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DVD Reviews

HTF REVIEW: The War of the Worlds (1953) - Special Collector's Edition (Recommended)



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#1 of 279 Scott Kimball

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Posted October 28 2005 - 06:06 AM

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The War of the Worlds (1953) - Special Collector's Edition





Studio: Paramount

Year: 1953

Rated: G

Length: 85 minutes

Aspect Ratio: Full Screen 1.33:1

Audio: Dolby Digital English Stereo, Mono, French Mono

Closed Captioned and subtitled in English

Special Features: 2 Commentaries, 2 Featurettes, Radio Broadcast, trailer

Suggested Retail Price: $14.99 USD
Release Date: November 1, 2005


The Feature

H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds, the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories, all the way back in 1898. When written, it was an oblique attack on British imperialism and the story was set in and around London.

Years later, around 1932, Sergei Eisenstein came to America, escaping Soviet repression and seeking an atmosphere that would allow him to learn about new sound technologies. Under contract with Paramount, one of the projects he tried to get off the ground was an adaptation of The War of the Worlds. The brass at Paramount would have none of it. 1932 was hardly the prime of sci-fi, so who could blame them? It seemed unlikely they would recoup their investment on such a project.

In 1938, when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater caused a panic in America with a Halloween broadcast based on H.G. Wells’ story, it was updated to present day and delivered as a “newscast” from New Jersey. Besides being a spectacle for the panic it caused, the broadcast also proved the story had legs.

George Pal, a Hungarian puppeteer who made a name for himself doing advertising films in the 30’s, arrived in Hollywood in 1940. His Puppetoons became wildly popular in America at the time. Pal took his knowledge of modeling and puppeteering and, by the early 1950’s, applied them to fantastic feature films with such works as Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide.

Even so, when Pal approached Paramount about a modern day adaptation of The War of the Worlds, he was met with resistance. His friend and colleague Cecil B. DeMille was instrumental in bending the studio’s ear, and getting the project off the ground.

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George Pal’s The War of the Worlds hit theaters at the height of the Red Scare and McCarthyism - and the film has been interpreted as an allegory for the events of the day, just as H.G. Wells’ original text was considered by many as a statement on British imperialism of the late 1800’s.

Beyond all of the possible deeper meanings, The War of the Worlds is a fast-paced actioner - a war story with a new enemy - and a bit of a horror film to boot. The groundbreaking effects of the time were the stars of the film. Gene Barry, Ann Robinson and the rest of the cast were the strong supporting members.

Filled with Academy Award winning effects, the story follows a scientist and a student as they investigate a meteor which has crashed to Earth. It turns out that it was no meteor. It was a spacecraft from Mars. And the occupants of the Martian machines are anything but friendly. While the might of Earth’s armies have no effective defense against the creatures, it is Earth itself which may provide the only solution to save humanity.

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Produced by Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, The War of the Worlds is regarded as one of the best science fiction films ever made. It received the Oscar for Best Special Effects, and was nominated for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording.

While I view the film as less sci-fi and more war / action, there is no doubting the impact the film had on the science fiction genre. To this day, the film is often imitated, but never duplicated.


The Transfer

My impression of the transfer as compared to the previous release is from memory. I was unable to do a direct A/B comparison.

A new print made for the 50th anniversary of the film’s release was apparently used for this transfer. The print is much freer of dust and scratches than other prints seen in recent years. Also, grain is much less evident. With the reduced grain, compression artifacts seem to be less of a problem than in the original DVD release.

Detail is perfectly acceptable, though not exceptional. There seems to be less processing on the new transfer, delivering a smoother image. Colors are beautifully saturated. Contrast is good, black levels solid.

Overall, this is a noticeable improvement over the original release, even without doing a side by side comparison.

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The new DVD edition also delivers the stereo tracks that were missing from the previous release. It’s a dynamic track with good frequency response, delivering acceptable and clean bass levels as well as a decent high end. Dialog is always crisp and intelligible.

Steering sound effects are used to a degree, especially in battle scenes... but for the most part the stereo track just delivers an openness in the ambiance that can’t be replicated on a monaural track. This soundtrack is more than 50 years old. As such, it can’t be fairly compared to the sound quality of today’s films. I thought it was perfectly fine for the era.

A mono track is also included, and it sounds fine - free of any distracting hiss and with a good frequency range.


Special Features

Commentary by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson

This commentary is somewhat underwhelming. Gene Barry has little to say, and when he does speak up, there’s a good chance that Robinson will interrupt. Robinson is exuberant, but there’s only so much she has to say. She does have good recollections of much of what went on during shooting. There are long stretches of silence.

Commentary by Joe Dante, Bob Burns and Bill Warren
This is essentially a “fan commentary.” All three participants are fans of the film, and they are in positions to know much of what happened behind the scenes. They also divulge much information of many of the character actors in the film. There is discussion of the technicolor process, and how early prints revealed less of the wires supporting the martian spacecraft than what we see in prints made today. This is an interesting and diverse commentary.

