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The War of the Worlds

by Glenn Erickson Jul 14, 2020

“It neutralizes mesons somehow. They’re the atomic glue holding matter together!”  For most of the 1950s George Pal’s Martian invasion tale reigned as the top Sci-fi spectacle about an alien invasion. All the money went into the visuals, beautifully turned out by Byron Haskin and Gordon Jennings. Paramount’s much-awaited full restoration job does the picture justice, even if fussy fans will continue to argue the ‘what about the wires?’ battle. Even more impressive than the visuals is the film’s superb sound design, which still blows audiences away whether in mono or a new 5.1 remix. Criterion’s extras don’t critique the film as much as they tout the high-class restoration (and minor revisions).


The War of the Worlds
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1037
1953 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 85 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date July 7, 2020 / 39.95
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne.
Cinematography: George Barnes
Film Editor: Everett Douglas
Art Direction: Al Nozaki, Hal Pereira
Original Music: Leith Stevens
Special Visual Effects: Gordon Jennings
Written by Barre Lyndon from the novel by H.G. Wells
Produced by George Pal
Directed by
Byron Haskin

 

Is George Pal’s The War of the Worlds ready to thrill again, or after forty years of George Lucas ray-zapping and spaceship-zooming, will a new generation of movie fans deem it a fossil?  Veteran director Byron Haskin certainly gave the show everything he had, and the snappy screenplay moves the story forward like a house afire.

Even though it couldn’t boast movie stars, The War of the Worlds was “A-film” science fiction, made before Hollywood decided that spaceships and aliens were best left to the quickie producers. Expensive color Sci-fi productions of the early genre boom can practically be listed on the fingers of one hand: Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, This Island Earth, Forbidden Planet. This ambitious Technicolor shocker was advertised as a class offering — the first posters showed only a gnarled claw clutching at the Earth from Outer Space. The intelligent & exciting adventure links H.G. Wells’ original tale with 1950s atom worries: will mysterious enemies threaten us with unopposable weapons of super-destruction?  What could we do?

 

I have a lot to say about Criterion’s new Blu-ray, which displays the handsome digital restoration undertaken by Paramount Pictures in 2018. Special preview screenings were met with thunderous approval. TCM showed it once last year and an Australian disc surfaced a few months ago; it’s also available to stream. The Criterion mark of quality stirred up enthusiastic anticipation from the fans, the core boomer demographic for which TWOTW is a holy Sci-fi icon. Steven Spielberg was definitely deeply affected by George Pal’s Martian invasion; his 2005 remake is a fine piece of work.

One would have to have been raised on Mars to have never heard of The War of the Worlds. Vacationing Pacific Tech scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is summoned when a meteor lands intact in a California forest. He meets attractive library specialist Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) at the impact site, and hangs around for it to cool off and permit further examination. The oddly shaped projectile is not a meteor, but the first of hundreds of alien landing craft, from which emerge gigantic hovering fighting machines. Armed with heat rays and disintegrator beams, the evil-looking machines are protected from attack by invisible force fields. They begin an all-out assault on human civilization. In a matter of days the entire world is overrun by the Martian invasion. Clayton and Sylvia rush to organize a scientific defense at Pacific Tech even as the battle front reaches downtown Los Angeles.

I had already read the book at age 13 but didn’t know that a movie had been made of The War of the Worlds. I first saw it in 1965 as a surprise feature on a kiddie double-bill, with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. It was in beautiful Technicolor — I think they must have struck new prints. The audience was soundly shaken by the sheer power of George Pal’s blitzkrieg from outer space. We weren’t accustomed to such effective filmmaking in monster movies or war movies. The sound track was a barrage of threatening explosions and weird noises. I remember vividly the nervous sensation when the unseen aliens were preparing to launch their attack, and the screams that accompanied the first blast of the heat ray. And when the alien crept into the crushed farmhouse, smaller kids were ready to cry.

