The War of the Worlds (1953)

Director: Byron Haskin
Screenplay: Barré Lyndon (based on the novel by H.G. Wells)
Stars: Gene Barry (Dr. Clayton Forrester), Ann Robinson (Sylvia Van Buren), Les Tremayne (Maj. Gen. Mann), Bob Cornthwaite (Dr. Pryor), Sandro Giglio (Dr. Bilderbeck), Lewis Martin (Pastor Matthew Collins)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1953
Country: U.S.
The War of the Worlds Criterion Collection Blu-ray
The War of the Worlds

Producer George Pal’s film version of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was quite a shock to audiences in the early 1950s, which is why it is described as frequently as a horror movie as it is as a science fiction movie. Despite coming on the heels of Allied victory in World War II and landing right in the midst of American economic prosperity and growing international power (with its concomitant increase in tension with the Soviet Union), the film did not play up our sense of security and strength. Rather, it functioned just as Wells intended it to: as a cautionary tale about the limits of human power.

There had been science fiction movies before The War of the Worlds, even doomsday scenarios like Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951) and Robert Wise’s cautionary fable The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Yet, neither of those films depicted with such simple brutality the human race completely at the mercy of foreign invaders, a genuine fear in the era of the Cold War. When Worlds Collide showed the destruction of planet Earth on an impressive scale, but it was under the thumb of a natural occurrence that couldn’t be stopped; The Day the Earth Stood Still suggested the power of an alien race to destroy us, but gave us the benefit of the doubt in the end. It reassured us that rationality and decency were paths to peace and survival.

The War of the Worlds had no such pretensions; in fact, when people try to act benevolent toward the invading aliens, they are summarily annihilated. The film posits the idea that an alien race of “cool and unsympathetic” intelligence could invade the planet and destroy us with impunity. In fact, screenwriter Barré Lyndon (The Greatest Show on Earth) even upped the stakes by making the alien spacecraft literally impenetrable by all of humankind’s weapons, from machine guns, to tanks, to rocket launchers, to the most dreaded of all—the atomic bomb.

Lyndon structured the story in terms of growing escalation, as meteors mysteriously crash on Earth and give way to humming, pulsating flying machines that show their vicious intentions by first vaporizing three yokels who wave a white flag and try to welcome the invaders to California and then by zapping a pastor trying to make peace by steadily approaching the craft and reciting the 23rd Psalm. If a man of God could be killed with such relentless impunity, what chance did the rest of us stand?

In its images of destruction and mayhem, The War of the Worlds is a near masterpiece. Especially given the limits of special effects technology in the early 1950s and the film’s limited budget (it was shot almost entirely on a single soundstage), the resulting imagery is undeniably impressive. The manta-like flying ships, which are given additional anthropomorphic creepiness by a snake-like extension at the top from which the heat rays are shot, cruise slowly and methodically through the world’s most recognizable cities, laying waste to everything in their path. A montage shows destruction taking place throughout the world (except the Soviet Union, which curiously goes unmentioned), but the focus is on the firestorm in the United States, particularly southern California (perhaps a stroke of Hollywood masochism?). The imagery of an American city ravaged by war and in flames, something that hadn’t happened since the Civil War, is as potent today as it was 50 years ago.

Of course, in his zeal to give The War of the Worlds the grandest possible stage, director Byron Haskin (Robinson Crusoe on Mars) and screenwriter Barré Lyndon largely ignore the humanity that’s being destroyed. More to the point, they take humanity for granted, which results in dull, cardboard characters who are more archetypes than human beings. Most of the characters are scientists and military men (typical of sci-fi in the 1950s), and the story ends up centering around an intelligent, but sensitive scientist (Gene Barry) and the young woman who fawns over him (Ann Robinson). The filmmakers’ decision to use unknown actors so that star wattage wouldn’t get in the way of the breadth of the alien invasion was a good move, but they should have paid more attention to the way the characters were developed. If The War of the Worlds had had an effective human core, one that put a face on its epic of death and destruction, it might very well have reached a pinnacle of true greatness.

