Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
Yesterday I went to OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.) for a screening of the 1953 George Pal classic War of the Worlds. I love OMSI and really need to do a Searching for Lady Portland Episode about it. (For those of you not familiar Searching for Lady Portland, this is my series where I explore quirky Portland locations with my imaginary friend The Genius Loci of Portland, sort of a personification of Portland as my idea of the perfect woman.) Not only does OMSI have great traveling exhibits it has a USS Blueback, a decommissioned submarine that played the role of the American and Russian subs interiors in the Hunt for Red October. This place rocks.
As I sat looking at the OMSI’s 40’ tall screen, in my mind I was transported to a long ago place and time. I was sitting not in a theater seat but a 53’ Chevy convertible. As I wait for the sun to set tennie boppers in long white shirts and capris jeans with long pony tails run buy. Guys in duce coups have come here to take their best girl to see a scary movie with the hopes she will jump into his arms.
I remembered back in the 70’s when my parents took me to drive-ins. I can still smell the hot dogs and popcorn in the concession shop. Playing at the playground with swings, teeter-tots and unpainted jungle gyms. I remember my dad taking me out for a stroll because my per-diagnosed ADD kicked in and I couldn’t keep still. We were watching either a per-banned Sound of the South or Snoopy Come Home, and he took me to the fence separating lot A and Lot B and let me watch the scene in West World where the pompous businessman dressed as a knight is killed by a robot in a sword fight.
Only the start of the movie pulls me out my reverie. And I think that the movie aged pretty well. And seeing it on a huge screen was a blast. I had seen it many times as a kid watching it on LA county TV, but it is different seeing it on a mega-screen. To me WotW was the pre-Star Wars (or at least pre-2001) Science Fiction Movie. The movie cost 2 million dollars to make in 1953, of which a full 70% went to special effects. This was the 50’s version of popcorn special effects movie.
The huge screen and the change in film formats revealed the iconic Martian ships wires. The first time I saw them I was shocked, but the next time I was back in the 50’s and my spirit of disbelief didn’t mentally erase them, but instead I was again watching it the first time with greasers and Bobbie soxers back in 1953, who were pointing the wires out. I actually got more into the movie because of this. The time that you couldn’t see the lines holding the ships up made me respect the pre-digital effects even more.
The one thing I didn’t think aged well is the female lead played by Ann Robinson. Now I don’t think It’s fault her in anyway. She has the perfect 50’s heroine looks and great acting chops, but her primarily role in the movie is to let the male characters explain things to her and screaming. Now don’t get me wrong if the invasion in the move was real then I would be yelling the loudest. I also accept that it is a trope of its time, but in a post-Ripley world I live in now, I want a hero of either gender kick a little butt.
One thing that does get enhanced by the seeing the movie in a large format is the incredible cast of supporting characters. Pal uses the faces of civilians and soldiers so well to show what they are felling and the psychological and emotional aspects of a war with unstoppable aliens. With few exceptions of things like air planes, (I think both real flying wings had crashed by this time so they only had stock footage left) Pal avoided the common trend back then most directors used of showing generic stock footage for scenes with the military in it. This cost more money but gave the movie an authentic feel that allowed it to have a cult following to present day.
Pal, as a director also had an incredible eye for details. You can’t see this when watching War on a TV, but it is obvious on the big screen. Things such a billboard touting a Bob Hope movie in abandoned Los Angeles become apparent. I also liked all the artifacts in an abandoned farm house that made it look like it had been lived in then abandoned.
The movie is defiantly a product of it cold war era. With is we got the A-bomb it will save us, oh no it didn’t message. But then again social commentary of its time period, is not new among renditions of War of the Worlds. The Orson Wells radio version tapped into the zeitgeist of fear, because of the rise of European fascists. The original 1897 book is a rebuffing of English colonialism. The Victorian English went from the apex colonialist to the victim of a society with greater technology.
One of the best things in the movie is the tri-lobed, three finger, number three thinking Martians. Pal followed the less is better school of thought, much like Spielberg did with the Shark on Jaws. So the few times you see the alien you don’t get the feeling, “oh look a man in a suit.” They are legitimately frightening and alien like. Even in the climactic scene at the end you only see the aliens three fingered hand, when it dies.
Another thing that made the experience incredible is the setting, I saw it in. Even though the science of the movie is a bit specious, when the narrator goes over the reasons that the Martians didn’t pick the other planets, it is obvious that back then contemporary science didn’t know Saturn and Jupiter where gas giants. There is something just awesome watching a science fiction movie in a science museum. Another example of this in Portland is that we have some amazing art deco theaters like the Hollywood and Laurelhurst, where you can see vintage noir movies, in theaters that had the movies back in the original release. The sitting makes the movie exigence even greater.
The 1980’s War of the World TV show is a direct sequel of the 1953 War of the World’s movie. Ann Robinson even reprises her roll from the movie in a few episodes. In it the aliens where not killed by germs only placid in hibernation, and escape and continue their nefarious plans for world domination. It was an attempt to make a TV show as close to an R Rated movie as possible, with blood and gore. The aliens (Who are reveled for the TV show to not be originally from Mars) are hiding in human bodies and reach out with their third arm to kill humans made this a truly frightening series.
I found out about this showing from Derek Koch of Monster Kid Radio. If you are not familiar with this awesome podcast check it out. It is the Pacific Northwest’s premium podcast about monster movies. I had met him a few times at The Lovecraft Film festival and comi-cons, and enjoyed talking with him and his friends Chris and Dominque to discuss the movie afterward. Especially since Dominque had never seen the movie before. And isn’t that what every geek really wants to after seeing a movie, to discuss it ad nauseum with subject matter experts? The discussion will be on the podcast in a few weeks, and will let you know when it is available, but do yourself check out this podcast before then, you will thank me.
Also I am not a fan of bucket lists, subconsciously, the idea that when I finish the list I will die disturbs me, but if you are add seeing a classic science fiction movie in a science museum. Guaranteed you will thank me for that too.
Monster Kid Radio’s web site.