Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Movies Is Good: WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)

by JB
One of the things I will never get tired of saying is that “the latest Technicolor restoration of a classic title” is one of the greatest technicolor restorations I've ever seen.

The new Criterion Collection disc of War of the Worlds has arrived, and it is a stunner. As mentioned above, it is one of the best Technicolor restorations I've ever seen. To add value to the package, Ben Burtt, the sound genius behind the original Star Wars films, has remastered the soundtrack to stereo, 5.1 Dolby Digital. That's included on the new disc (along with the original mono soundtrack for purists) and it makes watching the film that much more fun.
For those of you unfamiliar with the story: what appears to be a meteor lands in the fictional town of Linda Rosa, California. The townspeople there are not frightened of it, in fact, a lot of them think it'll help the town to become a tourist attraction. Noted scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is called in to consult, and he soon catches the eye of comely USC instructor Sylvia Van Buren (Anne Robinson). When the top of the meteor unscrews late one night, everyone involved discovers that they're in for something horrible. Rising from the crater is a Martian Death Machine, and the Martians start wreaking havoc. The military is called in, this being the fifties, but no matter what the military tries, including an atomic bomb, there's no beating the Martians. This leads to a sad and gripping sequence at the end when everyone on Earth feels that perhaps it’s time to throw in the towel. I will not spoil the ending, but it's very famous… and with good reason.

War the Worlds is a film I've always held close to my heart because I think it's terrifically entertaining. When I was a kid, I found parts of it terrifying. This was a movie made in the shit-scared Atomic Fifties, so it contains a tone of dread that I have always responded to. My late Aunt Marie used to describe every death in the family as “our latest tragedy,” which indicated that she saw life as a never-ending series of tragedies, occasionally interrupted by weekends and major holidays. I have tried not to look at life like this, but War of the Worlds (and The Blob from 1958 and most Godzilla movies) have this palpable sense of dread that I find very compelling and sad. I remember thinking back when I was much younger that the scariest thing was Godzilla appearing on the horizon and the humans trapped in the city being powerless to do anything to stop him. I used to dream about that scenario in nightmares that made me glad that I seldom remember my dreams. Gene Barry, running through the deserted streets of downtown LA, trying to find Anne Robinson as the city is destroyed around him contains this same sickening tone. The looting and madness that surround Barry remind us that in its cold, Martian heart, War of the Worlds is a disaster movie made a full twenty years before that genre became popular. And disaster movies always show us human nature at its worst...
FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO READ LAST WEEK’S COLUMN: Hollywood’s “Go-To Gorilla Guy,” Charlie Gamora shows up here as the one Martian we get a good look at. In a fascinating supplementary featurette, his daughter remembers helping her Dad completely remake the alien costume the night before shooting because the producers didn’t like what Paramount’s costume department had dreamed up. Using chicken wire and rubber sheets, they toiled through the night and came up with one of the most memorable alien designs in Hollywood history. Gamora’s daughter remembers that when they shot the scene the next day, her father worked the alien’s fingers, she was under the set with a squeeze bulb making the alien’s veins pulse, and the entire costume was still wet, not having been given sufficient time to dry! I have a little plastic model of this alien above my desk. He keeps watch over me, night and day, and insures that I never get out of line.

The Technicolor picture on the new disc is amazing. It's got that full, dark, deep, rich color that only early Technicolor had. It reminds me of screen-printed lobby cards from the '30s and '40s or a kind of fairy tale storybook color. It's fantastic. As one of several special features on the disc points out, the special effects were very advanced for 1953. When Paramount stopped making prints in Technicolor and started to make them in Eastman color, specifically brighter and brighter prints for television, that began to reveal some of the special-effects magic -- specifically the wires on the Martian Death Machines. This led a generation of people to think that the special-effects were sort of quaint in their laughable crudeness. The new restoration on the Criterion Collection disc puts that risible argument to rest because it looks stunning. All of the wires are gone now. I wondered if that was because they went back to the original Technicolor specs and “look” or if some digital painting magic had been applied to the film. On the restoration featurette, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt take pains to assure us that they didn’t go overboard with modernizing the look of the film: they claim that they didn't go Bull Goose Looney with digital tools. They wanted to maintain the integrity of the original film, but a little later on in the same featurette, the head of the Paramount Pictures archive does indicate that there some digital painting was used to get rid of the wires. One way or another, I prefer my War of the Worlds to be wire free!
Supplements include a restoration demo and a lengthy featurette in which Ben Burtt and Craig Baron talk about the work they did restoring the film. “The Sky if Falling,” a short featurette from a previous disc release in 2005 is also included. We are also given the complete 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast that first brought the property to the attention of the American people. Orson Welles’ radio play presented the novel as a series of news bulletins as if it were actually happening. Many listeners, who tuned in late, thought it was really happening, and there was widespread panic. Then there was a lot of controversy about whether Orson Welles knew what was going to happen with his adaptation. The new Criterion disc includes the complete radio broadcast; it's fun to listen to. There's another supplement where HG Wells, author of the novel, and Orson Welles discuss War of the Worlds on a 1940 radio show.

