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All's Wells That Ends Welles: Pal and Spiellberg Trade War Stories

As War of the Worlds only works as cautionary tale, each generation gets its own version. Published in 1898, H.G. Wells's durable fiction was at once a prophecy of modern carnage and—invoking the extermination of the Tasmanians—an example of psychological blowback, projecting colonial brutality on the imperial metropolis. Broadcast for Halloween 1938, less than a year before Germany invaded Poland, Orson Welles's mock-doc radio drama played on pre-war jitters to trigger mass hysteria.

The 1953 movie version, produced by George Pal for Paramount Pictures, begins by conjuring black-and-white memories of World Wars I and II, then switches to strident Technicolor for post-atomic War of the Worlds. Pal's War (newly out on DVD with the Welles broadcast as part of the package) completes the trilogy of Cold War f/xtravaganzas begun with Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Despite excellent reviews, Pal's capper was only a modest hit; made during a period of nuclear anxiety but released post-Eisenhower, Pal's War seems less anti-Communist paranoia than triumphalist pop art.

Indeed, the first third of Pal's War is close to Tim Burton's 1996 Mars Attacks! A gaggle of mercenary rubes imagine the spacecraft crater as a tourist site: "It would be like having a gold mine in our own backyard!" The middle is pure spectacle—hot comic-book chiaroscuro, flaming skies out of Edvard Munch's Scream. The Martians' streamlined Danish Modern hovercrafts are like a prediction of the 1964 World's Fair; the multi- colored mushroom cloud of a (failed) tactical nuke anticipates the Joshua Light Show.

Fallout boys: 1953’s The War of the Worlds
photo: Paramount Pictures
Fallout boys: 1953’s The War of the Worlds

Pal adds a religious dimension to Wells's anti-clerical story—including a plug for Samson and Delilah (Paramount's biggest hit, pre–White Christmas) and a closing nod to the then unnamed theory of intelligent design. (Wells's use of the term "natural selection" is dropped.) Steven Spielberg reprises that closer in his 2005 War of the Worlds, although his main point of reference is, of course, 9-11 (with nods to his own filmography, including Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan). Pal's original War plan, evidently nixed by the studio, followed Wells in having a married hero search for his wife and child. Spielberg being Spielberg, his version naturally ups the family ante with Tom Cruise battling to save his kids, if not his broken marriage.

That the Cruise character mutates from callow, hotshot rapscallion to responsible mensch is a Bush-like transformation that plays well against the blatant 9-11 imagery(sleeper cells, the gray dust that covers bewildered survivors, "missing" pictures, Manhattan skyline) and flavorsome Bayonne mise-en-scéne. Child star Dakota Fanning, who, in the first of many piercing shrieks, screams "is it the terrorists!?!?!" got on many people's nerves—but in large part because Spielberg is so adroit in naturalizing the cosmic struggle, the movie's first 45 minutes (plus the post-Weekend traffic jam) represent the best filmmaking he's done since the first Jurassic Park. The last half is as horrid as little Dakota.

 
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