Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Unique Re-Imagining Indeed :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Mike Slee's The Great Martian War: 1913-1917 (2013)

A&E, History and the Discovery channels have been taking some heat for a while now over abandoning their original modus operandi when they decided to skip the history lessons and branch out into reality programming (-- garbage like Pawn Stars and Storage Wars), alternative history docs (-- dude, it was an alien, or a Sasquatch, or an alien Sasquatch), and speculative fiction on cryptids or the preternatural presented as fact (-- anyone else remember that whole mermaid fiasco?), in a desperate grab for cheap product and a bigger market share. But with these dubious shenanigans they were not pioneers, as this kind of duplicity has been happening since broadcasting began.

One of the best examples of this, of course, is Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater’s Halloween production of The War of the Worlds back in 1938, which resulted in a night that panicked America into thinking they were actually being invaded by little Green Men from the Angry Red Planet.

Perhaps taking some inspiration from this notorious broadcast, in conjunction with celebrating the 100th Anniversary of H.G. Wells' source novel, filmmakers Michael Kot, Steve Maher, and Mike Slee conspired to produce The Great Martian War: 1913-1917 (2013), a faux documentary which presented an oral and multimedia history of a Martian invasion of Earth at the time Europe was on the cusp of the first World War for the History Channel.

This mock-history lesson begins with a mysterious explosion that leaves an 8-mile wide crater deep in the Black Forest of Germany. And while the rest of the world figures this was some new doomsday weapon that had backfired on the Kaiser, the cylinder at the center was definitely not of terrestrial origin. And once it opens up and several giant war machines emerge, the German army is soon decimated by these far superior weapons, resulting in a desperate call for help and an alliance quickly formed to deal with the alien threat.

But despite a lot of (misguided) effort and (bad) strategy, within weeks most of Europe is overrun by the alien war machine, consisting of large tripods (dubbed "Herons") armed with particle beam weapons, smaller but more vicious tripods ("Iron Spiders"), and the most insidious of the bunch, smaller scavenger machines ("Lice") that pick the battlefields clean, leaving nothing behind, leading to a grisly conclusion: the Martians are feeding on the dead and wounded (-- referred to as ‘"The Vanished"). All seems lost until what’s left of the German army regroups, performs a Blitzkrieg, and manages to halt the Martian advance through grit and attrition. And as this stalemate wears on, the enemy unleashes a new form of tentacled submarine, which wreaks havoc on the supply lines from a thus far neutral America. (But not for long if Teddy Roosevelt has anything to say about it.)

Hoping for a decisive victory, allied commanders call for a massive offensive, dubbed “The Push”, that ends in disaster and the loss of over three million men and tons of material with no perceivable gain. And so, a new strategy is put into play with the main goal of capturing a Heron. And after digging several miles of tunnels and filling them with explosives, an attack is feigned, followed by a full scale retreat to lure the Martians into the baited trap. This works, but at a great cost. But not only do the allies disable and capture not one, but two, Herons, all the accompanying Iron Spiders inexplicably surrender. Upon examination, it's revealed all the captured machines are comprised of known elements except for the power source -- some kind of living metal, designated Victicite. Here, a horrible truth sets in: the Lice weren’t collecting food but metal to be recycled into more war machines, meaning all the dead and wounded were essentially mulched and ground-up into nothing where they lay.

And as America finally enters the war, bringing much needed reinforcements, some strides are made in reverse-engineering the alien weaponry, arming tanks and biplanes with particle weapons which helps stem the tide for a time. But true victory is finally attained after several of the captured Martians die from what is later discovered to be glanders virus, contracted from the horses that hauled them into captivity. And so, the decision is made to employ germ warfare against the Martians with Operation: Trojan Horse, where an enormous herd of infected animals would be unleashed on the battlefield. Again, this works splendidly, officially bringing the invasion to an abrupt end after four years of hell with the total defeat of the alien invaders but not without a price as the virus quickly mutates and starts infecting people, leading to a worldwide pandemic of the Martian Flu, echoing the Swine-Flu outbreak at the end of World War I, where more lives were lost to the sickness than in actual combat.

Presented with doctored archive footage with analytical testimonials from several talking heads and curators and interviews with several survivors and veterans of the war, the presentation is very slick and extremely well executed, resulting in something both fascinating and compelling as this fakery is littered with just enough historical facts, locations, and historical figures to give it the necessary grounding.

And while some might find it a tad distasteful to CGI some tripods into actual war footage “much of the available ‘real’ archive World War I footage of frontline combat was actually reconstructed during and after the war well away from the front line for propaganda and dramatic purpose,” said Maher. “But where we had any doubt we avoided it and made our own. We did this from scratch, painstakingly constructing our shots with reference to photos and footage from the war and deliberately tried to confine ourselves to angles and camera technology available [at the time]."

Despite the inspired execution, the end result does leave several things unresolved. There are hints that the world looks mighty different now after the Victicite and Martian technology was applied to terrestrial industrialization but we see none of this. There is also a whole subplot on deciphering the Martian language, which hints at the liquid metal used to power everything might be alive -- maybe even parasitic, and this might’ve been what caused the Martians to turn belligerent and invade the Earth in the first place. And so, it may now be doing the exact same thing to mankind. But this, too, kind of dies on the vine.

Still, despite these hiccups, I found The Great Martian War to be a highly entertaining romp into the field of alternative history, notching it somewhere in-between George Pal’s film version and Jeff Wayne’s musical extravaganza as my most favored adaptation of Wells’ book. Actually seeing it is a bit of a struggle, I'm sorry to report. You can kind of piece it together through several YouTube videos, but the only complete version appears to be squashed and run through a helium filter. Best of luck, and keep watching the skies -- you never know who is watching closely or keenly with intelligence far greater than our own...

The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013) Entertainment One Television :: Impossible Pictures :: The History Channel / EP: Michael Kot / P: Steve Maher, Mike Slee / D: Mike Slee / W: Steve Maher, Stephen Sarossy / C: Christopher Romieke / M: Mark Korven / S: Mark Strong, Jock McLeod, Joan Gregson, Ian Downie, Ashley Bomberry


Ross said...

As part of my many-years-long attempt to write about every adaptation of War of the Worlds, I hit this one up a couple of years ago, and it inspired me to write a History Channel Pitch Generator ( ), which randomly slaps together historical oddities with sensationalist reporting to generate pitches like "2017 marks 22 years since eight sheep were discovered drained of blood in a field in Puerto Rico, among the unsoundest occurences of the century. Or so we thought. Now, a lost legacy and an industrial accident challenge long-held assumptions, and may just rewrite the story of El Chupacabra forever."

W.B. Kelso said...

Nice! I'm reminded of the old Truth or Bullshit segment from AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON where they postulated that Jack the Ripper was really the Loch Ness Monster.

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