War of the Worlds - postscript 1

Copyright 2005 Bob Persons
July 21, 2005

On Tuesday I dropped my wife off at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory while I bounded into the War of the Worlds theater at Point Cinema. I had read enough good reviews, and I was in a see-all-versions mood for this story anyway. Since my last commentary (June 28, 2005), I had finally read Wells' novel (it was plenty creepy and scary, not to mention laced with valid scientific information, which is why the story has endured) and I had watched, for perhaps the 20th time, George Pal's 1953 movie (cementing further my notion that it is a classic).

Spielberg's film was quite good, and loaded with the futility of the novel (no way to stop the Martians from their pitiless goal of complete extermination of earth's life forms and structures of civilization), although Spielberg built this more rapidly. Images of the gigantic Martian machines erupting from the earth and water, towering over cities and humans, are still burned in my brain, along with tentacles wrapping around human bodies and hauling them relentlessly up to cages underneath the machines' heads where they await being chosen like the fattened lamb for the Martian lunch. Obviously, the visuals were stunning. A herd of immense machines along the horizon looking over the destroyed city, still pumping blasts from their heat rays. Migrating throngs passing the "Welcome to Boston" sign charred and riddled with holes, only to see the smoking charred ruins of the city before them.

Yes, cars were being flung about like dice at the crap table (Americans love to see the prime focus of their lives destroyed, and careless destruction of suburban order is something of a Spielberg specialty), but this type of action was remarkably restrained and most was actually plausibly relevant to the story. Lots of buildings were knocked down, too (the nature of the story), but nothing like, for instance, the horror of the Trade Center towers crashing with the excruciating awareness of thousands of real people inside.

Yesterday I found the script of Orson Welles' 1938 radio show and read that again (along with a bunch of WOTW-head geek talk, some of which was quite interesting, including the New York Times stories as it happened). So comparisons are inevitable - Wells' book, Welles' script, Pal's movie, Spielberg's movie, and the Pendragon movie. (Don't ask me to include Independence Day, which was obviously another version of the story but you gotta be kidding me!)

Mars.

Spielberg's story from the start has a disadvantage compared to the others. In 2005 we know there is no intelligent life on Mars. Heck, if there's any life at all it's not even at the level of the protozoa wiggling at the beginning and the end of the movie. Now, I can just hear somebody niggling back there, saying something about Martians burying themselves long ago under the dessicating surface of Mars, waiting the day they can emerge into a livable world. But Spielberg avoided that issue by not mentioning Mars at all, as far as I can recall. He hints, by briefly showing a very red planet morphing into the red light of a traffic signal, but it could be a red planet in another sun system. But the obvious conflict is avoided anyway, by postulating that the aliens buried their machines under our earth's surface millions of years ago and never explained where the alien beings themselves lived all this time.

Wells' novel (1898) and the Pendragon film (2005) get away with Martians because the story is truly set at the end of the nineteenth century, when life and even civilization on Mars was deemed to be fairly possible by scientists and likely by ordinary citizens.

Welles' show (1938) and Pal's film (1953) were performed when life on Mars still could not be ruled out. Only when the Viking craft landed and poked around in the 70's did the Marian angle of Wells' story become truly untenable.

Technology.

Wells used the technology of his time. The Martians spent quite a bit of time in a makeshift foundry in the pit, casting and shaping local ore into aluminum pieces to build more machines. The heat ray was described as focussing heat energy using parabolic mirrors. In the 21st century this would be a laser beam. The black smoke was actually poison gas (although not named that), foreshadowing the Great War (and, ahem, Saddam Hussein).

Welles doesn't describe the heat ray in much detail, just a brief reference to the parabolic mirror theory. The black smoke is poison gas, but gas masks are useless. He refers to generic "metal" as the composition of the machines.

The Pendragon film's war machines were shiny aluminum all over. I don't recall seeing the Martians hard at work in the foundry, although it did hint at machine construction (the flying machines that emerged later). I don't recall seeing the black smoke (which was a good portion of the Martian technology in the book). The visualization of the heat ray was amazing. Wells described it as "a circular disk that spun with a wobbling motion". I don't understand why it had to wobble, but this was pictured exactly and fascinatingly so, at the ends of the tentacle arms.

Spielberg used black smoke, but didn't seem to make much of it, and Cruise didn't seem to be harmed when he was covered with it. The machines were made of some unknown alloy, dark color, and nobody was building them in foundry pits. No flying machines either - just the tripods. His visualiztion of the heat ray was similar to Pendragon's, but they were seen at the tips of the arms, wobbling just a bit, but never active as far as I can recall. He prefrred to concentrate on the massive blaster at the front of the head (the one that blasts cars into American oblivion).

