Release Date(s)1953 (July 7, 2020)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Criterion – Spine #1037)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
The War of the Worlds took a long time to make it to the big screen. Written in 1897 by H.G. Wells, the novel had a number of producers and scriptwriters assigned over time, but those projects never saw fruition. It was George Pal at Paramount Studios who succeeded in transferring the book to the screen, updating its Victorian time period and English setting to then-contemporary America.
A mysterious object lands in a small town in California. Clocks, watches, and electricity have stopped. Curiosity seekers gather around one of the objects, in a pit covered with dirt and debris and sizzling hot. On a fishing trip nearby, nuclear physicist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is intrigued by the object and speculates that it might have come from Mars, the closest planet to Earth. Forrester then meets Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), one of the first to arrive at the crash site. A trio of men are enlisted to guard the object while the rest of the crowd heads back to town to enjoy a square dance.
Later that night, there is movement in the object and a disc at its top appears to be unscrewing. The three guards, hoping to get their names in the newspaper, try to make contact. Carrying a makeshift white flag, they approach the pit. A cobra-like device rises from the opening and vaporizes them with its heat ray.
The military is called in. Eventually curved flying objects rise slowly from the pit as the army and the Martians exchange fire, with the Martians overwhelming even the latest earthly weapons. Soon, every nation on Earth is being attacked.
In one chilling encounter with the alien, Forrester wounds it and obtains a sample of its blood. He takes it to Los Angeles for testing, hoping to discover the aliens’ weaknesses.
The script by Barre Lyndon moves briskly and is at its best in the action sequences. Shot mostly at Paramount Studios and its back lot, the 85-minute film belies its limited budget with dazzling special effects as the seemingly powerless Earthlings wage an ever-losing battle against the Martians’ superior firepower and machines of destruction.
Forrester and Sylvia are conveniently thrown together as they try to elude the roaming machines. This aspect appears contrived. For a couple of people who have just met, there’s an unusually strong bond between them. Barry is effective as the scientist, with a pair of glasses emphasizing his intelligence and authority. Robinson is not the best actress but is pleasant to look at. In her intense scenes, she is over the top, shrieking and widening her eyes in horror. Her basic emotion is hysteria.
The Martians’ aircraft are beautifully designed by Albert Nozaki and convey both menace and awe. Slow moving, they hover like helicopters but seem to be supported by invisible beams as they deliberately move through the countryside and down the Los Angeles streets. Their bright yellow heat rays and deep green skeleton rays shoot from the cobra head and the tips of the aircraft, destroying everything in their path.
In terms of 1950s science fiction films, The War of the Worlds is one of the best. Director Byron Haskin prioritized special effects above performance, knowing this is what audiences would pay to see. The film follows Wells’ explanation of how the Martians are eventually defeated. This was unusual for the period, since such movies typically concocted an explosive last-minute method to destroy the monster and save the day.
Just as Orson Welles updated his 1938 radio adaptation of the material to contemporary times, George Pal drew upon concerns of the Eisenhower era—the Cold War, space travel, and purported sightings of flying saucers. However, the film has endured the test of time because of its lean screenplay, memorable special effects, and optimistic ending.
The Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. This new digital restoration was created in 4K resolution from the original three-strip Technicolor negatives. Negative and positive dirt, stains, scratches, streaks, hairs, emulsion digs, and a number of misregistrations of the film elements were manually repaired.
The War of the Worlds is one of only a handful of 1950s science fiction films that were made in color, and the deeply saturated Technicolor photography here looks fantastic. The opening credits jump out in deep red block letters that quickly change to green. The rest of the credits are in bold primary colors and often flash as if by periodic lightning strikes. The painting of Mars by Chesley Bonestall, which tended to look more blue than red in the Paramount/Imprint release, now has the appropriate reddish hue, with a touch of blue and a white polar ice cap, and is once again the Red Planet. The other Bonestall paintings are beautiful, especially the surface of Jupiter with its mountains and lava cascading down a steep cliff, and the clouds of cosmic dust surrounding Saturn. The Martian war machines have a green “cockpit” and green tips which fire off their deadly, spasmodic skeleton rays. The heat ray is a series of bright yellow streams that appear to be the Martians’ equivalent of a shotgun, since the rays disperse over a wide area. Faces feature a creamy texture, and details of clothing, especially in the square dance sequence, show up nicely. In a scene with Forrester and Sylvia hiding in the farmhouse as the alien examines the structure, its three eyes are reflected on their faces as they attempt to avoid detection. This effect is repeated later as intense white light on Forrester’s face reflects an atomic bomb explosion. Cinematographer George Barnes creates a suspenseful moment when an ominous shadow approaches as the two try to find a way out of the surrounded farmhouse. The effect of the heat ray is shown as weapons and soldiers turn green, then bright white, and then disappear; an impressive effect for the early 1950s. Another memorable visual is a soldier on fire from a heat ray running and falling over a table. This obviously dangerous stunt adds considerable excitement to an already tense scene. The rich Technicolor photography shows off the special effects to maximum advantage.