The Sky is Falling: Making The War of the Worlds (29:57)
Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Robert Cornthwaite, Jack Senter, Al Nozaki (archival), Mickey Moore, Bob Burns, Ray Harryhausen and others reminisce about The War of the Worlds. They each give personal accounts of their involvement with the pioneering science fiction film, whether as participant or observer.

There is much ado about Orson Welles’ Mercury Radio production, which proved that there may be a market for an updated film version of H.G. Wells’ classic story. The film rights were shopped around for years before George Pal got the green light to proceed at Paramount studios.

We are shown early Martian animation tests by Ray Harryhausen, clips from Pal’s “Puppetoons”, and some archival photographs of some of the model effects work. Very cool stuff. Look quick for Woody Woodpecker in a treetop...

Of course, there is other information regarding sets and locations used in the film, keeping up with production schedules, actors reflecting on their casting experiences, and the premiere of the film.

This isn’t an in-depth exploration of the making of the film (it’s too short for that), but it’s a wonderful taste of the work and love that went into the making of War of the Worlds, more than fifty years later, by those who were a part of it all.

H.G. Wells: The Father of Science Fiction (10:28)
Nicholas Meyer, Dr. John S. Partington, and Forrest J. Ackerman discuss the man and the magic - and they compare Wells and Jules Verne, discussing the different approaches they took toward science fiction. Other topics include politics, prophecy, Nazi book burning, and more.

The Mercury Theater on the Air Presents The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast (59:17)
The radio play is prefaced by a short paragraph that puts it in the context of the times, mentioning the hysteria it caused. This is in the menu, not tacked onto the beginning of the broadcast.

Those who may want to skip around will be disappointed that the scan fwd / back buttons are disabled. There are no chapter stops, either.

The broadcast is accompanied by infrequently changing still photographs of Orson Welles at the CBS microphone.

Despite the lack of scanning ability or of chapter stops, this historic radio production is a welcome addition to the collector’s edition.

Original Theatrical Trailer

Final Thoughts

Classic sci-fi gets a classy treatment on this Special Collector’s Edition DVD from Paramount. With a street price of around $10, there’s no reason I can think of to pass on this one.

Recommended

#2 of 279 ZackR

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Posted October 28 2005 - 06:29 AM

Thanks for the review. I am really looking forward to picking this up Tuesday! Posted Image
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#3 of 279 Dave Mack

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Posted October 28 2005 - 06:43 AM

Nice job, Scott! I can't BELIEVE they didn't think to release this the week b4 to capitalize on Halloween! I mean, Orson did his broadcast on Oct. 30th. I have a decent CD of the broadcast and I wonder how this one will compare audio-wise. It's great to play it with the lights low on Halloween and let the good ol' imagination take over.

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#4 of 279 DustinPizarro

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Posted October 28 2005 - 07:18 AM

Excellent review Scott! I especially enjoyed the bit of history about the film's origins.

I remember seeing this film on TV for the first time when I was around seven and it left quite an impression on me. Its too bad no theaters do a special limited release of this film around Halloween.

I'm also looking forward to the radio broadcast since I never got the opportunity to listen to it in full.

The only question I have Scott is that do you feel that this is the best transfer the film could have received from Paramount. It seems to me that Warner has raised the bar in terms of film preservation and I'm a bit spoiled by it.

Eagerly awaiting for this classic!! Thanks!

#5 of 279 Stephen PI

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Posted October 28 2005 - 07:34 AM

Quote:
... but for the most part the stereo track just delivers an openness in the ambiance that can’t be replicated on a monaural track. This soundtrack is more than 50 years old.


Chace Productions made this stereo track and I don't think they have been in business that long!
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#6 of 279 Steve Christou

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Posted October 28 2005 - 01:02 PM

[rant]"No one would have believed in the middle of the 20th Century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's..." [/rant]

Great review! Fantastic 50's sci-fi classic given the special edition treatment at last!Posted Image

But I'll wait a few more days and see how the R2 edition compares, better cover for one.

btw next year my favorite sci-fi movie of the 50's, Forbidden Planet, will be 50 years old, I hope they have something special planned for it on dvd. "Monsters John, monsters from the Id!"

Dave hören... auf, wille stoppen sie Dave... stoppen sie Dave... Mein gehirn geht... Ich bin gefühl es... Ich bin gefühl es... Ich bin ängstlich Dave... Guter Nachmittag. Ich bin ein HAL 9000 computer. Ich wurde funktionsfähig am HAL-Betrieb in Urbana, Illinois auf January 12 1992.


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#7 of 279 ChrisBEA

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Posted October 29 2005 - 08:45 AM

Nice review! I cannot wait to finally own this film.

Looking forward to hearing the radio show as well.

#8 of 279 oscar_merkx

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Posted October 29 2005 - 09:22 AM

Just watched another of George Pal's films, The Time Machine so I am really looking forward to this one and Welles' Play
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#9 of 279 Paul McElligott

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Posted October 31 2005 - 04:44 AM

I would still love to see the 1976 TV movie "The Night That Panicked America" on DVD.
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#10 of 279 Doug Wallen

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Posted October 31 2005 - 05:38 AM

Got this in the Mail Saturday and sat down with my son and watched it las night. He has never seen this version, only the Spielberg/Cruise jumble. He said he may actually like the original better ( only 12 yrs old).

