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The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds(1953)

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Paramount executive Jesse Lasky showed amazing foresight when he purchased the film rights to H.G. Wells' landmark Victorian science fiction novel War of the Worlds in 1924. Although Cecil B. DeMille and later Alfred Hitchcock would express an interest in transforming Wells' seminal novel of an alien invasion to the screen, the property would languish into the 1930s, at which time Wells himself expressed his doubts that a film could ever be made of the book. Wells felt that his turn-of-the-century tale of terror would no longer work on screen as a period piece, and that there was no way to update the story.

He would be proven wrong in 1938 when young upstart actor/director Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater on the Air would present an hour-long radio play of the story, transplanting it to present day New Jersey, that would prove so compelling that during its broadcast it caused a nationwide panic. The success of the radio play would amply demonstrate that the story could easily be reworked to the present, but the outcry in the aftermath of the notorious radio broadcast (Orson Welles was forced to make a public apology the next day, and the FCC took action against CBS, who had broadcast the program) may have made the story a bit too hot to handle. It would be another fifteen years before the novel would finally make it to the screen.

Producer George Pal, who had made a name for himself with his legendary stop-action animated Puppetoons, had already scored a hit with another end-of-the world saga, 1951's When Worlds Collide, and was the obvious choice to shepherd the making of this visually challenging movie. In adapting the novel to film, screenwriter Barre Lyndon (The Lodger, The House on 92nd Street), would again change the location of the story, this time to Southern California, and the end result would owe more to Orson Welles than to the author. And the prospect of animating the tripod killing-machines described in the novel would prove too costly, so Art Director Al Nozaki came up with his own design, resembling a manta ray with a cobra head from which the death-dealing heat ray would emanate: Nozaki's war machines are haunting and soul-less, gliding with maddening elegance through the air, slowly and deliberately, as they cut a swath of destruction. While little would remain of Wells' original story (including its social commentary involving European colonialization), the naked terror of Wells' vision would remain intact.

Gene Barry stars as Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist on a fishing trip who is called to the scene when a meteor crashes outside a small nearby town. He finds the townspeople delighted at the prospect of a new tourist attraction, and decides to remain in town until the meteor cools off to give it a closer examination, staying at the home of attractive librarian Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) and her Uncle Matthew, the local minister. But the object from outer space proves to be something other than a meteor when the top "unscrews" and alien war machines emerge. As more of the "meteors" come crashing to earth, the Martian war machines make their way out of their protective shells and begin a course of mass destruction, killing everything that moves and destroying anything in their path.

The military proves alarmingly ineffectual in battling the Martians, whose machines are protected by an invisible "blister" that protects them from any outside attack, and the initial encounter is disastrous, leaving Forrester and Sylvia on their own. Cut off from everyone else, the pair desperately try to make their way back to Los Angles amidst the chaos being wreaked across the countryside by the aliens, and as news spreads that the invaders are landing all around the world. A stop at an abandoned farm house will prove particularly dangerous, as Forrester and Sylvia come face to face with one of the Martians themselves: an encounter that will fortunately leave them with a sample of Martian blood. When everything, including an atom bomb, proves to have no effect against the alien ships, the military leaves it up to the scientists to hopefully find some biological means to destroy the invading foes.

With taut direction by Byron Haskin, thoroughly sincere performances by the entire cast, and the spectacular, Oscar-winning special effects, the landmark novel would become an equally landmark film. War of the Worlds is amazingly effective, and surprisingly grim for its period. At a time when America was still basking in the afterglow of our triumph in the Second World War, the film offers a cautionary tale that warns us against becoming too complacent: here we are faced with an enemy that is impervious to all the best equipment that man has been able to devise. The film is a dark vision in which man does not triumph over evil: evil loses by default.

War of the Worlds has always presented some problems on home video: the increased clarity of each new generation of video technology would expose more of the seams of the film's special effects, most noticeably the wire system holding up (and operating) the war machines. Paramount's original release of the film to DVD made the wires even clearer, much to the dismay of the film's legion of fans. And as much as I dislike the idea of tampering with classic films, I had hoped that Paramount would perform a digital clean up to this aspect of the film for their new special edition. Unfortunately, they have not, and the wires are even more visible than they have been in the past incarnations. The wires, painted blue due to the fact that for the bulk of the film they would be seen against a background of sky, are particularly evident when the ships are seen against other colors (particularly when the first ship is about to emerge from the gully).

However, this is the one drawback to the splendid new transfer of the film. The image on the new DVD is clean and crisp, doing full service to the film's glorious three-strip Technicolor. There is so much depth to the image that at times it seems three dimensional. But the biggest improvement in the new edition is the restoration of the film's stereo/surround soundtrack, which was unaccountably missing from the original DVD release (even though it had recently appeared on the Laserdisc). The surround track is showing no deterioration, and offers an incredibly robust listening experience: although there is little in the way of directional effects in the track (except for some minor ones across the front speakers), the music and effects are spread to the rear speakers, surrounding the viewer with the eerie sounds of the Martian machines. The new transfer clarifies the film's vibrant background score, and exposes the subtle ambient sound effects in a way that will make you feel that you are hearing the film for the first time. A treat for fans of the film, this transfer is not to be missed.

The Special Edition includes a wealth of extras, including two feature-length commentaries, one by stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, and a second by director Joe Dante with film historians Bob Burns and Bill Warren. There is a new 30 minute "making-of" documentary with new interviews with the stars, as well as the original, hour-long radio broadcast by The Mercury Theater of the Air.

For more information about The War of the Worlds, visit Paramount Home Entertainment. To order The War of the Worlds, go to TCM Shopping.

by Fred Hunter