Sunday, October 28, 2018

Hubrisween 2018 :: W is for War of the Worlds (1953)

No one would have ever believed in the middle of the 20th Century, intones our scholarly narrator, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences far greater than our own. Yet, across the gulf of space on the planet Mars intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely plotted against us. Yeah. Seems the planet Mars, despite it’s technologically advanced state, has reached a point of environmental collapse with the total exhaustion of the planet’s natural resources. 

And not ones to go all Soylent Red, the inhabitants of this dying world looked across space with “instruments and intelligences of which we have scarcely dreamed,” searching for another world to which they could migrate. And after a quick tour of all the other planets in our solar system via some spiffy production paintings courtesy of The Conquest of Space artist, Chesley Bonestell, all are deemed inhospitable by the Martians save one, Earth, who then beat the drums of war and set into motion a cosmic invasion -- and one not of occupation, but annihilation.

And on the strategic date when the orbit of the planets brings Mars to its closest proximity to Earth, the Martian spearhead strikes near the small California town of Linda Rosa, which the locals mistake for a large meteorite they hope to exploit financially as a large crowd gathers while the fires it touched off are brought under control. Among these spectators is a Dr. Clayton Forrester (Barry), a renown physicist from Pacific Tech, who just happened to be in the area on a fishing trip. Now, Forrester is a bit bewildered over how a meteor of that size didn’t make more of an impact crater. And stranger still, evidence shows the thing came in for a controlled belly landing before skidding to rest. He also notes his Geiger counter is picking up traces of radiation. (There primarily for the trout, Forrester was also fishing for Uranium deposits.) But further investigation will have to wait until the meteor cools down; and so it’s agreed three appointed sentries will remain to keep the curious at bay and monitor the area in case any more fires spark off overnight.

Forrester finds lodging with the local pastor, Matthew Collins (Martin), and his orphaned niece, Sylvia Van Buren (Robinson), who also invite him to attend the town’s square dance, where Sylvia makes it clear she’s sweet on the handsome scientist. Meanwhile, back at the impact site, strange noises from the meteor draw the men guarding it closer, who spy some sort of hatch slowly unscrewing. Fearing it might be a doomsday bomb at first, they soon conclude whatever is inside the rock trying to get out must be from outer space. And wanting to go down in history as the men who made first contact, they approach what now looks like a cylinder as something emerges from the now uncorked hatchway. And what emerges is a mechanical device, serpentine in nature (-- think copper-plated King Cobra), which emits a pulsating drone full of menace as it rotates to face the sentries and, well, promptly flash-fries them with some kind of heat-ray that vomits forth from the machine’s glowing iris.

Back in town, the power suddenly conks out and the phone lines no longer function, bringing an abrupt end to the dance, where everyone realizes they’re watches have all stopped at the exact same moment. Forrester deduces the cause of this mass malfunction must be due to some kind of electromagnetic pulse, and figures the meteor is the most likely culprit when a pocket compass points toward it instead of north. Then, everyone’s attention is drawn outside as sirens roar past and firetrucks head up into the hills, where a large fire has broken out. Forrester hitches a ride with the town Sheriff and, arriving first, they find the burning wreckage of several cars and the ashen remains of the three guards. Soon detected, the deadly Martian weapon opens fire on them, too, destroying the patrol car and the driver. Obviously this is more than the local authorities can handle, and the two men retreat to prevent anyone else from getting into range and alert the military about the arrival of some hostile alien menace just as another falling meteor impacts nearby.

Well, turns out these “meteors” have been falling out of the sky all over the world. And with some of these landing sites, reports from first responders have mysteriously ceased. Meantime, a battalion of Marines have been busy surrounding the Martian beachhead near Linda Rosa with infantry, tanks, and artillery. Under the command of Col. Heffner (Rich), the Marines have orders to hold fire until the Martians move out of the crater, where eerie lights glow and strange noises emanate at certain intervals. An aerial reconnaissance plane sent in to find out what the enemy are up to draws a lethal response as the heat-ray once more goes into action, so all the command staff can do is guess.

