War Of The Worlds – tape 1122

Right at the start of this tape there’s a couple of frames of an older recording.

Possibly Terminator

I’d guess Terminator, but I can’t check my DVD of the film, because I just looked at it, and the disc looks like this:

WIN_20160320_19_24_37_Pro

Both discs in the set seem to have decayed. The surface feels sticky, but I don’t think they’re dirty. It’s not a disc I would have watched a lot, either, and it’s just sitting on the shelf with all the others, all of which I’ve checked are in perfect condition. Is this the legendary ‘disc rot’ that people have talked about for ages?

Anyway, back to the VHS tape, and that older recording is replaced almost immediately by an LWT recording of War of the Worlds. This is the George Pal produced, Byron Haskin directed 1953 version of HG Wells’ classic novel.

It opens with a grand tour of the solar system, with some lovely representations of the surfaces of some of the planets, rendered by the brilliant astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell. Here’s his vision of Jupiter, “Titanic cliffs of lava and ice with hydrogen flaming at the tops, where the atmospheric pressure is terrible.”

War of the Worlds Jupiter

Here’s Mercury

War of the Worlds Mercury

The film transplants the action from England to America, as a fireball falls to earth in an American town. Gene Barry is a scientist asked to take a look at the strange cylinder that caused the fireball. The locals are quite excited, already making plans for a tourist attraction. “Better than a Lion Farm or a Snake Pit.”

Gene Barry

When he arrives there Barry (Clayton Forrester) meets Ann Robinson (not that one) as Sylvia Van Buren, a lecturer in library science (whatever that is) and a science fangirl.

Ann Robinson

That night, while Forrester is enjoying the town’s hospitality at a Square Dance, the three deputies left behind to watch the meteor see the top opening, and something strange emerges. “Men from Mars” they guess, surprisingly accurately. They fashion a makeshift flag, and go to greet the visitors. “What shall we say to them?” “Welcome to California.”

Welcome to California

It doesn’t go well.

Martian Heat Ray

So pretty soon there’s a large army contingent near the Martian machine, and radio reporters are on the scene, getting loads of exposition from Forrester as well as a canadian scientist who seems to be just making up a whole bunch of stuff. “They may for instance be able to smell colours. Precedent in our own evolution makes it possible that they have more than one brain.”

It’s interesting that in 1953, live television outside broadcasts clearly weren’t the usual way of reporting on momentous events.

After a waiting game while the army sits and waits for something to come out, we finally get a look at the main Martian machine. It’s a lovely design, but doesn’t look much like the one described by Wells, who envisaged a walking tripod machine. Clearly the filmmakers realised (as the BBC did not when they made The Tripods) that making a realistic gigantic walking tripod machine was beyond their current technology – I imagine a stop-motion tripod would have been possible, but they chose not to have them walking at all. Instead they went for a streamlined flying machine.

Martian Flying Machine

If you look closely, though (and it’s hard to see in this still image) there are three lines of sparkles underneath, perhaps to suggest energy beams supporting the ship. This was to pay homage in a small way to Wells’ tripod concept without having to animate something walking. “It’s supported from the ground by rays, probably some form of magnetic flux, like invisible legs” says Forrester, pulling more pure guesswork out of the air.

In its own way, this design has become perhaps even more iconic than the tripod idea. Steven Spielberg went back to the tripods for his modern version, but I’d be hard pushed to describe them beyond counting the legs. Yet Pal’s Martian craft are a genuine icon.

Sylvia’s uncle, the local priest, decides that some attempt to communicate with the visitors should be attempted before the army blow them up, so he walks out to them alone. “Yea thought I walk through the Valley of Death” tends to indicate a lack of confidence in the likely success of his strategy.

Walking through the Valley of Death

So the army let them have it, to no avail, as they are protected by “some sort of protective blister”.

