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