Tuesday, December 10, 2013

War of the Worlds, The (1953)

... aka: H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds

Directed by:
Byron Haskin

H.G. Wells' landmark sci-fi novel "The War of the Worlds" is one of those juggernauts that will never die. It's constantly being revived, remade and homaged, and has gone on to influence all manner of popular entertainment over the years. The book became even more legendary after a now-infamous radio broadcast aired right before Halloween on October 30, 1938. Put on by CBS as part of their anthology series "The Mercury Theatre on the Air," the novel was adapted for the airwaves by Anne Froelick and Howard Koch and directed and narrated by Orson Welles. The first two-thirds of the broadcast (listened to by about 6 million people) was fashioned like a mock news report detailing an invasion of our planet by deadly alien spacecraft, which gave many listeners a real fright when they believed this was all actually occurring in real time. A mild panic ensued in some areas, concerned listeners flooded the phone lines and the rest is history. Public statements were later issued and some listeners scared by the program even unsuccessfully attempted to file lawsuits against CBS. Welles gladly took the publicity and ran with it; he'd make Citizen Kane (1941) just a few year later, and the broadcast's headline-making notoriety was enough to secure the tale a place in pop culture history. And not just in American pop culture history. In 1946, a radio station in Ecuador produced a Spanish-language version of the play, which led to panic, mass rioting and seven reported deaths! It made perfect sense that a film version be made once the available technologies were available.

War (loosely adapted from the novel by Barré Lyndon) opens with narrated footage briefly describing weaponry in both World Wars as well as space-set narration by Sir Cedric Hardwicke detailing our neighboring planet of Mars. The denizens of Mars, far more technologically advanced than we here on Earth, are tired of their severe weather and want a new place to call home. Instead of asking if they can move in, they decide to stage a full scale takeover of Earth instead. The denizens of Linda Rosa, California will be the first to encounter the beings when a red hot meteor the size of a house crash lands in the woods near the small town. A handful of scientists from Pacific Tech happen to be on a camping and fishing trip nearby and one of them, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a famous inventor who was on the cover of Time Magazine for creating a new atomic engine, decides to stay behind and wait for the meteor to cool down. Late that night while the rest of the town is busy at a square dance, three men watching over the meteor notice it moving. Something begins to screw off the top and a cobra-like appendage pops out. Deciding it best to announce themselves as friends, the men approach the being only to get blasted into smithereens with a laser.

The lights go out, the phones stop working and watches and other battery-operated devices become magnetized and cease to function. After Dr. Forrester and the Sheriff go back to the meteor crash site and see what they're up against, the U.S. Marine Corp - led by General Mann (Les Tremayne) - are immediately called in.  Meanwhile, hundreds of other similar meteors, each housing a separate manta ray-shaped spacecraft, are falling in pairs of three all across the planet. In Linda Rosa, after the aliens blast local pastor Matthew (Lewis Martin), the marines open fire. Since the ships have the ability to shield themselves from blasts from guns and tanks using an electromagnetic force field, they make short work of the military. Dr. Forrester and Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), a USC professor and Forrester's obligatory love interest, commandeer a small plane, crash it and then retreat for cover to a farmhouse. There, they get sight of a squatty, silly looking alien with three pupils and long suction cup fingers and manage to get their hands on some of the alien's blood as well as a periscope-like camera the crafts use to sniff out prey. The items are brought to some scientists in hope they can find a weakness.

Nations attempt to band together to fight the alien invasion but despite our collected scientific knowledge and military power, nothing seems to stop these things. As a last ditch effort, the military drops an atomic bomb directly onto one of the crafts, but it emerges without even a scratch or dent. Exhausted of options and hope nearly non-existent, people begin to panic, loot, riot and steal any vehicle available to them. Others peacefully congregate in churches; hoping their prayer will be enough to extinguish the menace. The ending both maintains the source novel's ending (the aliens being unable to adapt our atmosphere and dying from microbial infection), but also shoehorns in the religious angle to cater to the audience of the day.

Upon release in 1953, WOTW  became both a critical and financial success for Paramount, and it deservedly retains its status as an influential genre classic nowadays. Produced on a healthy 2 million dollar budget (Cecil B. DeMille was the uncredited executive producer), it was nicely shot in Technicolor and boasted state-of-the-art special effects for its time. While some of the fx are now, of course, dated and sometimes hokey, others (particularly the spacecrafts laying waste to a big city) continue to impress. The film also still manages to excite modern audiences with a speedy pace, lots of action and scenes of wide scale destruction, which create a wonderfully frantic, apocalyptic feel toward the end. The cast is sufficient, and small roles are also played by Robert Cornthwaite as a doctor, Paul Frees as a radio reporter (he also narrated the war footage), Henry Brandon and Jack Kruschen, with small uncredited parts played by Russ Bender, Paul Birch, Ann Codee, Russ Conway, Carolyn Jones, Alvy Moore, Walter Sande and James Seay. Producer George Pal has a cameo as a bum listening to a radio news report. It netted three Oscar nomination; winning for its special effects.

The legacy of Wells' novel has only been strengthened in recent years; managing to bleed over into film, TV, radio, comic books, video games and other forms of popular entertainment since its publication. Numerous radio stations around the globe continue to air the original 1938 broadcast as a Halloween tradition, while others go all out and put on their own new broadcasts of it (there was even a musical version). In 1988, the same year a War of the Worlds TV series aired here in America, NPR put on a new radio production, which ended up being nominated for a Grammy Award. The 46-page script for the radio broadcast later broke records for entertainment memorabilia when it sold for 143,000 dollars at Sotheby's Auction in New York City. A second radio script (which had belonged to Wells) turned up and was purchased by Steven Spielberg for 32,200 dollars. 

In 2003, the broadcast was added to the National Recording Registry in the Library of Congress. In 2005, two new versions of the novel were made; one a big-budget blockbuster by Spielberg (which was heavily weighed down by the inclusion of two extremely annoying child characters) and another cheaper cash-in by The Asylum. In 2011, this 1953 film version was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. A documentary about the radio broadcast played on PBS right before Halloween earlier this year as part of their "American Experience" series.



CavedogRob said...

A classic!!!

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Yessir. Can't believe I am just now getting around to viewing it!

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