Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The 1953 Movie of The War of the Worlds

Until this year, there was only one film adaptation of "The War of the Worlds," in 1953. A version from England made recently, and released direct to DVD, retains the period and location of Wells' story. But I haven't yet seen it. This '>"H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds" is available on DVD, as are a couple of documentaries, '>this one and '>this one, on Wells, the novel and other versions, and I haven't seen them either.

'>The 1953 movie, produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, took a few additional aspects of the Wells' novel, but basically it updated and remade the Howard Koch/ Orson Welles radio version. It had HG's details of military tactics, but like the radio version it concentrated on scientists and authority figures. It even had a radio reporter narrating the first appearance of the Martians' machines, and at the last attempt to stop them by means of the atomic bomb.

Though the story follows a young scientist and his budding romance with a preacher's daughter as the Martians in their flying machines wreak havoc on the California countryside, the mood of this version is heavily influenced by the atomic age and the Cold War.

The Bomb is present in odd details: the scientist comfortably fitting in at a country square dance, much as the Manhattan Project scientists did at Los Alamos; the invasion heralded by a sudden, distant flash of light, as accompanied the Bomb test in New Mexico just eight years earlier. In fact, one of the cover stories the military used to keep the test secret was that a meteorite had crashed into the New Mexico desert, which is how the Martians arrive in all the War of the Worlds versions until Spielberg’s.

But mostly it is the Bomb's nature as the ultimate weapon, capable of wiping out human civilization---destroying everything and everyone, wherever and whoever they are. Ordinary people are as helpless against the impersonal Bomb as they would be against alien invaders.

Of course, the Russians were rapidly being cast in the part of alien invaders. The Godlessness of Communism was often emphasized, and that's a theme here: the man of the cloth, greeting the invader with a crucifix held high, is mercilessly vaporized. As the machines destroy the cities, those who haven't fled gather in churches, where they are still helpless, although the defeat of the Martians is linked with answered prayers, and the microbes that "God in his wisdom" created.

As someone of almost exactly Steven Spielberg's age, I can testify that on an emotional level, this movie accurately reflects the early Cold War mixture of fear, bewilderment and something like helpless resignation.

The movie's effect was heightened by the almost hallucinatory brilliance of the Technicolor. From a kid's perspective, the Martian machines were convincing and neat-looking, even if they did resemble reassembled parts of new cars, and the sound they made was especially chilling. That's a first impression that's lasted.

The film starts slowly by today's standards, with a strange sort of lecture about the relative merits of the planets in the solar system as places hospitable for life. All the planets are mentioned except Venus, and no reason is given for the omission, but it might have something to do with Wells' novel, in which he speculates that having been repulsed from earth, the Martians happily settled on their second choice, Venus. Apparently HG wasn't interested in sequels.

By locating this version in 1950s California, and showing rather than telling or describing, this movie was very effective at portraying with modern weapons the possibility of a civilization-ending war. Though American soldiers had seen European and Japanese cities reduced to rubble, Americans at home had not yet seen this simulated in their own country. Though it wasn’t elaborate,it had the same sobering and frightening effect as Wells' novel did in its time.

The climax of the film wasn't actually the Martian's defeat but the use of the atomic bomb against them---and its uselessness in stopping them. This was the ultimate admission of human frailty in this age. Everyone was afraid of the Bomb, but the Bomb might not be enough to head off destruction.

Some science fiction buffs don't much like this movie. They complain about seeing the wires holding up the Martian's machines. I'm afraid I still see it with the same eyes as I first did. This isn't true of all scifi movies I first saw as a child---even Pal's '>When Worlds Collide, which I loved, no longer convinces. (That awful painting at the end that had amazed me as the landscape of a new world!) But I'm still a sucker for this film. The scary parts are scary. The Girl is a bit hysterical for my tastes but I still want to protect her, and I still identify with the scientist played by Gene Barry.

The sudden appearance of the Martian still startles me, and I recall another moment that scared me in a cautionary way---it was the rioting crowd in the city, that overturns the scientists' truck and injures several of them, preventing them from finding the solution that would defeat the Martians. That was a cautionary moment for me: it said that ignorance and fear (specifically in the person of loudmouthed idiots) could defeat us as effectively than any unearthly enemy.

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