The War of the Worlds Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary from 2005 by filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren
  • “Movie Archaeologists,” a new program on the visual and sound effects in the film featuring sound designer Ben Burtt and film historian Craig Barron
  • “From the Archive,” a new program about the film’s restoration featuring Barron, Burtt, and Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas
  • Audio interview with producer George Pal from 1970
  • “The Sky Is Falling,” 2005 documentary about the making of the film
  • The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptation from 1938, directed and narrated by Orson Welles
  • Radio program from 1940 featuring a discussion between Welles and H. G. Wells
  • Trailer
  • Essay by film critic J. Hoberman
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 5, 2020

    Criterion’s new transfer of The War of the Worlds derives from Paramount’s 2018 restoration, in which the original Technicolor three-strip negatives were scanned in 4K and restored. This is the film’s debut in high definition in Region 1 and its first appearance on home video since Paramount’s 2005 Special Collector’s Edition DVD. That DVD was good for its time, but Criterion’s Blu-ray is a striking improvement, giving us an incredibly vivid reproduction of the ’50s Technicolor experience. Colors are bright and appropriately saturated, with deep shades of red, blue, and green. Detail level is excellent, allowing us to fully appreciate the film’s extensive effects, which range from matte paintings, to models, to composite shots. The image is also much cleaner than the previous DVDs, with all instances of dust, scratches, and wear having been removed (some shots are noticeably softer than others, but this is inherent to the original elements). As is discussed in a featurette included on the disc, additional restoration work was done to bring the image in line with an original 1953 Technicolor print that was used for reference, which often meant darkening the original scan, heightening contrast, and intensifying the colors. The result is probably the closest you will see to what a Technicolor theatrical presentation looked like in 1953. In terms of the soundtrack, Criterion gives us two options: the original monaural soundtrack, presented in a clean Linear PCM track mastered from preservation magnetic tracks, and a newly created 5.1-channel mix presented in DTS-HD Master Audio. The 2018 restoration brought in master sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars, WALL•E) to create the six-channel mix using the preservation magnetic tracks, several single-strip monaural music cues, and archival sound effects from Burtt’s own library. The result is quite impressive, especially given that Burtt had to essentially rebuild parts of the soundtrack. The surround effects really work, with good space and directionality, which heightened the Martian invaders’ otherworldly noises and produces some startling moments (when the meteor started “unscrewing,” the sound is located firmly over your left shoulder and made me jump). There is also a great deal more weight to the track, with the newly added LFE channel giving the explosions, crashing buildings, and atomic detonation some real power.

    Criterion has loaded their disc with plenty of supplements, as well, some of which are new and some of which appeared on Paramount 2005 DVD. New to this disc is “Movie Archaeologists,” a 30-minute featurette film historian Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt discussing the film’s history and influence, touching on everything from its marketing campaign to its innovations in special effects (they spent a lot of time researching the film in the archives, and it shows). “From the Archive” is another new 20-minute featurette, this one about the film’s 2018 restoration, and we get to hear again from Barron and Burtt about their work on the film, as well as Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas. We also have an audio interview with producer George Pal from his Harold Lloyd Master Seminar at the American Film Institute in February 1970; the infamous Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptation from 1938, directed and narrated by Orson Welles; and a radio program from 1940 featuring a discussion between Welles and H.G. Wells. From Paramount’s 2005 DVD we get a fantastic audio commentary by fan/film director Joe Dante (Gremlins), film historian Bob Burns, and sci-fi expert Bill Warren (author of Keep Watching the Skies!, one of the definitive books on science fiction). Between the three of them, they offer all kinds of interesting insight into the film and the lore surrounding it. More information about the film can be found in “The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds,” a first-rate 30-minute retrospective documentary that features interviews with a wide range of participants, from actor Gene Barry, to assistant director Mickey Moore, to special effects guru Al Nozaki (who, having passed away, is seen only in archival video footage). Some of the highlights include Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation tests for the Martians, some hilarious stories about the creation of the Martian suit, and a bit about how George Pal used to always slip Woody Woodpecker into his movies (yes, he’s in The War of the Worlds).

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