Also present in the command bunker are Forrester and Maj. General Mann (Tremayne), who is there as an observer for the Pentagon. Also loitering about are Pastor Collins, who is helping with evacuation plans, and Sylvia, who is assisting the Red Cross. As General Mann and Heffner talk tactics, Collins interjects, saying violence should be a last resort and an attempt should be made to contact these Martians; for surely they also carry the Divine spark. When that goes nowhere, Collins takes it upon himself to approach the crater just as three Martian war machines rise, riding a series of electromagnetic waves that give them flight. And turns out one of those copper snakeheads is attached as the primary weapon on each manta ray-shaped craft, which the lead vessel turns on the approaching Collins, Bible in hand, and removes him from the field mid-prayer in another blast of unearthly fire.

As Sylvia screams, Heffner gives the order to open fire. And as shells, bullets, mortars, rockets, and all kinds of hell rain down on the Martian ships, nothing can penetrate the “magnetic blister” surrounding each vessel. And when the Martians answer this opening terrestrial salvo, turns out that heat-ray wasn’t the only weapon they have at their disposal as each ship is also armed with some kind of atomic-powered disintegrator beams, which are employed ruthlessly and with devastating effect on Heffner’s Marines

And as the Martians lay waste to both men and material with their superior firepower, as this first line of defense quickly crumbles under the shock and awe of this alien blitzkrieg, one gets a dreaded sense this war of the worlds probably isn’t gonna last very long...

Noted British science fiction author H.G. Wells first published his seminal novel The War of the Worlds in 1898, which was his thinly veiled treatise and scathing indictment on British imperialism and the treatment of their third world colonies by turning the tables and having Victorian England overrun, overwhelmed, and under the heel of a vastly superior military force.

In 1924, Paramount Pictures secured the film rights of the novel and announced it would be adapted by none other than Cecil B. Demille as a follow up, and on the same epic scale, as his silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923). Obviously, the film would also be silent but the plan was to enhance some scenes with the new two-strip Technicolor process. But things got off to a rocky start when Roy Pomeroy’s script failed to pass muster as it flushed most of Wells story; and the Martian’s new strategic goal was not occupation but assimilation by rounding up human females for seedy breeding purposes to create a new hybrid race to take over once the rest of humanity has been purged.

And despite a few leaked stories about the efforts of an Arzen Doscerepy, a “famous German technical expert producing movies in Berlin, who had spent two years perfecting devices and mechanisms which will make Wells' Martians walk and spray death around the world," which, frankly, smells like made-up studio B.S. to me -- I mean ‘Arzen Doscerepy’, if that’s your real name, in truth, the silent DeMille version just couldn’t get any traction and was soon abandoned in the natal stages of pre-production.

Then, in 1930, Jesse Lasky, who had helped establish Paramount with Adolph Zukor back in 1916, and who was personally responsible for bringing several of Wells’ properties to the studio, in perhaps not the wisest of moves, hoped to beat the studio’s slumping finances as it hemorrhaged money due to the onset of the Great Depression by making a huge spectacle and once more took a run at War of the Worlds, inviting noted Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein, of Battleship Potemkin (1925) fame, to helm the project. Once again a script was commissioned and about four months of effort were expended in developing the needed special-effects before things fell apart as Eisenstein abruptly left the project to make a film in Mexico. And on top of that, by 1931 Paramount’s finances were in shambles and the studio was on its way to receivership and a massive reorganization.

And so, at the time, Lasky declared War of the Worlds to be too expensive, too technically impossible to film, and shelved the project indefinitely. And it was probably a bitter pill to swallow when the H.G. Wells adaptation the studio did release in 1932, Island of Lost Souls -- based on the novella, The Island of Dr. Moreau, even though now considered a pre-code classic, was a box-office disappointment and, worse yet, author Wells hated the film with a passion. And on top of that, the very next year, RKO showed what a special-effects driven picture and a little ingenuity could do when they essentially re-invented cinema with the release of King Kong (1933).