Some sort of protective blister

Pretty soon the Martians are destroying the army tanks and gun emplacements with their beams. Naturally, even under heavy bombardment, Professor Forrester is ready with another, glib guess as to how their beams work. “It neutralises mesons somehow. They’re the atomic glue holding matter together. Cut across their lines of magnetic force and any object will simply cease to exist.”

The army retreats back to Los Angeles, but Forrester and Sylvia are holed up in an old farmhouse. Then, wouldn’t you know it, another of the Martian cylinders lands right next to them, almost demolishing the building. Then a Martian probe comes in looking for them.

Martian Eye

Forrester can’t help himself with the rampant guesswork. “An electronic eye, like a television camera.”

Sylvia gets a glimpse of an actual Martian.

An actual Martian

And an even closer glimpse when they’re trying to get out of the house.

A tap on the shoulder

This shot was recreated in ET, although the context was a lot friendlier. They soom get a close-up look at one of the invaders.

Close up of a Martian

Then we get a montage of destruction, with a voiceover from Cecil Hardwicke describing “the rout of humanity”. But it’s niuce to see a small acknowledgment of the roots of the novel, as what’s left of governments around the world use fast planes a couriers. “These planes maintained connections with the Scandinavian countries, North Africa, the United States, and especially with England. It was plain the Martians appreciated the strategic significance of the British Isles. The people of Britain met the invaders magnificently. ” Yay for us!

The Americans decide to drop an atomic bomb on the Martians in Los Angeles. Fprrester and Sylvia make it back to his college, where they examine a Martian camera. Then the bomb is dropped, making no difference to the Martians.

At this point, during an ad break, there’s an ITN newsflash, announcing the start of the ground war in the Gulf. See the playlist below.

When the film resumes, perhaps the newsflash has rattled presentation, as suddenly the film pauses, with a big grey bar in the middle of the picture. It’s only for a few seconds, though.

Pause

There’s a mass evacuation of Los Angeles. The Institute evacuates, but Forrester’s truck is attacked by looters. As the Martians start destroying the city, he searches for Sylvia, looking for her in any churches he can find. There’s some great scenes of Martian carnage as Los Angeles is devastated by the Martians.

Martian Carnage

He finds her, and as they embrace for one final time, the martian attack quiets. Outside, a Martian craft has crashed, and from inside, a Martian hand emerges and dies.

Martian Flu

Amazingly, this time it isn’t Forrester who gives a snap judgement of what must have happened, but the omniscient narrator, who gives all the credit to God for putting bacteria in our atmosphere. I wonder why God isn’t also blamed for making the Martians vicious and warlike? That ending has always bugged me. Even Independence Day’s twist on it is better.

After the movie, there’s another news report, and several as the recording goes on. Here’s a collected playlist of everything that’s on the tape.

There’s a brief bit of American Football, before ITV decide to abandon the schedule, drag John Suchet out of bed, and stick with a rolling news show.

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5 comments

  1. Can’t tell if the Library Science comment is sarcastic. I would think that a field very interested in preservation and cataloging would be of especially great interest to you considering the blog.

    1. Not really sarcastic – there’s so much made up science on show here, Library Science sounded like something else they’d make up. I’m happy to stand corrected, and you’re right that it should have been something I’d know about.

  2. Yes, that’s definitely disc rot – seems to be exclusive to Sony/MGM discs of the first generation or so. Apparently something to do with a moisture sensitivity in the adhesive that holds the multiple layers together that leads to some decomposition that clouds the inside. My copy of the 60’s Casino Royale is similarly blighted, but seems to work reasonably well.

    1. Except it’s not the inside that’s cloudy – this is a sticky residue on the surface of the discs. It’s like something has spilled on them, but the case itself is clean, It’s quite bizarre.

      1. That’s strange then, unless there’s something on the actual clear polymer. It might be something your local second hand store/ CEX might deal with, as you could take the surface layer off and back it up fast. No guarantees though, if it’s started to eat into the data, you’ve had it.

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