Friday, May 27, 2022

A Hymn for the Red Planet

I bought a copy of The War of the Worlds (1953, directed by Byron Haskins) during a recent Criterion Collection sale. When my long-suffering partner saw it in my stack of loot, she said: "You'll be watching that one on your own." The ticking of the Martian war machines gives her nightmares. When I popped it into the player at home, that ominous ticking was the soundtrack for the menu screens. She threw up her hands and walked out of the room after ostentatiously slamming the door to drown out that sound. It's a fair reaction, particularly if you first encountered the film at a young age. It still resonates. Once you've heard it, you never forget it.

Intelligences cool and unsympathetic have turned covetous eyes to the blue oceans of Earth, the film tells us. Martian civilization is in its last gasps, having exhausted their own planet. Alone of the worlds of the solar system, Earth will sustain them. On a summer evening during the closest approach between the planets, their machines begin to fall from the sky. One of them falls near a rural California town. Its citizens investigate the meteor. Some even see it as a potential tourist attraction. Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist on a fishing trip, suggests that it might be too dangerous for that. The meteor is radioactive. They post three men to guard the meteor and return to town for a square dance. As the meteor cools, however, part of it unscrews, and a mechanical stalk emerges. The guards make white flags indicating that they mean only peace, but the stalk disintegrates them with a heat ray. Then everything goes dark. The electricity in the region--all circuits--has been snuffed out. The people return to the meteor only to witness three swan-like alien machines emerge from the meteor. Those machines soon begin to lay waste to the countryside. When the military arrives, they are helpless against the alien invaders. Forrester and his companion, Sylvia, flee the onslaught and take refuge in a deserted farm house. Another meteor crashes into the house, and soon they find themselves playing hide and seek from the Martians. During their close-encounter, they get a look at one of them, injuring it, and are able to hack a piece of their technology off the end of a probe. On the run again, they finally make it to Forrester's scientific institute where he and his colleagues hope to find some way to defeat the Martians from the samples Forrester provides. Meanwhile, the Martians are unstoppable. When the Americans reach the limit of their conventional weapons, they finally resort to nuclear weapons, to no avail. Humanity is on the brink as the Martians rampage on every continent. Forrester and Sylvia flee Los Angeles with the rest of the scientists, their alien samples in tow, but Forrester becomes separated. In the chaos, he discovers that their caravan has been ransacked by panicky looters. He runs through the abandoned city searching for Sylvia and the others, finally finding them huddled in a ruined church, praying for some kind of intercession on behalf of humanity. As if in answer, the Martian war machines begin to falter and crash. Their pilots withering from terrestrial diseases against which they have no immunity...

The War of the Worlds holds a special place deep in my own cinephiliac heart. I first saw it when I was eight or nine on late night television. When I was a teen, when my family was newly equipped with a VCR, my parents gave me a copy of the film on VHS as a birthday gift one year. It's the first film I ever owned that wasn't dubbed off of television. I still have the tape. It still plays. I've never seen the film on a big screen, though I'd like to one day. I have a small video projector so I suppose I could put up a big screen in my back yard. Until then, the Criterion disc will have to suffice. My TV is pretty big and the Criterion edition is utterly gorgeous. It's the first edition of the film I've ever seen where the war machines can be seen to have three "legs" made of force beams. I never even suspected that before. They're tripods after all. The swan-like war machines are a prop I've long wanted to own. They're an elegant and sinister design that holds up after all these decades. If I could mount one outside my house for Halloween I would be legendary in my neighborhood if not my entire damned town. I'd have to mock up one of the martians for my front porch, to boot.

So this is a film that I love even though my stubborn unbelief bristles at the religiosity of it. George Pal and the film's un-billed producer, Cecil B. DeMille, were culture warriors after all, whose Christianity was often ostentatious on screen. The images of refugees in churches as the Martians wreck Los Angeles might have come from one of DeMille's silent epics. The music cue as Cedric Hardwicke narrates that paragraph from Wells's novel about how God in his wisdom had stocked the earth with microorganisms sounds a bit like a hymn. Like DeMille, the film trades in the kitschy mid-century Americana if square dances and fishing vacations and, hah, Cecil B. DeMille movies (Sylvia and her uncle are first seen queued up at a theater showing DeMille's own Samson and Delilah). Like DeMille, the film indulges in broad symbols. The church scene at the end where survivors huddle, awaiting either death or deliverance, is dutifully accompanied by churchy music. The first three men vaporized by the Martians are selected as a symbolic melting pot (though, significantly, none of them are black). The Martians vaporize the pastor who is sure they have souls and can make peace. Subtle, this film is not.