And while at least five different treatments for War of the Worlds languished on the shelf at Paramount, over in England, Alfred Hitchcock approached Wells about adapting the picture for a British studio but couldn’t because of the author’s deal with Paramount. There was some renewed interest domestically after The Mercury Theater broadcasted their modernized and most memorable version of War of the Worlds, making the radio drama a little too real for some, sending the nation into a bit of a mass panic-attack with their Halloween night broadcast in 1938. And when Orson Welles switched mediums and started making pictures for RKO, Paramount sent several overtures to Welles to work the same magic on film but he wanted no part of it. (There’s a nod to Welles’ radio adaptation in the film when a reporter, played by Paul Frees, doing his best Orson Welles impersonation, plays witness to the action.)

Then, after the success of Mighty Joe Young (1949), stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen desperately wanted to follow up with his take on War of the Worlds. And as proof of concept, he cooked up some production art and a test reel of the octopus-like Martians emerging from the cylinder and brought them to Lasky, now an independent producer, who got a six-month option from his old studio to get something off the ground but once more failed to secure financing. And just when it appeared the film would never get made, Demille decided to take one more crack at it with the dawning of the 1950s by turning it over to his good friend, George Pal.

After graduating from the Budapest Academy of Arts in 1928, George Pal founded his own studio, Trickfilm-Studio GmbH Pal und Wittke, in Berlin, Germany, and began developing his Pal-Doll technique -- a cruder but no less endearing offshoot of stop-motion animation, for a series of animated shorts that would come to be known as Mad-Cap Models or, more commonly, Puppetoons. Pal fled to England when the Nazis came to power, where he continued to make shorts for several years until he moved on to Hollywood and set up shop at Paramount in late 1939, making more Puppetoons. (Pal would hire Harryhausen to work for him briefly in 1940 before the animator branched out on his own to produce the Mother Goose Fairy Tales shorts.) Here, Pal would make the anti-Nazi short, Tulips Shall Grow (1942), which depicted a facsimile of Holland being overrun by the mechanical Screwballs until, just as all seems lost, a prayer for deliverance brings rain and the Screwballs rust and crumble and their terrible machines of war sink and dissolve into the mud. And watching this short in hindsight really makes it look like a dry-run for his take on Wells’ story.

Pal’s first live-action feature was The Great Rupert (1950), which was based on the children’s book,Willie the Squowse, where a dancing squirrel saves two families from financial ruin. Pal served as a producer on the film, which combined live-action and animated elements, which Pal oversaw. Pal would serve the same function in the follow-up features, Destination Moon (1950), and When Worlds Collide (1951) -- another adaptation DeMille had been toying with himself since the 1930s. 

Pal would win an Academy Award for special-effects on both of those features, and both made pretty good box-office to help spark-off a decade long Sci-Fi boom in Hollywood. And to help quell the audiences’ appetite for such things, it appeared filmmaking and FX technology had finally caught up to a point where a large scale production of War of the Worlds would finally see the light of day.

And while touted as two years in the making, which is actually pretty accurate, once again this latest attempt almost ended before it even began. For once Demille, who had the right of first refusal, gave Pal his blessing, he commissioned BarrĂ© Lyndon to write yet another script treatment. Pal then presented this to studio executive Don Hartman, to discuss the budget. But Hartman wasn’t a fan of science fiction and told Pal the script belonged in the trash and promptly tossed it in the waste bin. This enraged the emotional Pal, who attacked Hartman and started to throttle him. Hearing this commotion, Frank Freeman, the head of production, separated the two, calmed Pal down, and took over the negotiations, assuring the producer he would provide whatever money was needed. Byron Haskin signed on to direct, and the rest would soon be history once a few legal hassles were cleared up when production was halted two days into filming. Seems Paramount only had the rights to a silent version of the novel, but quickly got the blessing of the Wells estate to continue.

Like Welles’ radio play, Lyndon modernized the story to take place during the time of production (1952) but I think it still carried some of H.G. Wells’ overall theme as audiences must have been a little shocked to see the U.S. Armed Forces, still riding high over the defeat of the Axis, so thoroughly decimated by the Martians in the first battle fought on American soil since the Indian campaigns. Tanks and rockets all prove impotent as the trio of Martian ships wipe everything out and then start to move to link up with the other landed “meteors.” And so, retreat is the order of the day as Heffner is killed along with about 75% of his battalion, while General Mann manages to escape in time to make a very sobering report to his superiors.

