Before transitioning to producing live action movies, Hungarian born George Pal was best known as an animator of the Puppetoons series of shorts here in America. However, following the success of Destination Moon (1950), Pal squarely focused on live action films and would soon become noted for his work in the science fiction genre; one of his most notable productions was the adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Paramount had previously released the movie on DVD and Imprint released a region free Blu-ray, but Criterion has given the movie its US Blu-ray debut as part of its collection.
The Production: 4/5
A bright comet streaks across the sky and makes impact outside of a small southern California town. But the comet is actually a cylinder containing the first of many Martians who plan to make Earth their new home. As these invaders lay waste to everything in their path, atomic scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and librarian Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) manage to elude the destruction in order to find a way to stop the Martians before the rout of civilization (and massacre of mankind) is completed.
While several of H.G. Wells’ works had been adapted for the screen prior to this movie, The War of the Worlds stands out as one the best of the many film adaptations. While the film rights originally resided with the studio since the 1920’s (and had proposed or attached the project to Cecil B. DeMille, Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock at various points), it wasn’t until the 1950’s when George Pal and director Byron Haskin were able to bring the classic novel to the screen and updated it to contemporary times. The film’s bread and butter here are the astonishing (and Oscar-winning) special effects, coupled with the hallucinatory Technicolor cinematography by George Barnes; Al Nozaki’s design of the Martian war machines (shaped like a manta ray) has understandably become synonymous with the movie and the genre as a whole. While the character development here may be a bit lacking, it’s compensated by the fact the characters themselves are likeable (except for the Martians of course) and help give some poignancy especially in the later scenes between the two leads. Anchored by brilliant special effects, solid direction and decent performances, The War of the Worlds is one of the best examples of 1950’s science fiction movies, one that time has hardly dulled over the years.
As Dr. Forrester, Gene Barry is given likely his best movie role; he’s better known for his work on TV as Bat Masterson and even made a cameo appearance in Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake (which would be his last role in both film and television). Ann Robinson is okay as the budding love interest of Dr. Forrester but doesn’t get a whole lot to do; like Barry, she made a cameo appearance in the Spielberg remake and even reprised her role here in the 1988-1990 TV series that served as a sequel to this movie. As General Mann, character actor Les Tremayne is also given one of his best screen roles in his career; he also worked in television and radio and later made a memorable appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) as a flustered auctioneer in a crucial scene in Chicago. Rounding out the cast here are Robert Cornthwaite as one of Forrester’s colleagues, Cedric Hardwicke as the film’s “commentary” (reciting the passages from Wells’ novel updated for then contemporary times), Lewis Martin as Sylvia’s uncle and pastor whose attempt to communicate with the Martians ends badly, Jack Kruschen, William Phipps (who voiced Prince Charming in Walt Disney’s Cinderella) and an uncredited Paul Birch as the three townsmen who are unfortunate to be the first people on Earth to make contact with the Martians, Paul Frees as a radio reporter (he also narrated the pre-credits prologue), Vernon Rich as a colonel who gets vaporized by the skeleton ray, Henry Brandon as a police officer at the crash site and uncredited appearances by Edgar Barrier, Carolyn Jones, Alvy Moore, and Charles Gemora as the Martian investigating the wrecked farmhouse; look very carefully during one of the scenes where the first “meteorite” falls to Earth and you’ll spot Woody Woodpecker in a treetop!
3D Rating: NA
The movie is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio, taken from a recent 4K digital restoration of the original three strip Technicolor negatives. Film grain is organic for the most part, with fine details and skin tones faithfully rendered; previous transfers on home video had visibly shown the invisible wires holding up the Martian airships, but this is now corrected – this is due to the fact that up until now, many home video versions used prints from Eastman Color stock rather than the original Technicolor negatives. Colors are much more vivid and faithfully represented as well, with minor instances of scratches, tears, registry errors and dirt present. This is by far the best the movie has ever looked on home video, easily blowing away previous releases on VHS and DVD.
There are two audio options for this release: the original mono soundtrack presented on a PCM track and an alternate DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track created by sound designer Ben Burtt. Both tracks exhibit strong dialogue and sound effects with ambiance and fidelity given to Leith Stevens’ potent score; the 5.1 tracks adds more of a punch to the sound effects and music without completely overshadowing the dialogue. There’s very little in terms of problems such as distortion, crackling or hissing present, which makes both tracks a major improvement over previous home video versions of the movie.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Commentary by filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns and author Bill Warren – Carried over from the 2005 Paramount special collector’s edition DVD, the trio talk about the movie and its cast and crew in this equally informative and entertaining track.
Movie Archaeologists (29:28) – In this newly filmed featurette, sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron look at the movie’s special effects and sound design.
From the Archive (20:28) – Burtt, Barron and Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas talk about some of the challenges of restoring the movie to its original Technicolor glory in this new featurette.
Archival audio interview with producer George Pal (49:09) – In this 1970 audio seminar at the American Film Institute, Pal talks about his career and many of the tricks and beliefs he picked up along the way.
The Sky is Falling (29:58) – This archival 2005 featurette looks at the making of the movie; among those interviewed (some through archival footage) include Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Robert Cornthwaite, assistant director Michael D. Moore, production designer Al Nozaki, visual effects master Ray Harryhausen, and Bob Burns, just to name a few.
The Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast from 1938 (57:28) – The famous radio adaptation of the novel by Orson Welles is presented here; it was also available on the previous special edition DVD.
1940 radio program featuring H.G. Wells and Orson Welles (23:57) – This radio broadcast from San Antonio features the legendary actor and filmmaker speaking with the noted author on a variety of subjects.
Theatrical Trailer (2:23)
Foldout featuring an essay by critic J. Hoberman
Noticeably absent on this edition are a commentary track by stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, a featurette on author H.G. Wells (both from the Paramount special edition DVD), and a commentary track by film historians Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw (from the Imprint Blu-ray, which also carries the previously mentioned Barry/Robinson commentary and H.G. Wells featurette).
Successful with both critics and audiences upon its initial theatrical release, The War of the Worlds has survived as one of the best sci-fi movies of the decade and as one of the best film adaptations of H.G. Wells’ work. Criterion has given the movie the treatment it deserves, with a HD transfer that captures the film in its original Technicolor glory and a wonderful slate of special features (although not all bonuses were carried over from previous home video releases). One of label’s best releases of the year is very highly recommended and worth upgrading from the previous Paramount DVD.
Amazon.com: The War of the Worlds (the Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, Cedric Hardwicke, Byron Haskin: Movies & TV
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