As for the locomotion, Wells had the machines walk on 100-foot tall jointed legs - 3 of them, producing a rolling gait. The Pendragon film does this, too, and seems to enjoy showing the undersides of the feet as they come tromping down, squashing human flesh into red blobs. It also enjoys filling the background sound with the booming thumps of the feet hitting the ground. Welles merely refers to "tripods" (well, his is a much shorter story). Spielberg also shows tripod legs, walking with a roll. Pal apparently had trouble designing a workable mechanical tripod, so he converted it to a tripod of rays supporting the machine heads, so they looked like they were floating. This is actually more plausible technology for a technologically advanced culture.

Did the aliens protect their machines with external force shields? Only in the Spielberg and Pendragon films. In the other stories, the machines (before the bacteria killed them) were vulnerable to heavy artillery attacks - if we were lucky enough to exploit their few vulnerabilities. At least two machines were destroyed by artillery or by ramming from ships in the Wells and Pendragon stories. Spielberg's troops knocked off a machine only after its occupants were deathly sick with our bugs and the force shield couldn't be deployed. I found it curious that Pal used the most modern destructive technology around at the time to try to blow away the Martians - an atomic bomb dropped by the Flying Wing! Yet Spielberg, 52 years later, masses ground troops, hand grenades, Humvees, rocket launchers, and helicopters to persuade the Martians to stop their dirty business.

All but Spielberg deliver the Martians to earth inside metal cylinders which appear to earthlings as though they were meteorites barrelling through the atmosphere. Spielberg has them buried in the earth from a time before humans walked it - extremely long-range plan for their evil scheme.

Spielberg adds a few technological wrinkles. In addition to the burial of high-tech machines millions of years ago waiting for a resurrection, he posits lightning bolts that carry the aliens from wherever the mother ship is into the earth where they can turn the ignition key and fire up the millions-of-years-old war machines.

Yet they all use the decidely low-tech screwthread as the mechanism for protecting the machines and creatures inside their cylinders (or, in Spielberg's case, inside the earth) and for releasing them. A cap screws off, leaving an opening for the Maritans to emerge.

Water.

Wells and Pendragon have humans fight the Martians on water, using destroyers. (The Martians are chasing fugitives in a ferry boat who are trying to escape across the English Channel to France.) Welles mentions the Martians wading across rivers to get to New York. Spielberg does not have a battle in the water. Instead, the ferry boat becomes another venue for the Martians to continue their relentless assault on living beings trying to escape. Like whales, the machines erupt from the water underneath the boats to overturn them and cast all occupants into the drink, where they proceed to pluck them up for the masters' dining pleasure.

Boston.

So, what's with Boston? In Spielberg's story, the escapees from New Jersey cross the Hudson, trying to get to Boston. Yes, our hero Cruise has an ex-wife there, and he's trying to shepherd his kids there. But why Boston? Could it be the underdog Red Sox?

Settings.

The Wells and Pendragon stories are set in the countryside southwest of London, and then in London itself.

Welles Americanizes the setting by placing it in New Jersey.

Spielberg must have liked that, because he too sets the story in New Jersey.

Pal had to Americanize, too, and he chose California.

But, again, why are Spielberg's characters all heading for Boston? The equivalent to Wells' London and Pal's Los Angeles would be New York City, but no-o-o.

Numbers.

Wells depicted three puffs of green smoke before the heat ray annihlated the flag-waving trio at the beginning of the extermination. From each pit (gouged by the plummeting of the cylinders to earth) erupted three war machines, each of which was occupied by three Martian operators. And, of course, the three legs upon which the machines stood and walked.

The Pendragon film doesn't fixate (as far as I can recall) on this trilogy, except for the flag-waving trio.

Welles mentions three machines at one point, but makes no significance of the number.

Pal has the cylinders crash to earth in threes - each at an apex of an isoceles triangle. Each cylinder houses three machines, and each machine has three ray-spurting lobes. Inside each machine are three riders (I think). He carries this symbolism further, by giving the Martians a single three-lobed eye with which it blends three separate single-color images. The "scout" tentacle that snakes into recesses has a similar three-lobed eye at the tip. Pal gets into myth with the references to six days in which the Martians can conquer the earth - "the same number of days it took to create it" (reverential silence).

Spielberg doesn't seem to put much stock in specific numbers. But a brief reference is made to 26 Martians in each machine. Why 26? Why not?

The Martian.

All but Welles show the Martian being. Wells and Pendragon describe a flattish body, ovoid with somewhat ragged edges, brown like leather, with tentacled arms, perhaps a flock of smaller tentacles emerging when needed from the chest, tiny legs, and very large, oil-slick eyes.

Welles did not describe the Martians, except for a brief reference to their "meat" being eaten by dogs.