Meantime, refugees Forrester and Sylvia survive long enough to get themselves trapped in a farmhouse after an attempt to fly out of the area in a commandeered light aircraft ends in disaster when they get caught up in the crossfire between a squadron of fighter jets and the Martians, who make just as quick work out of the Air-Force as they did with the Marines. Surrounded by the Martians ships, they are nearly crushed by yet another falling cylinder, which uses the farmhouse as backstop, knocking it off the foundation.

Inside, battered and bruised but still kicking, the couple then have a close encounter with a tethered Martian probe, which Forrester manages to decapitate with an axe. And as Forrester wonders why they’re not attacking since they know where they are, Sylvia goes into hysterics, thinking the aliens must want to capture them alive for reasons she’d rather not contemplate; hence the hysterics. Her condition isn’t helped when she spies something inhuman scurrying around the rubble outside.

Forrester slaps her out of it, and then starts trying to dig their way out. And as Sylvia watches, a shadow creeps up behind her, and then a ghastly three-fingered hand reaches for her shoulder and she spins around to come face to face with a real live Martian! The creature immediately shies away from the beam of Forrester’s flashlight, and then flees when the axe comes flying at it next. No longer curious, the Martians raze what’s left of the farmhouse.

Luckily, Forrester and Sylvia escaped this deathtrap, and as they thumb there way to Los Angeles and Pacific Tech, the Martians continue their sturm und drang all over the world as the narrator clues us in on the valiant efforts of the few to save the many as huge masses of displaced refugees try to stay ahead of the Martian war machine. The only problem is, they’re quickly running out of places to run. Meantime, Forrester and his companion make it to Pacific Tech with two precious souvenirs: the dismembered eye-piece of the Martian probe, and a sample of the Martian’s blood when it was injured and fled. But there is only time for a cursory study of these spoils before the gathered scientists are mustered to the outskirts of town to observe General Mann’s last ditch effort to stop the Martian armada from reaching Los Angeles as the President has authorized the use of an atomic bomb.

But even an A-bomb 20-times more powerful than the ones that ended World War II can’t penetrate the Martian force-fields. With that, Mann is licked and charges Forrester that it’s up to them to come up with something new to stop the Martians. And as Forrester consults with his colleagues, saying they must take a different tactic and focus on fighting the Martians and not their machines, he feels the anemic blood sample will hold the key. And they best do it fast because by all calculations it will take the Martians just six more days to wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. And so, a plan is hatched to move the Pacific Tech researchers to a stronghold somewhere in the Rockies. Alas, they tarry to long loading their test-tubes and their convoy is overwhelmed and destroyed by those who stayed behind to loot the city.

And then, the Battle of Los Angeles begins in earnest, one-sided though it may be. And as Forrester searches for the others, having been separated in the violence and confusion, he finds what’s left of the convoy and rages at the looters for destroying the invaluable equipment and, essentially, cutting their own throats. Here, Forrester refuses to evacuate until he finds Sylvia. And as he runs through the deserted streets, as the Martians power their way toward the ocean, razing everything in their path, he recalls a story the girl told him about her uncle, who found her after her parents died when she sought safe refuge at his church. And so, his search continues as the Martians draw ever closer from one church to another, where the flocks have gathered, await the end, and pray for divine intervention.

Well, someone must’ve been listening as Forrester finally finds Sylvia in a Hispanic church. And they embrace as the Martian heat-rays blow the roof off, sending everyone scrambling. But then, as everyone braces for the end of everything, the firing stops. Outside, the Martian warships start to falter off course and eventually crash; one, then two, then all three. And as the crowd heads outside, a hatch opens on one of the ships and we get a Martian’s eye view as one tries to crawl out but then slowly expires as its pulsating veins on the visible arm cease to function. Forrester goes in for a closer look and confirms the alien is dead as the deadly machines continue to fall out of the sky all over the world as their pilots expire.

