Sunday, October 26, 2008

The War of the Worlds - An American Halloween Tradition

In the First World War, and for the first time in the history of man, nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days. The Second World War involved every continent on the globe, and men turned to science for new devices of warfare, which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction. And now, fought with the terrible weapons of super-science, menacing all mankind and every creature on the Earth comes the War of the Worlds!

Autumn is here and Halloween is nigh. And for science-fiction fans, one very American tradition during "All Hallows' Eve" is H.G. Wells' classic novel of alien invasion, The War of the Worlds. Seventy years ago, on October 30, 1938, the late, great actor and film producer/director Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre On The Air played one heck of a trick-or-treat with their radio dramatization of the story, causing panic and alarm across the United States. Using a "we interrupt this broadcast to give you an important announcement" newscast style, Welles and company made many people believe that Martians (or perhaps Germans) were actually attacking. Newspapers of that era, hostile to the upcoming broadcasting industry, played up the unintentional effects of the broadcast, and there were many unsubstantiated, anecdotal accounts of people preparing to commit suicide rather than risk death from Martian heat rays or poison gas attacks. But there were very real accounts of genuinely frightened citizens, flooded telephone switchboards, and some people actually getting their firearms ready to defend their homes and communities. The next day a very shaken Orson Welles had to explain that the resulting panic was unintentional, and CBS made a public promise to never again use the words "We interrupt this broadcast" in any future entertainment program on radio.

In the early 1960's my father was a sometimes attendee at meetings of the Indiana Recording Club, whose members used big reel-to-reel tape recorders to copy and swap many old radio programs from the 1930's and 40's. I had the rare privilege of hearing Orson Welles' War of the Worlds when I was a kid, though the third-generation recording was pretty awful in quality. Modern digital technology has greatly improved existing recordings of that historic broadcast. You can hear it online at the Internet Archive:
http://www.archive.org/details/WAROFTHEWORLDS2

The latest version of The War of the Worlds was Steven Spielberg's 2005 film, which I first saw while in Armenia. My teenage nephew from Moscow, Serosha, and I celebrated the 4th of July by going to the small digital theater in Vanadzor to see a Russian-dubbed version. Spielberg took ample liberties with the original story, many of which just didn't work for me, like the Martian war machines being buried long-ago under the earth as weapons caches. And the appearance of the Martians themselves was disappointing, rather like diminished versions of the Independence Day aliens. But there are some very effective scenes in Spielberg's film, my favorite being the first appearance and ascension of the Martian tripod war machine in the town square. Harkening back to the original Wells' steampunk-like machine, the towering invader emits puffs of steam-like gas, and slowly shifts its weight on its three metal legs. As Tom Cruise and the downtown crowd start to come out of their hiding places to get a better look at the amazing sight, again as in Wells' original story, the Martian war machine exhults, blasting sinister music-like basso profundo notes the likes of which I haven't heard since I attended a Black Sabbath concert some years ago. Everyone on screen jumps when the machine unexpectedly sounds off, and I confess that it made me feel a real chill up my spine.

I enjoyed Spielberg's film, uneven though it was, but my all-time favorite is George Pal's 1953 Oscar-winning version of The War of the Worlds, certainly one of the very best science-fiction films made in the 50's. The film was directed by Byron Haskin, who would later direct another of my favorite science-fiction films, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. In Pal's film, the invasion takes place during the 1950's. Pal and art director Albert Nozaki placed the Martians in sleek, futuristic manta-ray shaped war machines that hovered above the ground on invisible legs of magnetic flux. Modern science-fiction elements were added to the plot with great effect, such as the Martians generating atomic energy "without the heavy shielding we use" as the source of their weapon's power. Radioactivity is detected not long after the first Martian cylinder falls from the sky, an ominous omen of what is soon to come. When the Martians first shoot their atomic-powered heat ray, an electronic-magnetic pulse knocks out electric power, telephone lines, and even magnetizes the watches worn by the nearby towns' people. And though Pal didn't use tripod war machines in his film, the trinary nature of the Martians was emphasized throughout the story: the Martians are shown to have three fingers; their eyes and electronic cameras have three irises that are colored red, green, and blue; and the Martian war machines always operate in groups of three.

The film begins with a virtual tour of the solar system, beautifully illustrated with the artwork of Chesley Bonestell, the famous space illustrator. And the accompanying narration was done by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whose British accent is most fitting for this retelling of Wells' story. One of the first scenes is a view of a Martian city alongside frozen water canals. I always yearned to see a close up, but we only get a distant view.

The stars of the film were Gene Barry in the role of Pacific Tech scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester, and the very beautiful Ann Robinson, who was only 17 years old at the time! Barry would later be remembered for his starring roles in the TV western series Bat Masterson, and in following years as the lead role in Burke's Law. Some reviewers are critical of Barry's acting, but I enjoyed his performance in The War of the Worlds. You can hear a little bit of mad scientist in his voice as he's watching the Martian war machines slowly rise up from their landing zone and gleefully whispers, "This is amazing!" I thought so, too, when I first saw the silvery Martian machines. During the initial Martian attack, Barry and the commanding Army officer, General Mann, see the Martian's disintegrating "skeleton beam" for the first time. Barry really got me when he grabs General Mann and desperately explains:

"It neutralizes mesons somehow. They're the atomic glue holding matter together. Cut across their lines of magnetic force and any object will simply cease to exist! Take my word for it, General, this type of defense is useless against that kind of power! You'd better let Washington know, fast!"