There are two audio tracks to choose from: English 1.0 LPCM and English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional subtitles in English SDH are also available. Both tracks feature clear dialogue, but the 5.1 track gives the film greater depth. The sounds of the Martian machines come front and center. The intermittent sound of the heat ray eye, the levitation tone, the heat ray warming up and firing, and the pulsating skeleton ray come across effectively. Sound mixing combines all of these when the Martians attack, providing an unsettling cacophony of destruction. The Martian capsules crashing on Earth are somewhat disappointing and sound kind of muted, when a bigger “boom” might have been more fitting.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary, a featurette on the film’s visual and sound effects, a program about the film’s restoration, an audio interview with producer George Pal, a making-of documentary from 2005, the original radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, a radio show from 1940 featuring a discussion between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet containing a critical essay.
Audio Commentary – This 2005 commentary features filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren. They comment on the powerful title credit sequence and the beautiful Chesley Bonestall paintings shown early in the film. Director Byron Haskin was a “workaholic at Paramount.” Pal wanted Cecil B. DeMille to do the narration but DeMille suggested Cedric Hardwicke. Most of the footage was filmed on Paramount’s Stage 18 and on its backlot. The Los Angeles street scenes and freeways were shot at 6 A.M. on a Sunday. The various supporting players, many of whom were radio actors, are discussed. Gertrude Hoffman (Mrs. Odets in My Little Margie) has a small role as a newspaper seller. Gene Barry’s career didn’t really take off until he played Bat Masterson on TV. The War of the Worlds was Ann Robinson’s only starring role. A member of Paramount’s Golden Circle of young actors and starlets, she was also featured on TV’s Rocky Jones Space Ranger. The scenes featuring military equipment were filmed on the last shooting day in Arizona. In the novel, the Martian machines are vulnerable but far more powerful than weapons on Earth. The Martian flying machines measured about four feet across and were supported by wires which also provided electrical power for the blinking lights and rotation of the cobra head heat ray. The three contributors explain how several of the special effects were achieved. Many science fiction films of the 1950s did well at the box office. Singled out are The Thing from Another World, Them, and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Movie Archaeologists – Visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt, historians of specialized filmmaking techniques, discuss the cultural factors that resonated with audiences: the fear of atomic war, interest in UFOs, the fascination with space travel, and the curiosity about alien life. The War of the Worlds received great reviews at the time of its release. Because George Pal’s Destination Moon was a hit, he was given the chance to make other films at Paramount. Both Pal and Orson Welles updated the story. The Flying Wing aircraft shown in the film became the prototype of the stealth bomber. Some stock footage was cut into the film. Cinematographer George Barnes’ use of Technicolor brought a lot of drama to the film. The Los Angeles City Hall, used as an iconic image, was copied as a large miniature to be blown up by the Martians’ heat rays. Many of the sound effects in the film were created by Kenneth Strickfadden, who provided the lab equipment used in Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Leith Stevens’ score includes otherworldly tonalities, produced by tape feedback, dry ice rubbed on metal, and a woman’s scream played backwards. A demonstration of how the heat ray blasts and the skeleton ray bursts are created is shown. These images were combined with previously shot footage to provide a visual composite.
The Sky Is Falling – In this 2005 documentary, various individuals connected with the production of the film comment. They include actors Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Robert Cornthwaite and art director Al Nozaki. Jesse Lasky bought the rights to The War of the Worlds in 1924. Orson Welles adapted it for the radio in 1938. Many listeners believed the radio broadcast was real and panic ensued. Ray Harryhausen was once scheduled to make a film of The War of the Worlds, keeping the setting in the Victorian era, but this never came to pass. Some of Harryhausen’s test footage is shown of a Martian emerging from the capsule. George Pal had made a series of stop-motion Puppetoons and expressed an interest in science fiction. The genesis of the film is discussed. Mechanical and visual special effects were combined. Author Wells’ tripod monsters would not have looked good in stop-motion, so the flying machines took their place. Three of them were constructed but no longer exist.
Wells and Welles – H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel has inspired many versions, including The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s radio adaptation by Howard Koch, directed and narrated by Orson Welles and broadcast on October 30, 1938. Wells and Welles met for the first and only time shortly before the second anniversary of the broadcast when they were both lecturing in San Antonio, Texas. On October 28, 1940, they visited the KTSA radio station for an interview with broadcaster Charles C. Shaw. Both the original broadcast and the KTSA interview are included.
George Pal Audio Interview – In this 1970 interview, George Pal discusses his early years as a carpenter, his desire to become an architect, and his eventual entry into the world of stop-motion animation, where actions can be exaggerated. He discusses his Puppetoons series, which led him to the world of special effects, fantasy, and science fiction. He wanted to do feature films. Many others had tried to adapt The War of the Worlds but failed. When he learned Paramount owned the rights, he was eager to do it. Writer Barre Lyndon wrote the screenplay and it was assigned a shooting schedule of 29 days.
Booklet – An enclosed accordion-style, fold-out booklet contains an essay by J. Hoberman, a list of cast and crew credits, notes about the restoration, and an artist’s recreation of a key scene from the film.
A number of bonus materials from the recent Imprint release of The War of the Worlds (reviewed here) are not carried over to this release. They include an audio commentary with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, an audio commentary with film critics Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman, the featurette H.G. Wells: Father of Science Fiction, and a photo gallery.
– Dennis Seuling