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War of the Worlds

Entry updated 24 August 2020. Tagged: Film, Radio, TV.

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1. US CBS Radio play (1938). Part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air series of plays, the 30 October 1938 dramatization of H G Wells's War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) was arguably the most famous broadcast ever made; an adaptation by Howard Koch of the novel, in which the original London and environs is replaced by exurban New York, it was produced by and starred Orson Welles, who gained immediate notoriety when a significant number of listeners came to believe that the play represented a live newscast of an actual Invasion from Mars. Listeners are said to have reacted in a variety of ways, with some hysterically reporting flames on the horizon and the smell of Poison gas, while others made preparations to flee their homes. A prevalent belief, given the uncertain state of world affairs at the time, was that the radio was mistaken and that in reality a Nazi invasion was under way.

The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, with the Complete Script of the Famous Orson Welles Broadcast (1940) by Hadley Cantril reports on a series of interviews begun by Princeton University a week after the broadcast, confirming that the panic was surprisingly widespread (Cantril estimates that well over a million listeners – more than 10% of the total audience tuned in – were actively frightened by the broadcast), though considerable scholarly disagreement exists as to the actual extent and nature of any panic. Stories that residents of the West Windsor hamlet of Grover's Mill, (where the invaders are first reported to have landed) shot at a water tower believing it to be a Martian Tripod are likely apocryphal, but sufficient compelling first-hand accounts exist to demonstrate that considerable anxiety was caused to a great many people. Contrary to most accepted evidence, Welles claimed frequently in later years that he had in fact anticipated the reaction and the broadcast had been structured as a series of news flashes as a warning that radio was not always to be believed. This has never been corroborated by any other person involved in the broadcast and should be considered in the light of Welles's recognized propensity for telling tall tales.

Though it was indeed presented in the form of a series of emergency newscasts, dramatic devices (the passage of hours, for instance, in a few minutes of radio time) were conspicuous even during the first half of the broadcast, but the inclusion of familiar-sounding names and institutions, combined with the fact that many listeners tuned in late from a rival station served only to bolster misapprehensions; the second half, after a brief programme break, was set several days after the first half, but late listeners may have missed this conspicuous transition. In the immediate aftermath of the broadcast, Welles and CBS were briefly threatened with nuisance lawsuits; but since no one had been seriously hurt or inconvenienced and reports of deaths were unfounded, these came to nothing. A War of the Worlds radio dramatization on November 12th 1944, produced in similar style in Santiago, Chile, did reportedly result in one death from a heart attack; and on 12 February 1949 at least six people were confirmed killed in Quito, Ecuador, when an enraged mob barricaded and burnt down a radio station responsible for another Welles-inspired dramatization. This might be deemed to be collateral damage. Belying the assumption that people might in time become inured to the dangers of such broadcasts, additional though less serious incidents have been documented in several other countries including Portugal in 1958 and Brazil in 1972. Localized versions in the United States also continued to cause minor outbreaks of public alarm, with a particularly unsettling version aired in 1968 by the Buffalo radio station WKBW. The last known case was in Portugal, in 1998.

Quickly assuming mythic status, the original broadcast inspired Bill Buchanan's and Dickie Goodman's record "The Flying Saucer Parts 1 and 2" (1956) and has twice become the subject of dramatic re-enactment on US Television. The Night that America Trembled (1957) was an engaging episode of the television series Studio One and starred an impressive roster of aspiring young actors, including James Coburn, Warren Beatty and Edward Asner. A made-for-tv movie giving a somewhat exaggerated account of the night's events is The Night that Panicked America (1975), with a screenplay by Nicholas Meyer. References (large and small) to the broadcast have also been incorporated into numerous books, Comic books, films and Television series, including the novel The War of the Worlds Murder (2005) by Max Allan Collins, the Batman and Superman comics Batman #1 (Spring 1940) and Superman #62 (January 1950), the films The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension (1984) and Spaced Invaders (1989), and episodes of the television shows The Flintstones (1965), The Simpsons (2006) and Futurama (2010). In 1991 the original play was rebroadcast on BBC radio. Some other radio adaptations are noted under Radio. The original 1938 broadcast received a Retro Hugo for best dramatic presentation at the 2014 Worldcon. [JDG/JC/PN/DRL]

2. Film (1953). Paramount. Produced by George Pal. Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon (see Alfred Edgar), based on The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) by H G Wells. Cast includes Gene Barry, Ann Robinson and Les Tremayne. 85 minutes. Colour.