Major General Mann was played by Les Tremayne, whose career in radio, television, and film spanned over 50 years. His performance as the frustrated commander of the futile west coast defense efforts against the Martians is dead on. While serving in the U.S. Air Force, I met more than one General Mann in my time, believe me! In one of my favorite scenes, Mann is shown briefing the U.S. Secretary of Defense and a team of military commanders from around the world:

"This much is certain. It is vital to prevent the Martian machines from linking up. Once they do, they adopt an extraordinary military tactic. They form a crescent. They anchor it at one end, sweep on, until they've cleared a quadrant. Then they anchor the opposite end, and reverse direction. They slash across country like scythes, wiping out everything that's trying to get away from them."

Mann shows detailed photographs of the original Martian landing zone, now developed into a full-fledged base. Finally, after a silent pause, the Secretary of Defense nods thoughtfully and says:

"All right, I've seen enough. There's only one thing that will stop the Martians. We've held back because of the dangers of radiation to civilians. Now we have no choice. The White House will confirm the order to use the atom bomb."

Pal selected a perfect symbol of the 1950s jet-age era in his film when he used footage of the Northrup YB-49 Flying Wing jet aircraft as the bomber chosen to drop the A-bomb on the Martians. Though the plane was way ahead of its time and was never put into production, seeing the big wing as the last hope for civilization was a great touch for the film.

There has been some criticism of the religious elements in Pal's film, but I always thought they were done tastefully and display a touch of compassion in such a grim story. When the Martians' first landing zone is surrounded by Marine and Army forces, the nearby town priest, Father Matthew, played so very well by actor Lewis Martin, pleads with the military commander to make an effort to show that we mean the Martians no harm, that war is not necessary. Unsuccessful, Father Matthew quietly slips away from the command post and sets out toward the advancing Martian war machines on his own. He recites the Lord's Prayer as he walks, and holds up a pocket bible to show the Martians the cross on its cover. This scene always impressed me greatly because we can see the fear on Father Matthew's face, the knowledge that he is, indeed, walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but that his Christian faith compels him to make the effort.

Another scene, a brief one that always touchs me is when Gene Barry is desperately going from church to church looking for Sylvia as Los Angeles comes under direct attack by the Martians. Inside the churches we see the elderly, the poor, and, many times, immigrants whom I always imagined didn't have automobiles and couldn't flee from the oncoming menace. Not finding Sylvia in a Catholic church, Barry turns to leave but is stopped at the door by a kindly church elder who says, "Don't go, son. Stay here with us." It's a minor scene, but this simple, compassionate moment is one that stands out in the movie, for me anyway. It's clear that the refugees in the church believe they will soon be killed, and that the elder's kind invitation really means, "Don't die out in the street alone." A dazed Barry quietly explains how he's searching for someone and then moves on through the burning streets as the Martian machines enter the city.

In another scene touching on religious faith, just before the A-bomb is dropped on the Martians, a scientist tells Barry and Robinson that he's calculated that the Martians will be able to conquer the Earth in six days. Robinson replies, "The same number of days it took God to create it." The group of scientists pauses in quiet reflection at this very chilling biblical reference.

George Pal paid tribute to Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast by including cameo appearances in his film of characters from Welles' script. At the first Martian landing zone, a radio station reporter named Carl Phillips describes the scene for radio listeners, just like in the radio play. And later, again on radio, a scientist named Drew Pearson, the name of Welles' character in the original broadcast, makes comments about the possible physical appearance and nature of the Martians.

Director Byron Haskin and art director Nozaki worked together again in 1963 on another outstanding Mars film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. And if you watch it, you will see Nozaki's original Martian machine design, recycled but without the cobra-like heat ray, this time as the supersonic, automated machines used by the interstellar miners on the Red Planet.

The 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast is sometimes replayed on radio during Halloween, and many radio stations and theater groups perform new versions of the story at this time of year. But if you'd like a real science-fiction treat for this All Hallow's Eve, I urge you to watch the 1953 film version.

Happy Halloween,

VIKTOR KUPRIN

P.S. Earlier this year when I was visiting Armenia again I took my DVD of George Pal's War of the Worlds. It had never before been shown in the Soviet Union. At the end of a screening of the film for families and neighbors, I heard the Armenians saying "Grip. Grip," the Armenian word for influenza! If you read the book or watch the films, you'll know why.

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2 Comments:

At 7:02 PM EDT, Anonymous Shambhala said...

Great post.

 
At 6:47 PM EDT, Blogger Still Struggling with Ceaseless Chaos said...

Great post.

Yes, the grippe laid the Martians low....

 

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