The new Criterion Disc is so full of supplements, it's certainly worth picking up, especially in the next two weeks when the “Barnes & Noble 50% Off Sale” is still going on. This amazing disc, which will be one of the Disc Releases of the Year, I promise, can be had for about 20 bucks. Pack a sack lunch two days this week, and with the money that you're saving by not going out to lunch, you can you can pick up this terrific disc.
I originally purchased the new 4K restoration on iTunes a few months ago because I wanted to see what it looks like. Then I debated whether to buy the Criterion disc, and I am glad that I bought the Criterion disc. I originally thought that the most compelling reason to pick up the Criterion disc is for that Ben Burtt soundtrack remix, but I went back and listened to the iTunes version, and guess what? I discovered that the iTunes version only has the Ben Byrd remix. If you buy the Criterion disc, you are given a choice between the original mono soundtrack or the Ben Burtt “supercharged” 5.1 stereo mix. How could I tell which soundtrack was used on the iTunes version, you ask? You can really tell the difference between the two soundtracks at the 15 minute mark; the top of the meteor begins to unscrew (it looks like a round manhole cover) and in the Ben Bert mix, when it's finished unscrewing and falls down the side of the meteor, it makes this tremendous wonderful LOUD noise. In the original mono version, that noise is not as pronounced or emphasized. If it's loud and impressive when the “manhole cover” thingie goes skittering down the meteor, you know you're listening to the Ben Burtt remix.
I had almost forgotten about how much I love this film but when I got the new Criterion Collection disc in my hot little hands, I eagerly spun it and just had a hell of a time. I love the little touches that screenwriter Barre Lyndon and director Byron Haskin bring to the material, like the observatory guy at the beginning of the film pausing to look at his buddy’s poker hand when his buddy is busy with a phone call, or the cat that observes the rioting and looting on the streets of LA later in the film and runs at top speed in the opposite direction... it's such a great movie. When it was over, I noticed that Criterion had carried over an audio commentary from a previous Paramount disc release, featuring Bob Burns; Bill Warren, the author of Keep Watching the Skies!, the definitive book on fifties science-fiction films; and filmmaker Joe Dante. The minute I finished watching the film, I immediately watched it again with the commentary track on. I don't do that very often. but War of the Worlds certainly rewards repeat viewings, even repeat viewings on the same day! That audio commentary is quite the calling card for the two men (unfortunately Bill Warren passed away a few years ago) but just to hear these three science-fiction enthusiasts waxing appreciative over this film is an impressive listen. At one point, Bill Warren asks Joe Dante the name of certain extra, and Joe Dante says, “Well, I can't see him; his back is to me.” Then Warren gives Dante a single arcane hint, and Dante instantly comes up with the actor's name! That is something marvelous, to say the least. I wish that were my superpower; unfortunately, my only superpower is getting the single best parking space whenever I drive to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, the happiest place on earth.

NOTE: For those readers who missed the first column in this series, this essay has not been proofread nor copyedited by anyone, not even a Martian. Using space-age technology, the content of this piece was vomited directly from JB’s Id onto the F This Movie website early this morning.


  1. I wish i was able to buy it right now, but it seem impossible to find at a decent price in canada (not available on amazon.ca)

  2. I watched my copy yesterday and was blown away by how wonderful it looks - even on my ancient Samsung plasma TV. I haven't had a chance to delve into the extras yet, but I'm eager to!

    This was the first viewing where I really felt the impact of the minister's character arc. There's something noble in doggedly trying to curtail violence, even if it seems like a foolish endeavor. Also, I love the desperation felt by the main scientist. So many sci-fi classics feature main characters who always have a plan or solution no matter how desperate the situation. It's haunting when the main character in The War of the Worlds runs out of options.

  3. Welp, I am SOLD! I liked the Spielberg one (which surely is an entirely different thing I'm guessing) but haven't seen this one. I was actually trying to search out something new, that I haven't seen before to buy during the sale, and this sounds like its the one.

  4. I have never seen either this version of War of the Worlds or the Tom Cruise one! I know, it's a travesty. This column definitely moved the original up my list of "To Watch" items.

  5. I believe that’s FIVE blu-rays that I am now going to let you borrow?