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The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds(1953)

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teaser The War of the Worlds (1953)

In 1951 George Pal, producer of the well-loved Puppetoons stop-motion animated shorts, was at Paramount Pictures working on When Worlds Collide (1951), his second live-action feature (following Destination Moon [1950]). Searching about for another science-fiction story to produce as his next film, Pal stumbled upon several unproduced scripts in Paramount's story files based on the H. G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds. His discovery highlighted a property that, due to story and budget difficulties, already had a decades-long development history. The adaptation that Pal eventually made was destined to be one of the key films of the 1950s science fiction cycle and one of the best films of its type ever made.

The War of the Worlds was one of the most popular novels of British author H. G. Wells; it was first published in 1898 and told of a global invasion of Earth by "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" from the planet Mars. The focus of the book was an unnamed narrator who first witnesses explosions on Mars through the telescope of an Observatory in Ottershaw, England. He is nearby when a cylinder crashes outside London and tentacled Martians emerge to build war machines. The man takes his wife to safety in the nearby town of Leatherhead, and becomes separated from her when more cylinders land around the countryside. The Martians conduct their invasion inside giant metal tripods which walk strategically throughout the area, firing heat rays to destroy lives and property.

One who recognized that Wells' story would make an exciting motion picture was director Cecil B. DeMille, one of the most influential film makers of the silent era. Soon after the epic-making success of The Ten Commandments (1923), DeMille's studio, Paramount Pictures, bought the film rights to the Wells book - in perpetuity - in 1925. A script was written by Roy Pomeroy, but it went unproduced. In 1930, the noted Russian director Sergei Eisenstein (The Battleship Potemkin [1925]), traveled to Hollywood to make a picture; Paramount offered him the property and another screenplay was written, but Eisenstein opted for another studio's offer. Finally, in 1938 a version of The War of the Worlds was produced in the United States which created a media sensation. It was not a motion picture, however, but the Mercury Theater on the Air radio play conceived by Orson Welles and written by Howard Koch as a series of modern-day news bulletins detailing an invasion force landing in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. The Halloween broadcast was a sensation and brought the story to the forefront of the public's consciousness. Paramount, however, was not keen on producing a movie depicting violent war from outer space at a time when real war was being waged in Europe.

In 1952 George Pal tossed aside the scripts he found in Paramount's files and hired screenwriter Barre Lyndon to tackle the story. Lyndon had recently worked with Pal's booster at Paramount, DeMille, on the epic circus film, The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), and had written a suspense thriller, The House on 92nd Street (1945) that Pal greatly admired. There was no question for Pal that Wells' Victorian story should be updated to modern times. As the producer told Steve Rubin (for Rubin's 1977 retrospective on the film for Cinefantastique magazine), "The War of the Worlds was no longer as ancient as Wells had once believed. With all the talk about flying saucers, it had become especially timely. And that is one of the reasons we updated the story to the present and placed it in California - the other being the obviously limited budget and the costliness of a London period film."

In Lyndon's update, a calm night in the small California town near Los Angeles is disrupted by what appears to be a meteor crashing into a gulley. Professor Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) of Pacific Tech is on a fishing trip nearby and drives to investigate. The cylindrical object that crashed has attracted many local onlookers, including library science teacher Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), who invites Prof. Forrester to stay with her and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin). That night most of the town attends a square dance, but three curious locals approach the object when a hatch begins to unscrew. Waving a flag of friendship, the men are incinerated by a heat ray emitted from a cobra-shaped metallic appendage from the cylinder. Power in the town is disrupted as are, apparently, magnetic fields. Forrester and other townspeople return to the crash site to witness large alien spacecraft rising from the Gulley. A second cylinder crashes nearby as soldiers from the El Toro Marine base arrive. The Martian firepower is overwhelming and more reinforcements from the 6th Army Command under General Mann (Les Tremayne) enter the fray, to no avail.

Pal met with great resistance when he first brought Lyndon's script to the front office. Don Hartman, vice-president of production at Paramount, tossed the script in the trash. Pal later described Hartman as "a former writer who was very good at developing different types of films but who had no appreciation whatsoever for science fiction. He didn't understand it." Pal was so angered by the executive's response that the normally calm Hungarian grabbed Hartman by the lapels and subjected him to a barrage of expletives. Fortunately, Pal had the support of not only Cecil B. DeMille, but also Paramount chief Y. Frank Freeman who gave Pal the go-ahead for the film.

Pal hired his director early on during story development. Knowing that his picture would be dependent on the success of the special effects, he hired Byron Haskin, who once headed up the effects department at Warner Bros. As Haskin later told Gail Morgan Hickman (in The Films of George Pal), "George and Frank Freeman, Jr., the associate producer, and Barre Lyndon, the writer, and I would all sit around and discuss the thing. And then Barre would put the thing together. Barre was a very pragmatic writer. We came up with some pretty far out things, and Barre would use them as the kernel of something good. He really knew his theater. His scenes played well. It was very challenging to try to update the story into a modern situation."