We both enjoyed listening to the Welles/Mercury Theatre version.

i also second a release of "The Night That Panicked America".

I was very impressed by the stereo track on this film. Great picture also.Posted Image Posted Image
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#11 of 279 DaViD Boulet

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Posted November 01 2005 - 07:32 AM

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Thanks for the great review. A solid sci-fi classic that belongs on the shelf of anyone who enjoys films of this genre.

My dad is coming this weekend and bringing his copy of the original DVD. I just bought the new one so we can a/b compare and I'll post our impressions back into this thread.

I always LOVED the PCM stereo track on the laserdisc so I'll be sure and compare that too if I get a chance. I'm thrilled Paramount is including it here...regardless of "how" they made that stereo track (Chase supposedly helped) it sounds terrific and very natural.
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#12 of 279 Nelson Au

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Posted November 01 2005 - 08:01 AM

And you can't beat the price of admission for all that content. I paid $30 bucks for the laserdisc version back in the day!

Steve, I'm with you, Forbidden Planet must be reissued.

#13 of 279 DaViD Boulet

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Posted November 01 2005 - 08:47 AM

I saw a pristine print of Forbidden planet at the sci-fi convention at Laffayette theater last year, and as gorgeous as it was it left me a tad wanting for detail and colors looked a but more subdued than what I was expecting.

Of course, this may have been the intended look, and it still was beautiful and far surpassed the current DVD!
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#14 of 279 Dan Szwarc

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Posted November 01 2005 - 11:26 AM

It would have been cool if they digitally removed the strings holding the martian ships. The effects were incredible even with the strings present.
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#15 of 279 Scott Kimball

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Posted November 01 2005 - 12:27 PM

Quote:
It would have been cool if they digitally removed the strings holding the martian ships. The effects were incredible even with the strings present.

I couldn't disagree more... it was a limitation of the process at the time. To alter it disrespects the artisans who achieved the effects in the first place.

That would be worse than George Lucas diddling with his films decades after the fact - at least there, they were his films - he hired the effects artists. I have the same feeling about Robert Wise revisiting Star Trek TMP.

But George Pal, Byron Haskin and Al Nozaki are all dead. Their work should be left alone. Clean up the prints, yes - don't alter the work.

-Scott

#16 of 279 Dan Szwarc

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Posted November 01 2005 - 12:33 PM

Quote:
To alter it disrespects the artisans who achieved the effects in the first place.
I disagree. They would have wanted them to be invisible. That's like saying filmmakers like it when they can't do what they want.

It's one thing to CHANGE a movie, like Lucas has. It's another thing to do what the director always intended, like what Lucas CLAIMS.

Either way, the movie has award winning effects.
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#17 of 279 Nelson Au

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Posted November 01 2005 - 12:37 PM

Scott- You mean your feeling is it was okay that Robert Wise completed ST-TMP to his liking because it was his film and he was the one doing it? I'm really glad he got the chance to finish ST-TMP as he wanted, it makes that film one of the best of the 6 in the TOS series.

Regarding the strings, yeah, it's not so bad that we can see them. Given the state of the art, those are pretty great miniature effects.

#18 of 279 Scott Kimball

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Posted November 01 2005 - 12:46 PM

Yes.. I worded that poorly.

While I lumped Lucas and Wise in the same category, it was only that they were responsible for their projects and are (were) still alive to modify them. I believe that Wise "completed" effects that he wasn't able to do at the time the film was made - whereas Lucas made fundamental changes to his films.

I like and accept Wise's changes to TMP.
I don't like Lucas' changes to Star Wars, but I think he had the right to do it.
I wouldn't want to see a third party alter someone else's work.

-Scott

#19 of 279 Nelson Au

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Posted November 01 2005 - 01:18 PM

Thanks Scott for clarifying-

I got home early and took a very quick look at this new version and the original DVD. No question, the new disc is brighter with greater contrast. I saw the first 10 minutes, when the meteor hits and they put out the fires and talk to the Pacific Tech scientists camp scenes. The new disc shows clearly more detail and the dark areas on the original disc are just dark. This new disc looks like they took off a dirty film over the film.Posted Image

#20 of 279 dpippel

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Posted November 01 2005 - 01:47 PM

I couldn't disagree more... it was a limitation of the process at the time. To alter it disrespects the artisans who achieved the effects in the first place.

I disagree with this sentiment as well. The effects people who worked on WOTW almost certainly did NOT want the strings holding the ships to be seen. There is no way that would have been their intent. They were limited by the technology and techniques of the time, not by their imaginations. To continue the Lucas/Star Wars comparisons, removing the strings on the Martian ships in WOTW would be akin to removing the matte lines around ships in the OT. Granted, Lucas is the owner and creator of those films, but I can't imagine that George Pal, Byron Haskin or Al Nozaki would have any problem whatsoever with getting rid of those distracting strings.
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