The War of the Worlds (1953)
The War of the Worlds (1953)

If The War of the Worlds uses blunt symbols and corny 1950s cultural norms, there's nothing corny about its execution. Its production design is timeless. It hasn't dated at all. Even the miniature landscapes remain a dreamscape for the post-War nightmare. It makes superb use of technicolor to render a vivid apocalypse, particularly in shots of burning cities and crashed machines. Certain images have an almost mythic quality. Forrester running through a deserted Los Angeles searching for the waylaid scientists is one. The dropping of the atomic bomb on the Martians is another. Destination Moon, George Pal's first foray into science fiction, got itself bogged down in didacticism and often bored the audience; this film does not make that same mistake. It has a breathless forward motion once the unstoppable Martians rise from their crater. It's last act remains an eye-drugging fantasy of destruction. It is, perhaps, an expiation of America's survivor's guilt (Pal himself was an immigrant from Austria-Hungary), which flogs the nation for emerging from World War II unscathed. It is certainly an artifact of the Cold War, with the Martians standing in for the implacable threat of Communism to the American way of life. It's a profoundly paranoid movie, but one leavened with the idea that our civilization is watched over by a benevolent deity. It was exactly what the audiences of its day wanted to hear: that the world would spin on after the apocalypse. That's a palliative notion that resonates even today, as humankind faces other existential terrors in addition to the ones handed down to us by the World Wars and the Cold War. Whether or not it's still up to the job is a matter of perspective, I guess.

The thing that held my attention this time is what the adaptation of Wells's novel leaves out. First: Although it retains the narrator's ordeal of being trapped in a house by the Martians, on the edge of discovery the whole time, it changes his companion. It substitutes Sylvia (Ann Robinson) for the curate who is slowly going insane, and whose insanity gives himself away to the Martians. I presume this is because of the film's ultimate aim as propaganda. We can't have good salt of the Earth Americans going to pieces in the face of invaders. Moreover, he's a church man. Were this left intact, it would undermine the major thesis of the film. That's all just an invitation to the Commies to walk right in to America, where faith and will aren't strong enough to repel them. Second: the Martians' motives are more inscrutable here. In the book, they are essentially vampires. They have cages on the back of their machines where they store captured humans for snacks. This seems a bit grisly for the 1950s. Third: the filmmakers have completely expunged Wells's withering critique of colonialism. Wells modeled his Martian invasion on the conquest of Tasmania, speculating what something like that might do if turned on England itself. The movie will have none of that. In tandem with the other alterations, the film rather views America as a kind of Eden and the Martians as dragons come to wreck the place. This all strikes me as the influence of DeMille, who originally bought the rights to the book in the 1920s, but couldn't get it made until its time had come round at last. It reeks of his sanctimony. It's instructive, too, to compare all of this to Steven Speilberg's version from 2005, which keeps both the idea of being trapped in a house with a chatty maniac AND the image of the Martians as vampires. Spielberg has no qualms about painting the landscape red. But then, that film appeared when the world had a different set of cultural nightmares.

It's hard to overstate this film's influence on the age of the special effects blockbuster thirty years later and beyond. Hell, you can see its fingerprints on the Godzilla movies that would commence a mere two years later. Or on DeMille's own remake of The Ten Commandments, a special effects blockbuster of a type. It's plugged into both an American sense of masochism where the symbols of its primacy in the world are destroyed by a vicious and incomprehensible other, and a Christian sense of persecution in which it's really the godly who are oppressed in America. In most films, this would be a toxic combination. This film somehow makes it all work. Parts of it are absolutely dated as hell, but the parts that really count are still as vital and as merciless as ever.





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