Few details of Wells's novel remain. Following the success Welles had had in updating the story in 1938, the setting is changed to 1950s California. The Martian war machines are altered from walking tripods to flying saucers shaped (rather beautifully) like manta rays. A stereotyped Hollywood love interest is substituted for the original story of a husband searching for his wife. Despite indifferent performances, the film is well paced and generates considerable excitement, partly through the spectacular special effects. The wires supporting the war machines are too often visible, but as a whole the effects – Gordon Jennings was in charge – are very impressive, especially in the final attack on Los Angeles: the manta-shaped vehicles gliding down the streets with their snake-like heat-ray projectors blasting the surrounding buildings into rubble are among the great icons of sf Cinema. The dazed conservatism of the human response to the Martians is true to Wells, as is the subtext suggesting that a retreat into religious piety is also an inadequate answer, though here Pal has it both ways: we are told that it was "God in his wisdom" who created the microbes that ultimately defeat the invasion. War of the Worlds is George Pal's most successful film production.

3. Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978), a concept album by Jeff Wayne (whom see).

4. US tv series (1988-1990). Ten-Four/Paramount, for syndication. Created Greg Strangis. Executive producers Sam Strangis, Greg Strangis. Produced by Jonathan Hackett. Directors included Colin Chilvers, Herbert Wright, Neill Fearnley, Armand Mastroianni, William Fruet. Writers included Greg Strangis, Tom Lazarus, Patrick Barry, D C Fontana, Durnford King. Cast includes Philip Akin, Richard Chaves, Lynda Mason Green and Jared Martin. Two seasons; 100-minute pilot plus 41 50-minute episodes. Colour.

The pilot episode, The Resurrection, tells us that the events described in the 1953 film were followed by a government hush-up and the storage of Martian bodies in barrels at a military base. A terrorist attack on the base breaches some barrels, and the Martians (no longer identified as such, now just vague Aliens) come back to life (the microbes did not kill them but threw them into estivation, and have now been destroyed by radioactivity). They adopt the bodies of the terrorists. (Shapeshifting was not an alien skill in the earlier versions; War of the Worlds borrows heavily from the television series The Invaders [1967-1968], and the films of Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1955, 1978].) Their human bodies damaged, so that they look like Zombie refugees from Night of the Living Dead (1968), the aliens again attempt to conquer the world, initially by jumping out at people and grabbing them with big flabby hands. Our heroes (male scientist, pretty female microbiologist, wisecracking Black man in wheelchair) have trouble convincing the powers-that-be that the aliens even exist, the destruction of Los Angeles three decades earlier having apparently gone unnoticed. The series had vigour if nothing else, and continued for two seasons with the usual variants on the Invasion theme. In season 2, now renamed War of the Worlds: The Second Invasion, the series eliminated some characters, added new ones, introduced alien-human miscegenation and made moral distinctions between good and bad aliens, but sagged anyway. [PN]

5. Film (2005). Paramount. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Josh Friedman and David Koepp, based on The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) by H G Wells. Cast includes Justin Chatwin, Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Miranda Otto and Tim Robbins. 116 minutes. Colour.

Modern special effects were finally up to the job of delivering the Martian Tripods envisaged by Wells in this spectacular updating of the story, in which Tom Cruise plays effectively against type as an ineffectual father and hero who is swept up with his son and daughter (Fanning and Chatwin) in the tide of refugees fleeing an Alien Invasion. In several major departures from the original novel, Mars is not identified as the home planet of the invaders (nor is anywhere else), and rather than descend in enormous cylindrical spacecraft, the aliens emerge from the earth in Tripods that have been secreted Underground, perhaps millennia ago. The pilots arrive in bolts of what look like lightning, presumably by some manner of Matter Transmission. However, in a nod to the original image of an unscrewing Martian cylinder lid, it can be seen that the emergence of the first Tripod is presaged by a large circular section of the street rotating; though when compared to the shooting script, it is apparent that the scene as originally envisaged was much watered down for the final cut of the film.