In other words, the picture played the audience like an early Steven Spielberg thriller. It had emotional highs and lows and special effects that at the time simply looked real. We stared gaga-eyed at the scale of destruction. As the war machines crept down city streets their heat rays ignited buildings. Telephone lines smoked and melted. The Japanese The Mysterians (1959) had been very exciting, but only once or twice did it actually seem frightening for this small child. The War of the Worlds kept me at the edge of my seat for the entire running time, mouth agape.

 

The show’s motivating factor is war fear. Producer George Pal knew that terror personally, having been chased from Europe by threats of invasion. Americans hadn’t directly experienced such a trauma since our Civil War.  H.G. Wells’ 1898 book was about much more than Martians. It predicted a coming century of 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 point of view. But the basic outline is retained. The alien onslaught is “a rout of civilization, a massacre of mankind.”

The updating of the alien menace is brilliant. Albert Nozaki’s sinister fighting machines haven’t dated in terms of extra-terrestrial design appeal. They seem to fly, even though it is established that an invisible electronic tripod is substituting for Wells’ original mechanical legs. 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 the gladiator helmet of the God of War.

Swift pacing and jarring set pieces keep us on edge. Relatively serene passages alternate with intensely suspenseful or violent highlights. A nervous newsreel (shades of the other Welles’ Citizen Kane) is followed by a real estate tour of planets for possible Martian invasion, narrated by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Frightening scenes at the landing site are inter-cut with fun at a bucolic square dance. Pal and Haskin bridge transitions with loud noises, as with the jarring cut to the alien landing craft just as the unscrewed lid slides to the ground like a heavy manhole cover. The big beachhead battle is given a masterful buildup of suspense and dread. We can feel the tension tighten as Lewis Martin’s pacifist preacher greets the alien vanguard; his altruism echoes Dr. Carrington’s goodwill gesture in Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951). The War of the Worlds was nominated for best editing and sound effects, which peak at the dynamic moment when the battle commences. A yellow heat ray blast cuts to a red-tinted close-up of Ann Robinson screaming. Then Colonel Heffner (Vernon Rich) shouts “Let ’em have it!” and the barrage erupts. It’s a stunning sequence.

 

What is it about 1950s Sci-fi that makes us so eager to see ‘Earth’s puny weapons’ out-fought by death rays, or destroyed by giant robots?  Here we watch the cumulative firepower of WW2 blast away to no effect whatsoever. The aliens sit behind their protective blisters for a few moments, as if relieved to learn that the opposition is still stuck in the age of gunpowder. When they cut loose with their counterattack, two kinds of rays (and their associated weird sound effects) blast forth in a cyclone of white-hot sparks and green ‘meson flux.’ It’s like taking a blowtorch to an ant’s nest.

The authorities dawdle before reaching the conclusion that’s has already been reached by every eight year-old boy in the audience… let’s nuke these bastards, and fast. A delegation of military brass and media descend on the La Puente hills to witness the end of the alien armada. George Pal’s visuals suggest a rather weird inversion of The Sermon on the Mount: crowds of locals await the blast, eager for atomic angels to exact retribution with fiery swords. The hardbitten Major General (Les Tremayne) responds to total failure by throwing a Four Star tantrum: “Guns, tanks, bombs – they’re like toys against them!”

[Note: La Puente is pictured as a rural wilderness, just 25 miles from L.A. City Hall. Today that part of Southern California, and a hundred miles beyond, is almost all solid suburbs.]

From that point forward the fate of the world rests in the Hands of God. Always gentle and sincere, George Pal found room in all of his films for devout Christian values. At times this was awkward, what with the Old Testament judgmentalism of When Worlds Collide, or the mutiny of the religious maniac in Conquest of Space. This picture’s miraculous conclusion is a divine intervention by way of natural selection. The alien leadership sent mixed signals about wearing masks, resulting in a rude surprise when the bad bacterial news began to circulate. Quoth Private Hudson, That’s it, man! Game over, man!

George Pal’s scripts weren’t politically sophisticated, but his films are always heartfelt. The emotional climax here is melodramatic in the extreme. Sylvia and Clayton reunite in a church, among helpless refugees cowering 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.