One of the keys to the success of The War of the Worlds was the striking design work by art director Albert Nozaki. Nozaki worked on the film at every stage of production, coming up with concept drawings at the outset, storyboards for the set pieces in the film, and most importantly, the final designs of the Martians and their fearsome hardware. After a few preliminary sketches, it was decided to depict the Martian war machines as flying craft rather than as the walking tripods of the book. In 1977 Nozaki told Rubin that "if the idea came from any place it came from something like the Manta Ray and originally that cobra-like control arm was coming out of the rear of the machine, like the tail of the Manta Ray. It was one of those ideas that instantly you know is right."

Nozaki's designs were actualized for the movie by the head of the film's special effects, Gordon Jennings. Three of the all-important Martian war machines were manufactured by the prop department, headed by Ivyl Burks. The machines were 42 inches across, and had movable cobra necks. They were made of copper to give them an ominous, reddish tint. Lighted green wing tips and devices to turn the cobra heads meant that each machine contained thousands of dollars worth of wiring and circuitry. The machines glided on overhead tracks, connected by 15 wires both for support and to carry needed electricity. Jennings used multiple exposures to depict such effects as the heat ray (filmed as sparks from a burning welding wire) and the protective shields of the machines (which were simply small glass domes made for display cases). Other effects, such as the startling result of the wing-tip rays, which turn human beings to skeletons before vaporizing them, were achieved through matte paintings - sometimes done a frame-at-a-time in the same fashion as cel animation.

Albert Nozaki also designed the Martian itself, seen briefly during the tense scene in which a cylinder crashes next to an abandoned farmhouse where Prof. Forrester and Sylvia have sought refuge. The elaborate alien prop was outfitted with an enormous three-color eye, long arms with suction-cup fingers, and pulsating veins throughout. The unforgettable alien suit was built by Charles Gemora, who was a veteran of the Paramount makeup department since 1932, although he was best known in Hollywood for his many film roles in a gorilla suit. Gemora's daughter Diana helped with the building of the alien and with the on-camera performance; it isn't obvious on film, but the Martian was a rush job made from chicken wire, latex rubber, and tubing, and it barely held together during the shoot.

The War of the Worlds was filmed in 3-strip Technicolor to great advantage. The Martian eye itself is broken into primary red-green-blue, and great attention is paid to color detail in the film, from the copper-red hues of the Martian war machines and the vivid green "skeleton ray" it emits, down to the red horn-rimmed glasses worn by Prof. Clayton and the multi-colored chalk-talk in which General Mann explains the Martian tactical maneuvers.

In addition to being a colorful and frightening science fiction film, The War of the Worlds is an expertly constructed action picture. The lulls are few and timed as breathers between set-piece action and suspense sequences, and the storytelling is clear and concise. Pal felt that the clarity of the film had to do with two creative decisions made early on in the planning stages with director Haskin. "First, Byron and I decided that we would never show the point-of-view of the Martians, despite the pleas from the front office which kept demanding that we shoot something of how they see us....Secondly, to add realism, ease the logistics and simplify the effects, we had Los Angeles always in the west and the Martians always in the east. All of the movement between the Army and the invaders was east to west. This made a complicated story easier to understand visually."

The critical notices for The War of the Worlds were overwhelmingly positive. The New York Times said that the film is "...an imaginatively conceived, professionally turned adventure, which makes excellent use of Technicolor, special effects by a crew of experts and impressively drawn backgrounds....Director Byron Haskin...made this excursion suspenseful, fast and, on occasion, properly chilling." The trade magazine Boxoffice called it "...possibly the most impressive all-time entry in its field....Pal went all out for spectacle, scope, fantasy, action, suspense and chills. His special effects, trick photography and results thereof defy description. They'll scare the jeans off of youngsters, and frequently adults." Variety had similar praise for the action and effects in the "socko science-fiction feature," but also found that "...the story finds opportunity to develop a logical love story between [Gene] Barry and Ann Robinson. Both are good and others seen to advantage include Les Tremayne as a general [and] Lewis Martin, a pastor who faces the invaders with a prayer and is struck down."

The War of the Worlds won a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Special Effects for Gordon Jennings. Sadly, Jennings did not live to see the Oscar®; he died of a heart attack shortly after completing work on the film.

Paramount revisited some of the concepts, designs and even characters of the Pal film for a syndicated TV series, also called The War of the Worlds, in 1988. The series was a semi-sequel and ran for 44 episodes, from 1988 to 1990. The newest Paramount adaptation of the Wells novel is Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005), starring Tom Cruise. This version is also updated to the present day, but it convincingly depicts the Martian war machines as walking tripods.

Producer: George Pal
Director: Byron Haskin
Screenplay: Barre Lyndon, based on the novel by H. G. Wells
Music: Leith Stevens
Cinematography: George Barnes
Editing: Everett Douglas
Art Direction: Albert Nozaki, Hal Pereira
Set Decoration: Sam Comer, Emile Kuri
Costume Design: Edith Head
Astronomical Art: Chesley Bonestell
Cast: Gene Barry (Dr. Clayton Forrester), Ann Robinson (Sylvia Van Buren), Les Tremayne (Maj. Gen. Mann), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Pryor), Sandro Giglio (Dr. Bilderbeck), Lewis Martin (Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins), Paul Frees (Radio Reporter), Cedric Hardwicke (Narrator).
C-85m.

by John M. Miller

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