Here, the narrator chimes back in and reveals how the world was saved through Divine intervention by default, saying the Martians had no resistance to the bacteria in our atmosphere. And once they had breathed our air, germs, which no longer affected us, began to kill them. And so, after all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed, the War of the Worlds won, and humanity saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth to also kill us if you think about it. Amen.

As a science fiction writer who always relied more on the fantastic than science, much to rival author Jules Verne’s constant consternation, the epidemiology of Wells’ resolution to The War of the Worlds is extremely clever and removes some of the deus ex machina stink off an otherwise Divine Intervention. And as such a devout agnostic, Wells’ reference to some Omniscient machinations to set this all in motion seems strangely out of place. George Pal, on the other hand, was a devout Catholic, and his film version kinda lays the piousness on a little too thick for me during the climax that might cause a few eye-rolls like mine did.

Aside from that Sunday School benediction, I have few complaints about War of the Worlds. For his cast, Pal wanted unknowns for his leads to keep the audience uneasy over their survival. In hindsight, Gene Barry’s character’s jaw is so square and so knowledgeable and so virile it almost comes off as self-parody. (Apparently Lee Marvin was second choice for the role.) And the script does poor Ann Robinson no favors whatsoever. Then again, all the human drama played second fiddle to the special-effects, and they truly were legendary. With a budget of nearly $2 million, all but one-quarter of it was spent to bring the Martians and their machines to life.

Another minor complaint about the production can strictly be placed on plain and simple bad timing. Since the film started shooting in late 1951, it was well into production when 3D films suddenly came into vogue. Pal toyed with the idea of adding some 3D inserts during the atomic bomb explosion but this was abandoned, which is just as well as the format was all but dead by the time the picture was released in 1953. Of course, one of the things that hastened the demise of 3D was the advent of CinemaScope. Again, the production was too far into filming in the old square format to convert into the wider frame. This, is really too bad because the three-strip Technicolor process used to capture War of the Worlds is positively gorgeous, a true feast for the eyes, and one can only ponder what it could’ve looked like filling up those new widened theater screens.

And personally, I would love to thank all the technicians, builders, model-makers, and optical-specialists who brought those Martian war machines to life -- I hate to call them flying saucers, and created the landscapes and miniatures they destroyed. The Martian craft were insanely beautiful, and so simplistic and clean in their aesthetics cooked up by Albert Nozaki, who based them from nature, combining a snake, a goose, and a manta ray. The ships were made of copper and measured about three feet across, were manipulated by wires, which become more and more visible, unfortunately, in this digitally remastered age, and stuffed with electronics to make the various lights and appendages work.

Originally, Pal had wanted to recreate the classic tripods from the novel; and while mention is made of how the ships move by magnetic rays shot from the three nodules located on the belly of the craft, rays we see when they first emerge, making for three invisible legs, this was quickly abandoned for cost-saving measures. It was a nice thought, but it really wasn’t necessary. Mention should also be made of the excellent sound design added later, with the thrumming engines, the pulsing screech of the heat-ray, and the pew-pew-pew of the disintegrators -- much of which was later pilfered and recycled through Star Trek’s original TV run. (I love how the sound of the spaceships shutting down was made by vacuum cleaners being turned off.)

Aside from a few miniatures, three large scale Martian ships were created and filmed for the production. Alas, none of them survive as they were later donated to a copper drive and melted down for a Boy Scouts fundraiser. Quite the ignominious end to one of the most memorable movie props of the 1950s.

Still, my all time favorite production story from the film doesn’t involve the miniatures, but the Martian itself. The monster was created by Charles Gemora, who is recognized as one of Hollywood’s best gorilla men, and rightfully so. The Andy Serkis of his day, Gemora produced his own gorilla suit, several, actually, and performed in them. He also created the aliens for War of the Worlds, with a design assist from Nazaki, and later, the horny aliens from I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). Gemora’s original Martian costume was a tall and lithe, mushroom-shaped figure nearly six feet tall with broad armored shoulders and long gangling arms with suckers on each finger and one trioptic eye in the middle of its squat head. 