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The War of the Worlds premieres an impressive restoration that will dazzle classic Sci-fi fans. Even the 2005 DVD was made from an earlier, too bright Eastmancolor composite element. This new encoding, a full digital restoration scanned from the original 3-strip negatives, does the same job on TWOTW that was given Singin’ in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz. In other words, Paramount has granted this Sci-Fi classic the same respect shown its proudest productions, like Sunset Blvd. and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I’ve seen original Technicolor prints of the show on several occasions; for me the new restoration reproduces well the saturated colors and dynamic contrast values of IB Tech. Even the darker parts of the image have texture and dimensionality.

That means that the disc is darker than we are accustomed to seeing — which is good. The Martian in the farm house is now appropriately in half-shadow. His eyes don’t glow as brightly as do the 3-color panels on the eye of the robotic probe. Also, the color mis-registration problems of the old DVD have been corrected. It wasn’t a good sign when newspaper lettering was outlined by a red fringe. The disc restoration demo uses the Puente Hills shot to demonstrate the mis-registration fix. Even more impressive is a clean-up pass that has removed flaws from stock shots. Before now, views of the legendary Flying Wing had large gate hairs that looked very distracting.

The soundtrack rejuvenation is almost as impressive as the image restoration. The old mono track has been retained, and sounds as good as ever. The original audio design was so well done and its electronic ‘sci-fi’ battle sounds so vibrant, that the ’53 mono track felt like stereo anyway. For years I thought I had heard TWOTW in a theater in stereo, but here we finally learn that the several initial 1953 theater engagements that advertised stereo, really used a system that directed some of the audio into surround speakers. As an extra, Ben Burtt has remixed a new 5.1 track that re-routs clean, original sound effects into a new spread of channels. Fans with fancy sound systems took notice of this extra as soon as the disc was announced.

 

The entertaining extras approach the film as a high-class cultural souvenir of the 1950s. In his short insert folder essay, the esteemed critic J. Hoberman offers an insightful critical assessment, positioning Pal’s film at the intersection of major trends of the decade. But that fine analysis is restricted to the liner notes. The bulk of the extras (and perhaps the restoration too) have been overseen by Criterion’s go-to experts for special effects movies, visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt. Their input is both informative and creative, and they are excellent hosts.

The new extras are more like studio-produced featurettes, departing from Criterion’s usual critical distance. Paramount’s restoration executive Andrea Kalas takes a major role. Her talk about the historical significance of TWOTW is fairly superficial — she says that Destination Moon was the first scientifically realistic depiction of space travel, which ignores earlier spectacles from Germany and the Soviet Union. Ms. Kalas says that TWOTW inaugurated a fad for special effects extravaganzas. I’m not sure that the mass audience didn’t go gaga for visual effects for their own sake until much later, when Star Wars made special effects the most reported aspect of filmmaking.

We also hear that unwelcome phrase ‘restoring the filmmaker’s original intentions,’ which I had hoped had become extinct. It crops up almost every time a digital restoration re-interprets an old movie for new marketers. There are some changes to the movie that can be called revisions, and we hear nothing of preserving the un-revised 1953 original. Craig Barron even says that this version will be what the world sees of The War of the Worlds from this point forward.

We’re more than happy that Ms. Kalas and Paramount did such terrific work on the film itself. In their interviews Barron and Burtt teach us about their discoveries during the process. Burtt’s re-creation of the organically-sourced ‘Martian’ sound effects is fascinating, as is Barron’s full explanation of gadget fabricator Kenneth Strickfaden’s contribution to the show. The shots in which we can glimpse a fighting machine’s ‘electronic legs’ are just sensational. The little sparks moving down the invisible legs give a good impression of scale.

