History of Sci-Fi Cinema 12: “When Worlds Collide” & “War of the Worlds”

12-WWCWhen Worlds Collide (1951)
Written by Sydney Boehm, based on the novel by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Produced by George Pal
Paramount Pictures
Starring Richard Derr, Barbara Rush, Peter Hansen

12-WotWWar of the Worlds (1953)
Written by Barré Lyndon, based on the novel by H. G. Wells
Directed by Byron Haskin
Produced by George Pal
Paramount Pictures
Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson

As I’m running a bit behind in my blog, I decided to combine my next two entries into one, as the next two make a fitting pairing: two towering accomplishments of cinema sci-fi, a double-feature of destruction by producer George Pal, these two films couldn’t be more similar — and at the same time, more different. Both inspired by influential works of fiction, both depicting the end of the world, both depicting strong Christian beliefs and themes, and both with a ray of hope at the end.

There are other, more personal similarities in these films. Both are ones that I saw at a relatively young age, and loved a lot. Both films had a big impact on me. And both were from novels that I’d read at a pretty early age.

I remember most clearly reading When Worlds Collide and being quite enthralled by it. The movie follows the same basic plot but differs greatly on most of the details. In many ways, the novel is far more gripping than the movie. While good, the movie lacks a “global” feel. This is a disaster that literally effects the entire world. For the most part, though, we only see how the impending disaster effects the people in a bunker. The only significant glimpses we get of the world outside of the rocket team are one sequence of a humanitarian helicopter mission, and a series of clips of natural disasters. But none of the natural disasters, even though they are quite shocking and harrowing, show any effect on people. Even a gorgeous and lengthy shot of a major city being flooded has no human element to it — it’s just water rushing between buildings. To be fair, Pal had grand plans for this film, but was forced to downsize his vision due to budget (most evident in the final scene, the sunrise on Zyra, depicted in a rough color sketch when the budget didn’t allow for artist Chesley Bonestell to produce a finished matte). The urgency of the situation is conveyed mostly via a calendar countdown and a very
strange voice over of announcements along the lines of “Only 4 days until Bellus! We’re falling behind schedule! Hurry!” We don’t even really see much of the approaching two planets, so it comes across as a bit theoretical.

We’ve already taken a look at Pal‘s previous SF film, Destination Moon, and while Worlds may falter a bit due to its budget being more constrained than its producer hoped for, it’s still quite an ambitious leap forward. The characterizations that we do get, in the core of the rocket team, are mostly believable and genuine (I do think that Drake is seen to accept the newly blossoming love between Randall and Joyce way too quickly, but that’s mostly due to the time constraint, showing many days passing in a very short amount of screen time). And I think that the mob mentality of wanting to survive and raising up arms against those who are selected to survive happens a little too late and too cleanly. For instance, when the lottery system is first suggested, no one speaks out against it. No one raises any doubt. There’s no debate. A huge bunker full of people all seem to murmur agreement without any discussion at all. Surely someone there had misgivings about it.

It seems to me that there’s an awful lot more that could be done with the human drama of facing the destruction of your planetary home and the end of your life and everything you know. I’m not a big advocate of remakes of the classics, but in this case, I would be interested to see what a longer running time and a bigger budget could accomplish.

When considering differences and similarities between our two featured films, there’s one important point to make about Collide — Joyce Hendron, while still a lovestruck female as is typical for the early 50s, is not entirely useless. And that leads us to our second feature.

If When Worlds Collide  is an obvious leap forward in terms of scale and quality for producer George Pal, his next epic, War of the Worlds, doubles that. It seems like War is the film that Pal wanted Collide to be, as he achieves everything in the latter that he was not able to in the former. War is nothing short of extraordinary. It’s a powerful film that, even with square dances, colloquialisms, men in hats and really old cars, doesn’t seem dated. And the reason for that is the human drama set against universal panic and destruction. This is a movie in which you see the effects of the threat, you feel the heat of the death rays. The script is very tightly written, the direction has a conviction and urgency to it, the characterizations are top notch (with one major exception, alluded to in the last paragraph), and the film has so many iconic sights and sounds that it will never be bettered. Add to that a very beautiful design and some groundbreaking and inventive special effects, and you have a film that is breathtaking in its scope and achievement.

There’s no lack here of the effect the impending disaster has on the human population: We are treated to massive shootouts between the Martians and the military, evacuations of major cities, mob rule in stranded citizens attacking any vehicle that has the misfortune to come their way, stragglers huddling in churches praying for deliverance and hoping for a miracle, one man braving death desperately seeking the woman from whom he’s been separated, and the utter horror of the military throwing everything they have at the Martians and all of it failing. All this is takes place amidst striking (and very expensive looking) scenes of mass destruction. There’s no theoretical threat here: This is pure terror, brought down upon us from our neighboring planet, and we have no hope, no chance, absolutely no way of stopping it. In short, this is a powerful film.

It’s not perfect, though. Really, there are only two things that detract from it. The first is that the wires suspending the Martian war machines are visible. But honestly, I don’t care one whit about that. I don’t find it distracting at all. What does distract me, though, is the character of Sylvia van Buren, who is less a character and more the standard 50s trope of a screaming, hysterical female who is only there to be rescued by a man and make him look heroic. Even as a little boy watching this I was annoyed by her, but at that time it wasn’t so much because of the way she represented her gender; it was simply not being able to identify with her sheer panic and terror and lack of curiosity. During the scenes in the farmhouse, all Dr. Forrester wanted was to get a closer look at the Martians and their machines because he knew that was the key to understanding them and defeating them. I knew (or at least hoped) that if I were in that situation I would follow his lead and, even though I was terrified, get my first look at a being from another world. The actresses’ name is Ann Robinson, and one can’t help but imagine how much differently the character would have been portrayed had she been played by someone like Anne Robinson of Weakest Link fame. Still … that scene of the Martian reaching up and touching her shoulder is immensely gripping.

Both films end on a hopeful note, with the 44 human survivors in Collide reaching Zyra and watching their first sunrise on their new home, and in War with the aliens succumbing to Earthly bacteria. The latter is an incredibly powerful ending because, not only is beautifully shot, but also because of the build-up we’ve witnessed throughout the film; we’ve been shown that there is absolutely no escape from the Martians and that we are unequivocally doomed. The churchgoers prayed for deliverance and it was granted. It’s an extraordinary moment.

When viewed together, Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds form something of a trilogy, an arc, of George Pal‘s growing prowess as a film producer, tied together by the soundscape of Leith Stevens, who supplied the scores for all three. He would falter a bit with his next space epic, Conquest of Space (which we’ll be reviewing soon), a box office flop that prevented Pal’s plan of a sequel based on the novel After Worlds Collide. But he rebounded and had other successes that we’ll be getting to a little later on.

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