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Battle of the Worlds

by Glenn Erickson Jul 26, 2022

Antonio Margheriti made several space epics about ‘errant planets’ posing dangers to Earth; this one gets all the attention via star casting. Claude Rains’ bombastic but brilliant scientist advises space command to blow up the planetoid, and then chooses attack day to go see its interior for himself. Toy rockets, overripe dialogue and thunderous acting from Rains ensue, leading to a finale in an ‘alien brain cave’ made of colored plastic tubes. This critical ‘triumph of the imagination’ indeed makes something entertaining out of very, very little. The presentation includes a half-hour docu hosted by Tim Lucas, a graduate class listed as ‘Italo Space Intro 101.’


Battle of the Worlds
Blu-ray
The Film Detective
1962 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 84 min. / Street Date August 9, 2022 / Il pianeta degli uomini spenti / Available from The Film Detective
Starring: Claude Rains, Bill Carter, Umberto Orsini, Maya Brent, Jacqueline Derval, Renzo Palmer, Carlo d’Angelo, Carol Danell, Jim Dolen, Joe Pollini, John Stacy, Aldo D’Ambrosio, Massimo Righi, Giuliano Gemma, Annamaria Mustari, John Karlsen.
Cinematography: Marcello Maciocchi
Production Designer: Giorgio Giovanni
Art Director: Umberto Cesarano
Film Editor: Jorge Serrallonga
Original Music: Mario Migliari
Written by Vassilij Petrov (Ennio De Concini)
Produced by ?
Directed by
Anthony Dawson (Antonio Margheriti)

Forrest J. Ackerman told us that Italians were crazy about science fiction and sci-fi movies — he occasionally posted covers of fantascienza magazines like Urania. Italy doesn’t appear to have jumped on the sci-fi space trend until the Paolo Heusch/Mario Bava La morte viene dallo spazio, aka The Day the Sky Exploded, 1958.  After the Cold War space race began in earnest, Italy added a few Space Opera movies to the European output from the Soviets and East Germany.

Hollywood by and large had ceased making space fantasies long before the public got caught up in real Mercury missions televised live on the networks. Filling the genre gap for Italian fans, screenwriter-director Antonio Margheriti got behind a string of ambitious space adventures. Margheriti signed many of his pictures with the Anglicized name Anthony Dawson, to make Italian audiences think they were seeing American or English product. In the U.S. we’ve yet to see original Italian versions of any of Margheriti’s five films set in outer space. *

As a teenaged space fan, I would have done my best to attend matinees of movies called Assignment: Outer Space (Space-Men, 1960), Battle of the Worlds (Il pianeta degli uomini spenti, 1961) The Wild, Wild Planet (I criminali della galassia, 1966), The War of the Planets (I diafanoidi vengono da Marte, 1966), War Between the Planets (Il pianeta errante, 1966) and Snow Devils (La morte viene dal pianeta Aytin, 1966). Most never appeared, and only a few showed up on Television, often under alternate titles.

Assignment: Outer Space and Battle of the Worlds carry no producer credit but were distributed in Italy in Technicolor. Their credited screenwriter is the well-known and respected Ennio de Concini. The characters and story progression are his, but apparently a George Higgins III did the curious English dialogue script, which is no gem.

Battle of the Worlds does score points for imagination. A Wylie-Balmer — like astral body dubbed ‘The Outsider’ has entered the solar system on a collision course with Earth; some spaceships are lost when The Outsider’s gravitation causes a Martian moon to shift its orbit [… identical scenes occur in the next year’s Gorath from Toho]. A permanent base on Mars relays news of The Outsider. At the key Earth science station on a sunny Mediterranean isle, the staff must contend with their genius-in-residence Professor Benson (Claude Rains), an eccentric, egotistical hermit who refuses to communicate as a normal colleague. Benson writes his formulas on his greenhouse flower pots. He was already aware of The Outsider but kept the news to himself; he now decides that it will miss the Earth by 95,000 miles. The politicians ignore Benson until he’s proved right. They then ignore him again when he says The Outsider, which has taken up an orbit around our planet, needs to be destroyed immediately.

Some spaceships sent to investigate are vaporized by flying saucers dispatched by The Outsider, which is now revealed as a roving battle base come to conquer Earth. As Earth prepares to indeed attack The Outsider, Dr. Benson insists that he must be allowed to explore its interior. A last-minute spaceflight is undertaken in the middle of the countdown to the attack. Benson discovers that the aliens in the planetoid are all dead — the invasion was carried out automatically, by programming left behind.

Invaded by extinct aliens, eh?   Overreaching, arrogant aliens destroyed their own civilizations in the previous ’50s sci-fi pictures Rocketship X-M,  Forbidden Planet and Der Schweigende Stern. This movie’s ideas may not be original but they do build on what’s gone before.

