The War of the Worlds (1953)

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Criterion;
Sci-Fi;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Carnthwaite, Lewis Martin.

Producer George Pal’s 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is such a seminal film in the history of science-fiction that it’s practically a requirement for any self-respecting fan of the genre to include in their collection.

Surprisingly, however, the film hadn’t been released on Blu-ray until this gorgeous new edition from the Criterion Collection, sourced from a 2018 restoration of the film prepared by Paramount for digital release. The project included a massive clean-up of the original film elements plus the creation of a new 5.1 audio track by legendary sound engineer Ben Burtt.

The film itself took quite a long time to make it to the big screen — nearly 30 years — as the project kept passing from one noted director to the next. By the time it ended up with George Pal, one of the most notable British producers of the day, and director Byron Haskin, the story had been tweaked from an invasion of Victorian England as in Wells’ original text to a contemporary (for the time) setting and an initial landing near Los Angeles (Orson Welles’ 1938 radio version had similarly updated the story for the times, with the landing taking place in New Jersey). The 1950s setting aligned the film with the paranoia of nuclear war and the burgeoning Cold War.

As a result, the film became a major hit for Paramount and one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever made, achieving a scope for the day that dared other movies to top it.

Surprisingly, the film’s run time is only 85 minutes, a brisk pace that encompasses a recap of both world wars, a quick tour of the planets of the solar system and why the Martians would choose Earth, the crash landing of the Martian craft and call to the top human scientists to study it, deployment of the military in response to the alien ships emerging and attacking everything they see, a sojourn into a local farmhouse that the aliens explore, a feckless nuclear strike against the aliens, a full-scale attack on the world’s cities by the alien ships, and the aliens suddenly dying due to their lack of immunity to Earth bacteria, the key plot twist taken straight from Wells’ book (and apologies for the spoilers to anyone so far behind on the times they didn’t already know that).

The film’s Oscar-winning visual effects are so iconic in their depiction of the attacks that the template was preserved almost precisely for later remakes such as 1996’s Independence Day, which upped the scope of the landmarks it was able to take out, but continued the tradition of updating the setting to modern times, as did Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version.

One key advantage of the restoration was the return of the original three-strip Technicolor process to render the final image. Over the years, Paramount began replicating the film using inferior but more cost-effective Eastman color prints, resulting in color degradation and making it much easier to see the piano wires holding up the floating alien ships (plainly visible in the 2005 DVD edition of the film). The new restoration restores the proper color balance that obscures the wires, if not hide them completely. Using computer effects to erase the wires altogether was ruled out by the restoration team, according to the bonus materials, because they wanted to stay true to depicting the filmmaking techniques of the time.

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The effects, which might seem quaint now, were revolutionary for the time, using a mix of miniature sets and early bluescreen mattes. The model work allows for some impressive shots of alien fleets floating through the streets of Los Angeles. The bluescreen work is a bit less effective, leaving the ships looking somewhat transparent and standing out against the backdrops. Many of these process shots have at least been cleaned up by the HD transfer.

Almost as big an improvement is the 5.1 audio mix, which just provides a booming sound showcasing all of the film’s iconic sound effects. It’s a much fuller audio experience than the original monaural track, which also is included.

In terms of extras, the Criterion edition offers a healthy mix of new and old, but doesn’t quite offer everything that was previously released.

Among the new extras are a 21-minute featurette about the restoration process, as well as a 30-minute featurette about the history of the film’s visual and audio effects, which even includes a demonstration of re-creating the sound effects to complete a visual effects outtake from the original film.

Another section of the extras includes the original audio broadcast of the Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio drama, plus a fascinating 24-minute 1940 audio interview between Welles and H.G. Wells, in which they plus Citizen Kane and discuss the potential for America to enter World War II.

Another bit of archival audio contains excerpts of a George Pal Q&A at the American Film Institute in 1970.

Carried over from the old DVD includes a commentary with filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns and writer Bill Warren. There’s also the 2005 documentary “The Sky is Falling,” a 30-minute retrospective about the making of the film.

Not included from the 2005 DVD are a commentary with stars Gene Berry and Ann Robinson, and a featurette about H.G. Wells’ influence on science-fiction. So collectors might want to hold onto their old DVDs if they still want those extras.

Forty Guns

Director Samuel Fuller’s action-packed Western features Barbara Stanwyck doing her own stunts as a ruthless landowner seeking to keep her drunken brother out of trouble when lawmen ride into town in search of a gunman under her employ.

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Western;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Dean Jagger, Gene Barry.

