This week sees The Criterion Collection’s release of Byron Haskins technicolor adaptation of H.G. Wells’s sci-fi classic The War of the Worlds, spine #1037. While Paramount bought the rights to Wells’s 1898 novel shortly after completion, it sat on Cecil B. DeMille’s desk until shortly after WWII, when the Red Scare would become the fuel for the metaphor of the alien invasion. The film was the first of the big budget special effects extravaganzas that would attempt to do something more than simply entertain its audience with its spectacle, by infusing the film with this dark metaphor. It’s a film that’s release is super relevant at this time of the year, given the penchant to revisit another alien invasion flick that cribbed quite a bit from War, which in 1953 set the template for every alien invasion going forward.
For those not familiar with the film, it’s the story of a race of technologically advanced Martians who arrive on earth and basically lay waste to everything that gets in their way. The film primarily focuses on the hip scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), who’s out on a fishing trip in a small town in southern California where the first ship lands and is mistaken for a simple meteor. When he is called in to check out the space debris he instantly falls for Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson). Bucking the usual trend of air-headed sci-fi bombshell, Sylvia is a USC library science instructor and is not relegated to simply being the damsel in distress. Her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin) however, is responsible for setting in motion the themes of Christianity that run throughout the film, fueling humanity’s last hope. The root of this being, that in the 1950’s during the Red Scare America’s superiority was partially attributed to our belief in God and a higher power unlike the to the godless, atheist Commies.
Director Byron Haskins originally came from a stop-motion animation background, which helped the film’s effects heavy production. Knowing that it’s easy to understand why the film’s ambitious practical shots still hold up surprisingly well, even when scanned in at 4k in this gorgeous new transfer. Light years ahead of its time, War feels more progressive than most, even with its deep political/religious subtext. The cast here led by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, who both put in solid performances really help to sell the otherworldly tale, while also grounding the film in a relatable reality. Haskins is very careful with how he develops their relationship throughout the film as it also acts as the emotional core of the narrative as well. The film is a bit of slow burn compared to more modern blockbusters, but it makes up for it with its brisk 85 minute runtime.
The disc is sourced from a brand new 4K restoration of the original 3 strip technicolor negative, which highlights the cinematography by George Barnes, who strangely had yet to shoot a color film before this. Barnes is very judicious with his use of light and color as a tool to highlight the more fantastical elements, such as Al Nozaki’s brilliant martian warship design. The film was re-color-timed using a print from the original release, to reproduce the original intended look. There were moments where the picture looked so pristine, I could believe it was a period piece shot today. The film is presented in its original mono, and a new alternate 5.1 soundtrack. If you’re watching on a decent surround sound setup, I have to recommend against the mono and just sticking to the 5.1 (Unless you shut off everything but your center), since it would occasionally hit my surrounds a bit too hard.
Since War is an older film, there wasn’t a wealth of existing period extras and most of those involved with the film are sadly no longer with us. But Criterion has definitely dug in and given fans a wealth of content to parse through by including some of the previous extras from the previous 2005 Paramount 50th Anniversary DVD collector’s edition, along with their newly produced pieces. Highlights are — The Sky is Falling (2005), which interviews key cast members who give some fun insight into the film. My favorite bit from the doc being Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion take with his design of the martians, that had the master delivering a closer to the book, it’s a bit campy, but fascinating nonetheless. From the Archives (2020), about the restoration of the film, and the inclusion of the original Orson Welles radio play that sent listeners into shock back on Halloween in 1938 when listeners believed it to be real is just the icing on the cake.
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New alternate 5.1 surround soundtrack, created by sound designer Ben Burtt and presented in DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray
- Audio commentary from 2005 featuring filmmaker Joe Dante, film historian Bob Burns, and author Bill Warren
- Movie Archaeologists, a new program on the visual and sound effects in the film featuring Burtt and film historian Craig Barron
- From the Archive, a new program about the film’s restoration featuring Barron, Burtt, and Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas
- Audio interview with producer George Pal from 1970
- The Sky Is Falling, a 2005 documentary about the making of the film
- The Mercury Theatre on the Air radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds from 1938, directed and narrated by Orson Welles
- Radio program from 1940 featuring a discussion between Welles and H. G. Wells, author of the 1897 novel The War of the Worlds
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by film critic J. Hoberman
I’ve been a fan of War since I was glued to the TV set every Saturday night in the 80s for the TV Series/Sequel. In all those years of re-watch on TV and DVD I’ve never seen the film look and sound this great. When you watch the restoration doc that comes with the film, I was surprised at how much thought and care went into making sure the film looks as good, if not better than when it first unspooled for audiences back in 1953 and what they did to make the definitive version going forward. Watching the film now as an adult, its easy to see how many have borrowed or flat out stole from this film that still holds its own as far as I’m concerned as a chilling metaphor for invasion that still works today. Criterion has also done an excellent job at helping to provide the context around the film so those that may not be familiar with the historical aspects of the film can walk away realizing the original filmmakers intent. I honestly can’t recommend this package highly enough, Criterion just killed it with this release.