Snagging an actor of the caliber of Claude Rains put Battle of the Worlds on the map; his presence also nudges Margheriti to do better work in Professor Benson’s many dialogue scenes. Spinning a variation on his Prof. Challenger in the previous year’s The Lost World remake, Rains attacks the talky script with a lot of energy. The character is overplayed, but always fun. Rains becomes a dramatic anchor for the other actors, who clearly upped their games to play opposite the screen legend.

When we think of Claude Rains we immediately remember great dialogue scenes, beautifully performed. There is no memorable dialogue in Battle of the Worlds so Rains delivers what he’s given as if it were great. The other actors either prattle on with tech-talk, or try to get some sincerity into the crude emotional declarations in the romantic subplots. Almost everything in the English-language script is stilted, leaving the occasional sophisticated concept buried in a dialogue throwaway. At times we can’t tell if the writers intended the dialogues to be funny. The faux- technical jargon consists of meaningless non-sequiturs, while most of the light banter falls with a thud. Some reviewers in 1966 interpreted Margheriti’s The Wild Wild Planet as ‘camp,’ perhaps as a way to avoid making an honest assessment of the film. The kindest approach may be to imagine the Italian writers were trying to reflect and exaggerate the often-awkward dramatics found in Hollywood space operas. Claude Rains is so good that even his inane, faux-profound dialogue can’t kill him.

“Poor Benson. If they opened up his chest, they’d find a formula where his heart should have been.”

As a production Battle of the Worlds is ingenious but hardly impressive. The spaceship models flit here and there, usually in quick, isolated views. Their rocket engines are little fireworks wisely chosen to give off little smoke, helping to sell the ‘outer space’ environment. The alien saucers just look okay, and we’ll believe that the support wires seen in some shots were once invisible in un-faded, full density prints. The English-language title may have been chosen to conjure memories of Toho’s Battle in Outer Space; but the ship-to-ship ray gun battles here cannot begin to compare.

Perhaps the critics like the film’s artificiality, but the outer space visuals are a minimal effort. Expository dialogue is needed to give meaning to almost every special effects shot — “Turn 17 degrees!”   We don’t feel as if we are at any time ‘anywhere in particular.’ The sad miniature space buildings on the island don’t cut with the sunny exteriors. The spaceship interior views are so limited that for all we know the actors could be sitting in lawn chairs.

The show does give Claude Rains some decent sets in which to emote — the greenhouse where he appears to live, and a science center communications room with multiple TV screens that allow him to remotely hold court and harangue several bureaucrats. Professor Benson isn’t short-changed, which is what keeps Battle of the Worlds on its feet.

The climactic excursion on the surface of the rogue planet is another colorful ‘nowhere,’ where the space-suited actors shuffle in place pretending to be walking. Everything is under-visualized. Once inside the alien ‘computer cave’ things pick up quite a bit. The non-descript tunnels are festooned with plastic tubing and bathed in colored lights — but it’s okay because the ‘brain interior’ is supposed to be disorienting. Margheriti pulls off a bigger-scale illusion for several shots, placing a full-sized mirror reflection of his space men in the center of several miniature ‘brain environment’ sets. It’s a clever Shüfftan setup: we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at. Do the plastic tubes perhaps suggest wiring in an electronic component?  (Top image, ‘colorized.’)

The scene generates a fantastic mood lacking elsewhere in the films. Margheriti’s tilting camera meshes well with the eerie, unfocused musical sound effect ‘atmospheres’ that serve as a film score. Earlier in the picture the electronic noise effects seem cut in at random. We wonder if the Italian soundtrack was mixed with more finesse, something we’ve noticed in several Italo westerns.

 

Battle of the Worlds manages to squeak by, flimsy production short-cuts and all. We also must acknowledge the creativity and fun ideas elsewhere in Margheriti’s space operas, that overcome the weak special effects and unconvincing dramatics. Space-Men has Archie Savage and an interesting ‘force field’ dilemma very much in tune with classic literary sf. Wild Wild Planet injects so many goofy ideas into its fabric that it doesn’t matter that most of them are half-baked: shrinking rays, cloned assassins, four-armed men.

‘Discriminating’ criticism once dismissed the entire space subgenre because its effects were unconvincing. One of the aims of genre criticism was to remove established Hollywood production values as the only yardstick for acceptance. We also revere critic Raymond Durgnat’s anti-elitism in celebrating the cinematic poetry in This Island Earth — while acknowledging the film’s other less sophisticated qualities. But the English contributors to the influential Hardy Encyclopedia of Science Fiction fell over themselves to praise any and all Italian fantasies as unappreciated high art. The unattributed Hardy entry for Il pianeta degli uomini spenti . . . is a bit much:

“…humorous, inventive and stylish … effortlessly transcending the crudities of the script, the acting and the special effects … an object lesson in how to let cinema triumph over both script and acting, allowing visual style and imagination to carry their own corrosively fascinating meanings … an astonishing piece of cinema which dwarfs all pseudo-philosophic moralizing about Mankind and the World.”