On the day it was brought to the set to be filmed the next, the finished costume proved way too tall for what Pal and director Haskin wanted it to do. And so, Gemora had less than 24-hours to come up with something smaller before shooting began the next morning. And with the help of his daughter, Diana, who was his 12-year old assistant, Gemora pulled an all-nighter, cannibalizing the arms and head from the old costume and slapping them onto a new and smaller armature made of chicken wire, plaster bandages, and layered latex, making it more of a sentient tree stump, leaving the back open so the elder Gemora could get inside and operate the arms with pull-rods.

Come the dawn, the latex still hadn’t properly cured yet but facing the deadline, they carefully hauled it back to the set and hoped for the best, knowing full well it could fall apart at any moment. For the scene, while Gemora was inside the prop to make it move, Diana was under the floor pumping air into several tubes to create the pulsating effect in the creature’s veins. When the scene ends with the Martian getting brained and making a hasty retreat, the prop men charged with pulling Gemora out of the shot yoinked him out so quickly it nearly toppled him. And if he had fallen, the costume would’ve literally exploded into pieces. On the 2005 DVD release of War of the Worlds, there’s a great making of documentary where they interview Diana Gemora, who recounts the whole process and it is hysterical and makes what we see onscreen a minor miracle. For the climax, only the creature’s arm appears out of the hatch as the Martian slowly succumbs to the fatal sickness, and with a trick of the lighting to change the tone of its skin and the cessation of the air-bladders, this death scene is startlingly effective.

Unlike with Island of Lost Souls, the estate of H.G. Wells was so pleased with this adaptation they offered Pal his choice of the author’s other works to follow it up. Pal wound up choosing The Time Machine (1960). Despite the elaborate costs, War of the Worlds did pretty well at the box office for Paramount, and earned Pal another Academy Award, which inspired rival studios to make their own elaborate Sci-Fi epics with Universal’s This Island Earth (1955) and MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956). These, however, failed to even make back their production costs, once more relegating this genre to B-picture status until 1968 with the release of Planet of the Apes (1968) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which opened the door for Spielberg and Lucas in the 1970s, who started making B-pictures with A-Budgets.

As for George Pal, his pictures always had a quaintness to them and seemed to be geared toward children from a certain era. And once that era past, he failed to find an audience with his later pictures, Atlantis: The Lost Continent (1961), The Power (1968), and Doc Savage (1975), which can be appreciated for their quaintness -- or corniness if you’re so inclined, but that’s about it. But back in 1953, he really tapped into something with War of the Worlds, and should be commended for it and the film rightfully remembered as an apex example of the genre, Holy Joe ending or not.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow the collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 23 reviews down with just 3 to go! Up Next: Roger Corman's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for the eyes.

War of the Worlds (1953) Paramount Pictures / EP: Cecil B. DeMille / P: George Pal / AP: Frank Freeman Jr. / D: Byron Haskin / W: Barré Lyndon, H.G. Wells (novel) / C: George Barnes / E: Everett Douglas / M: Leith Stevens / S: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Cedric Hardwicke


Ross said...

In addition to the actual TV series spin-off that got made in '88 (My obsession for the past few years), Pal himself pitched a almost-in-name-only sequel TV series back in the '70s, which looks kinda amazing. Has a look and feel that's very much "Star Trek of the '70s, but with a much more 'Forbidden Planet' visual motif. I can't imagine it having actually worked out, but I'm super curious what it would've done to Sci-fi tv if it had, especially since the treatment called for a highly serial plot, decades before that sort of thing was mainstream.

W.B. Kelso said...

I think Pal was also trying to get a Doc Savage programmer off the ground, too, after his feature flopped. I vaguely recall the TV series we got, and enjoying it quite a bit but it was syndicated and kinda disappeared after the first season on my ABC affiliate.

Ross said...

It certainly sounds like Pal's carreer never recovered after Doc Savage, which is really undeserved, since nothing I know about it really seems to suggest it committed any greater sin than being in competition with Jaws.

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