Steven Spielberg directs with a tight focus on dock worker and estranged husband Ray Ferrier (Cruise) and his immediate family, launching into the invasion without great preamble and providing little in the way of hope that they or humanity will prevail against an overwhelmingly superior enemy. As befits its source material, this is a bleak film filled with unsettling images: hundreds of bodies float down a river, a train apparently set ablaze by a heat Ray races as though Hell-bound past dazed refugees and the clothes of disintegrated people drift languidly from the sky. A chill post-9/11 awareness pervades the film, with Cruise covered in the dust of pulverized bodies and, less subtly, walls plastered with pictures of the missing.

Though the film is set in modern day America, the New Jersey location adjacent to Staten Island (in effect part of greater New York) echoes that of the Orson Welles version and, perhaps significantly, it is known that Spielberg had purchased at auction a copy of the 1938 radio script used by Welles. While the script by Josh Friedman and David Koepp forges its own distinct version of the story, the adaptors nonetheless re-engineer many key passages, concepts and characters from the original novel. The attack on a ferry evokes the Tripod assault on refugee ships in the English Channel, while Tim Robbins plays a character amalgamating the artillery man and curate and named after the astronomer Ogilvy. Visually, extremely effective use is also made of the Red Weed spread by the invaders to Terraform the earth and their use of human captives as cattle.

Critical reception was generally good, though the view of the cinema going public was more polarized. Dakota Fanning delivered a performance much criticized for the strident volume of her screaming and many found the ending a perfunctory let-down, as it eschewed the normal Hollywood convention of the hero saving the day and posing with a reunited family. However, those who complained at the ending missed the point: that by having the invaders succumb to earthly diseases and Cruise's character stopped short of physical reunion in the closing scene with his family, the story actually ends much as Wells intended. In a touching homage to the 1953 George Pal film of The War of the Worlds, both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson appear as Cruise's parent-in-laws in the final moments of the film. It would be Barry's last role before his death in 2009. [JDG]

6. H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. Film (2005). Pendragon Pictures. Produced by Barbara Bauman, John Gallo and Susan Goforth. Directed by Timothy Hines. Written by Timothy Hines and Susan Goforth, based on The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) by H G Wells. Cast includes Jack Clay, John Kaufmann, James Lathrop, Anthony Piana and Darlene Sellers. 125-179 minutes, depending on version. Colour.

A film version of The War of the Worlds set in the original Victorian era of the novel was long considered a dream project for sf fans, so there was considerable excitement at the news that such a film was in production from Timothy Hines, an American independent writer and director with little obvious experience in large-scale sf film making, but with a vocally avowed and laudable desire to produce a faithful retelling of the H G Wells novel. First mooted as a modern retelling using the structure of the original novel as a close template, the film struggled through a long gestation, with production suspended in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on America (in the belief that audiences would not care to see even a fictionalized attack after the trauma of 9/11) and re-emerging in 2005 with the story now firmly rooted in its original Victorian setting. Unfortunately the end result was a disappointment.

The film was never released in cinemas, possibly because – as alleged by Hines – there was pressure on theatre owners from Paramount (whose own version of War of the Worlds, 5 above, was scheduled for release the same year) but more likely because at a length of almost three hours, with flat acting and risible special effects, it would have been an insurmountable test of endurance for audiences. Even Hines admitted in hindsight its many deficiencies, though he twice attempted to salvage the film, first with a shortened director's cut in 2005, and then again in 2006 with a further retooling and a change of title to The Classic War of the Worlds. Neither version is considered to have much improved the situation.

Hines has since returned to the story, unveiling in late 2010 a new film project in mock documentary style that purports to tell the story of The War of the Worlds from the perspective of the last living survivor of fighting against the Martians. [JDG]

see also: Paranoia.


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