20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Zanuck understandably wouldn’t let Samuel Fuller employ Woman With a Whip as a title for his sometimes gonzo 1957 Western (pause here to absorb this). And then there’s Fuller’s later assertion that queen-of-the-lot Marilyn Monroe herself was interested in the movie’s lead role. One can envision such a mind-expanding combo adding a couple million to the grosses via resourceful counter-programming against a year that also gave us Universal-International’s Tammy and the Bachelor — but wait. Fuller ended up doing more than well enough with what came to be known as Forty Guns, with Barbara Stanwyck establishing quite the physically active on-screen presence once she signed on — and at age 50 at that. Now, a half-century later, here it is getting Criterion treatment.

Per usual when it comes to Fuller, the result can be a matter of taste even for those favorably disposed to this producer-writer-director-auteur. And this was so from the very beginning of an entire career of movies that forewent standard editing rhythms to become a succession of high points (which can be exhilarating for some and numbing for others). There was also the filmmaker’s predilection toward the risible, as in Guns’ roving troubadour who strums his guitar down dusty streets to sing about both the story-central woman and her whip. Well, it was ’57, and guitars were everywhere this side of Eisenhower’s Cabinet.

Fortunately, Fuller opens with a gorgeously shot caravan of lickety-split horses racing across a plain — photographed by Joseph Biroc in black-and-white CinemaScope (if you long for color here, you are not a movie person). In other words, we’re off — and, beyond that, are soon made to realize that all this land serving as the horses’ racetrack is owned by Stanwyck, who built her spread from nothing by a lot of ruthless chicanery that made it tough for her to find a lover who could compete. An added distraction has been her apparently futile attempts to maintain the hide of her drunken, shoot-em-up younger brother played by John Ericson — casting that almost makes you wonder if Cameron Mitchell was on vacation, though the role isn’t totally unlike Ericson’s in Bad Day at Black Rock except for his boozily malevolent streak. As for Stanwyck, her vengeful Western toughness here harkens back to her star turn in Anthony Mann’s even better The Furies (1950), which Criterion released as well in a deluxe DVD set but has not upgraded to Blu-ray.

Into all this rides Barry Sullivan and two brothers, including one played by Gene Barry, who only rates fifth billing here despite having just had the lead in Fuller’s China Gate. They more or less become the surrounding town’s reluctant “Law” — especially given that a going-blind marshal (The Searchers’ Hank Worden) is dispatched for good early on and the compromised sheriff (Dean Jagger) isn’t much help, either. Jagger does try taking Ericson to the woodshed on occasion, but he’s hamstrung due to his yen for Stanwyck, who has apparently given him a tumble somewhere going the way. It’s a relationship that almost anyone can see just wasn’t going to take. What’s more, Jagger knows where too many of Stanwyck’s bodies are buried; think Michael Cohen with less hair.

A long tornado sequence in the middle of the picture is Fuller at his best, and even with effects wizard Linwood Dunn’s usual magic, we can see that real-life horsewoman Stanwyck is doing her own stunts, which do not look un-strenuous by a long shot (or in close-up, for that matter). Given Fuller, the action never lets up, and the casualty rate threatens to reach Hamlet extremes — or, to keep it more in the gonzo feminist Western vernacular, maybe Johnny Guitar’s. The climax here is pretty wild-ass even in this final-release version, which Zanuck forced Fuller to water down because the sales department wouldn’t have been able to market the picture were it as brutal as intended (I can just see the stampede of ’49 Plymouths huffing their way out of drive-ins).

The movie runs only 80 minutes (about right), but that’s less than half of what Criterion has to offer. Also included is the slightly longer 2013 documentary (A Fuller Life) that daughter Samantha Fuller put together, in which former friends and associates (Constance Towers to Wim Wenders to Mark Hamill) read from the filmmaker’s memoirs. It’s a surprisingly effective way to go, but, then again, maybe not all that much so — given that the words are punctuated by dramatic home movies that the senior Fuller shot over his life, in particular the ones from his extraordinary wartime service. Few or no one had seen these because they were tucked away in the shed of archives that survived him, which is either disorganized or substantially organized disarray, depending on when we see it. This is also the setting of an additional bonus interview with Samantha and widow Christa Lang Fuller, who are good at re-enforcing each other’s memories.

Essays are bountiful, including a print essay by film historian Lisa Dombrowski, author of The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You.” Also included — and I’ve noticed the Criterion discs that Susan Arosteguy produces really storm the barricades in terms of production values — is a roughly half-hour sit-down with one of my faves (Imogen Sara Smith), who makes it all look natural and easy in an organized and well-crafted riff on Fuller and Western genre conventions in general. And synched up to the feature on an alternate soundtrack is a 1969 appearance at London’s National Film Theatre by Fuller himself, who seems to love giving 15-minute answers to questions. You just know that he had to have been an interviewer’s dream.

Forty Guns

Mike’s Picks: ‘Forty Guns’ and ‘The Blue Dahlia’