Other than the great Claude Rains, not many of the actors shine. One woman at the science establishment is a psychic (?) but nothing is done with her character — she doesn’t Grok the spirit of the alien invaders. Maya Brent and Umberto Orsini do work up a modicum of sentimental attachment. Orsini we know from a lot of pictures, like Sergio Sollima’s Violent City. Mario Bava fans may recognize Renzo Palmer, one of the space officials. He’s the pugnacious replacement Minister of the Interior in Danger: Diabolik.

 


 

The Film Detective’s Blu-ray of Battle of the Worlds is a worthy item for rediscovery.  It and Space-Men aren’t available on home video in the quality given the later ‘Gamma 1’ movies, all of which were retained by MGM and made available through The Warner Archive Collection. The new disc offers a way to finally see the movie widescreen, in a scan that looks reasonably intact.

The master on this new disc has some serious issues. It’s from a surviving Topaz Films print, that appears to have been digitally processed to remove dirt and scratches, and add stability. An annoyance in the first reel or so are seven or eight jump cuts, presumably covering missing frames. The film’s normal continuity can be dicey, with an occasional shot looking too short. Whenever a bad match occurs across a cut we wonder if it’s the film’s fault, or if more missing frames are involved.

What the digital processing doesn’t address is the severe fading on the source print. The Topaz logo card comes up completely magenta, and the entire film remains that way. It doesn’t look as if any effort was made to goose the colors digitally. Original Italian prints were in Technicolor, and some stills show us that the movie’s original look was very attractive, with bright contrasting colors and rich blacks. We often find enjoyment in bad movies when the color is good, but we don’t get that break here.

Substantial compensation comes with The Film Detective’s new extras, which I took in after writing this review. Justin Humphrey’s audio commentary doesn’t unearth a lode of new information but it is a nice enough general introduction. Ditto Don Stradley’s once-over liner notes, in the color insert. Has an expert like Luigi Cozzi perhaps written more detailed coverage on the Margheriti space movies, in Italian?

Tim Lucas teams with Daniel Griffith for a 30-minute video-‘splain of Antonio Margheriti, Euro sci-fi of the era, and the whole inside scoop on these Italo space pictures. Tim offers info I didn’t know along with his creative analysis. I wasn’t aware that Claude Rains’ performance was filmed with live sound, as opposed to being post-dubbed. In his case it makes total sense to capture image and picture all at once. Tim also explains that the other actors were chosen for their ability to perform in English.

The documentary is almost as interesting as the feature. Lucas contributes a wealth of rare stills and poster images. Ballyhoo’s graphics-oriented editing works overtime to add visual embellishments, superficial fake scratches, watermarks, and light leaks. They’re beautifully edited but distract from the images they’re meant to enhance.

A relevant observation: I found no reasonable images for Battle of the Worlds on the web.
Second barely relevant observation: in a clip shown of one of the later ‘Gamma 1’ pictures, a space man carries a futuristic prop that appears to be a repurposed miniature from this film’s alien computer brain chamber, sort of a light spigot with spider-like legs attached.

 


 

* We have Tim Lucas and several articles in his Video Watchdog magazine to thank for straightening out the maze of alternate titles for these movies. VW connected a 6th film to the series even though it’s a Japanese Toei production. Like the other films from 1966 The Green Slime has the same producer and is set on a space station called Gamma 1.
We can now find poor quality encodings of Assignment: Outer Space on the web. It was shown in B&W on TV early in the 1960s; I believe its spacewalk visuals provide the template (but with better music) for the movie playing in the 42nd Street grindhouse in Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy.
Until now I’ve avoided the faded, indistinct and incomplete copies of Battle of the Worlds that have shown up, always hoping it would appear with good color in an original Italian version. That’s probably not a good idea considering that Claude Rains’ voice would be dubbed.
In 1966 I was eager to see MGM’s The Wild, Wild Planet in downtown San Bernardino — we were mystified by its exciting poster. But come opening day the theater substituted a reissue of Disney’s Mary Poppins. I would guess that the manager decided that Planet was unfit for the children he knew would attend.
Diafanoidi and Aytin I only caught up with on TCM, after being tipped off by the VW articles. I never made it through either one.
War Between the Planets I actually saw on a big screen in 1971 at the Air Force Base theater. It was reissued by Fanfare Films and was pretty excruciating as well. It’s a quickie replay of Battle of the Worlds with more colored tubes but no script and no Claude Rains.
I took my little brother to see The Green Slime in 1969. For the record, to show the state of movie distribution back then, the second feature, which hadn’t played San Bernardino at all, was Paramount’s digest cut-down of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in The West.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Battle of the Worlds
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good – / Fair
Video: Fair
Sound: Good (English Language only)
Supplements:
Audio commentary by Justin Humphreys
New featurette-docu by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, co-produced by Daniel Griffiths and Tim Lucas and narrated by Lucas.
Insert pamphlet with Margheriti’s World, a text essay by Don Stradley,
Insert offer for streaming service THEFILMDETECTIVE.TV.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English + Spanish (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 25, 2022
(6772batt)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.