills, though while it plays we aren't allowed to fast-forward, chapter-skip, or rewind to favorite scenes. While it's welcome marginalia, what about the 1955 Lux Radio Theater version of the movie starring Dana Andrews as Forrester and Pat Crowley as Sylvia? Maybe next time. Keep-case.