 

The wires are no big deal, but…

Instead of simply saying that wires were removed because of overwhelming public desire, Barron insists that they weren’t readily visible in original Technicolor prints. I agree with most of what he says. IB Tech prints were marginally softer and could obscure smaller details, especially with an indifferent projection lens. And in lower-contrast Eastman re-release prints (made in ’77, I think) wires were everywhere — on the DVD we can even see wires supporting the metallic Martian probe-camera that invades the farmhouse. My memory is that with the Technicolor prints reissued in ’64 or ’65, we did notice a stray wire here and there. But they were obvious only in three or four early shots of the fighting machines rising from the (back-lit) landing crater. I remember distinctly the audience reacting to the sight of multiple bright, shiny wires — only for a shot or two. We saw them, they were there, and it was an original Technicolor print.

It’s no big deal until revisionists try to tell us otherwise. The trailer included on this disc shows only one long-shot glimpse of a Martian machine, as it is rising from the crater. I realize that the trailer is surely an Eastman print, but in the shot is a fat wire that’s almost as bright as the cobra ray stalk right next to it.

Almost all of the wires were really well disguised throughout the movie. Paramount’s effects crews ignite pyrotechnics on all sides of the war machines, but we see no ‘kick’ reflections from the (ten or twelve?) wires suspending each in the air. Perhaps the ‘rising from the pit’ scenes were filmed first. We’re told that the production stopped using Strickfaden’s high voltage rig in the interest of safety. I’ll bet that after seeing the first dailies, the camera crew also doubled down on their wire-hiding efforts going forward.

I witnessed the effects work on a big Hollywood movie that used many miniatures flying on wires. The DP didn’t mess around with half-measures, but soaked the soundstage with smoke. That diffused the image and hid the wires beautifully, almost like magic. But no fog softens the miniature set-pieces in The War of the Worlds. Those wires are invisible or almost invisible, even though they must support those heavy copper miniatures.

I wish they had included a sample of the un-corrected shots with wires in them, just for historical reference. I’m not so much of a purist as to demand that they be restored, as it’s great seeing them gone. But film history will warp a bit as it did when the original Star Wars was supplanted by a new and improved version, with special effects that didn’t exist in 1977.

The well-produced new extras offer a lively production history. Some outtake effect shots were preserved in Paramount’s stock library, so their inclusion here is certainly welcome. Barron and Burtt use one raw take of an attacking war machine to add their own ‘new’ visual & sound effects. A good 2005 featurette with surviving filmmakers and actors is included, along with a vintage audio interview with George Pal. A clear encoding of the famous 1938 Welles radio broadcast is present, as well as a brief audio piece in which Orson Welles met H.G. Wells.

The best older extra is the 2005 audio commentary with director Joe Dante, monster fabricator / collector Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren. Warren details little-known facts about the original 1924 Paramount script prepared for Cecil B. DeMille. If one ignores the Cedric Hardwicke prologue and a wild guess made by actor Paul Birch, Warren notes that we hear no direct reference 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 also ingrained in my childhood; they sent me right to Wells’ book, which became the first novel I can remember reading.

The trio also points out the film’s prodigious list of name bit players, including many that are almost unrecognizable. It’s a who’s who of character actors of the day: 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. Just about the only ’50s Sci-fi regular who missed the bus for this one is William Schallert — he’s in almost everything else. Favorite Bill Phipps survived a previous Martian invasion released in April of ’53, but in this Sci-fi extravaganza he ends up looking like the inside of an ashtray.

Never satisfied, always looking ahead, CineSavant notes that a beautifully restored When Worlds Collide screened on TCM several months back. A foreign Blu-ray is in the works, but will a licensed Region A release come to pass?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The War of the Worlds
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:Audio commentary from 2005 with Joe Dante, Bob Burns, and Bill Warren; Movie Archaeologists, with Ben Burtt and Craig Barron; From the Archive, a Paramount restoration featurette; audio interview with George Pal from 1970; The Sky Is Falling, a 2005 documentary about the making of the film; The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds from 1938, directed and narrated by Orson Welles; Radio program from 1940 featuring a discussion between Welles and H. G. Wells; Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
July 11, 2020
(6305war)

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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.