Pal's Martian is brown, too, but there the resemblance ends. The very large head sits cobra-like atop a trunk that tapers down to two tiny legs. The two arms are thin, with three-fingered hands, each finger tipped with a suction cup. And, most striking, the single large eye with its brilliant blue, red, and green lobes that are extremely sensitive to our level of sunlight. The scrawny arms and fingers can't shield that eye from the direct shine of the scientist's flashlight. Years later, when I saw Spielberg's ET, that creature struck me as a rip-off of Pal's Martian - although with a much more benign, cherubic face, including two large, blinking cute blue eyes.

Spielberg's Martian reminded me of the creature in the Alien movies - a large cowl-shaped head, under which was a delicate face with two small eyes, a nose, and vampire-like mouth. The body was insect-like, atop two long, think, articulated legs. The much smaller arms had hands tipped with fingers bearing suction cups la Pal. These creatures skittered, curious, through the wrecked farm house waving arms and scrabbling over a piece of rotten food until the foghorn call of their boss called them back to work.

When the Martians died: In Wells' and Welles' stories they drooped from the cowls of their machines and birds ripped the meat from their bones and dogs ran off with the scraps. In Pal's film, no meat was ripped by birds or dogs, but a Martian laboriously pushed open the hatch to this machine and painfully stretched one suction-cupped finger at a time along the surface, as though it were trying to get to fresh air; then it relaxed, and the scientist took its pulse and declared it to be dead. Spielberg, likewise, had the Martian trying to eke his way out of the machine, until its arm went limp; a cop lifts the lax arm with his night stick and declares it to be dying; the camera pans upward into the hatch to show the sickly pale face of the Martian gasping its last under its cowl-shaped hairpiece; and meat being ripped apart was only implied by birds shrieking around the disabled machines. No meat at all that I recall in the Pendragon film.

Feeding Time.

Welles says at one point, "And I keep a careful watch. I have seen the Martians... feed." He prefers to skip Wells' vivid descriptions of the Martian machines scooping up humans for the masters' snacks, the sucking up of human blood for dessert, the caging of humans like cattle for future slaughter and consumption. Pal avoids this whole issue completely. Spielberg goes back to Wells and shows the tube that drains the blood from a human and the cages carried under the machines' cowls for the human cattle. Pendragon goes the farthest of all, beyond Wells, at least two times depicting the machine tentacled analyzer examining shrieking human bodies la UFO abductions, then stabbing them and sucking the juices (more than just blood) until the bodies shrivel away to bones. I have to say, though, that Spielberg's inverted anus under the machine's cowl slurping men into the machine takes the proverbial cake on this topic.

The Farm House.

What can I say? They all liked the idea of hiding out in a wrecked farm house, with the aliens and their machines camped just outside and sending their scouts in to look around. Pretty basic horror stuff, but pretty effective in all cases.

The Red Weed.

When the Martians have gained the upper hand, they started planting their "red weed". Apparently this is a food source that does not use chloprophyll; instead it grows brilliant red vines that propagate with enormous speed. Wells sees this weed replacing the earth's vegetation, but its turning gray and brittle is the first sign of the Martians' weakness - the succumbing to the earth's bacteria. Wells throws thisnotion out but doesn't make a whole lot of it.

Welles makes no mention at all of this Martian plant.

Neither does Pal.

Pendragon tosses this idea out almost exclusively in the form of visuals - the roads and fields and trees and skeletons are coated with the stuff, glowing like some candyland fantasy. This film shows a lot more red than the book does.

Spielberg, too, merely shows the weed. One stunning view is of a blackened landscape that goes for miles, with scarlett tendrils running all through it. Then Cruise sees a batch of it turned gray and shriveled, and he realizes it has died. And then the Martians die. Two and two ...

And in the End ...

... The guy finds his long-lost woman again, unharmed, falling into his arms. At least in Wells, Pendragon, and Spielberg. In Pal, he and she were always together in typical Hollywood 50's schlock. How sweet. Welles has nothing to do with a woman.

Links.

Complete text of Wells' novel (Wikipedia):

http://wikisource.org/wiki/The_War_of_the_Worlds

Complete text of Welles' radio script:

http://members.aol.com/jeff1070/script.html

New York Times stories and commentary:

http://members.aol.com/jeff1070/wotw.html

Discussion of The Mercury Theater War Of The Worlds Broadcast:

http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk/radio.htm

Yet another 2005 film version of the story:

http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk/war of the worlds asylum 2005.htm

Jeff Wayne's comments on Spielberg's film:

http://www.war-ofthe-worlds.co.uk/war of the worlds spielberg cruise 2005.htm


Postscript 2, 2005-0812


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