Saturday, March 17, 2018

The War of the Worlds: The True Story (Pendragon, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The two films shown at last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill ( were unusually good given some of the crap we’ve been presented before — though much of the crap was the sort of Mystery Science Theatre 3000-type fare that while inept as filmmaking has camp entertainment value simply by being so bad. The first was a film called The War of the Worlds: The True Story, whose odd conceit was that the war between Earth and Mars described in H. G. Wells’ classic 1897 novel actually happened and the last survivor of it, Bertie Wells (Floyd Reichman), was interviewed and videotaped in 1965 reminiscing about it. Hines, who apparently wrote the script as well, also assumed that in 2006 a cache of contemporary film footage of the actual war of the worlds was unearthed in a safe in a vault of a building that was about to be torn down, and so his film supposedly intersperses footage from the interview with Bertie Wells done six months before he died with the newsreel and documentary film of the actual war. What Hines really did was take a whole mass of stock footage, including newsreels from both world wars, as well as scenes from feature films of the classic era either made or set in times a few decades later than the 1900 date given of the actual war of the worlds. 

He quite artfully patched in newly created effects footage of the Martian war machines and grafted them into his stock clips, though some of the clips themselves were so recognizable from their original contexts they were jarring and disconcerting: the Odessa Steps sequence from Eisenstein’s Potemkin, representing Londoners fleeing from the Martian onslaught; the famous sequence from Buster Keaton’s The General in which a train attempts to cross a burning bridge, the bridge gives way and the train collapses (the sequence Keaton insisted on staging with a real train really crashing into a river from a real collapsing bridge; the train remained in the river at his Oregon location from 1926 to the early 1940’s, when it was extracted so the metal could be used as scrap in World War II); a scene from Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland clearly recognizable sitting on a couch; and other scenes with Shirley Temple and other actors from classic-era Hollywood (one “trivia” poster recognized William Shatner, though I didn’t). Part of the conceit was that Hines used not only the basic plot of Wells’ The War of the Worlds but also much of the actual prose from Wells’ novel, split between Bertie Wells in character and a third-person narrator (Jim Cissell) who sounded like the kind of voice actor they got for “audio-visual” movies they showed in schools in the 1960’s. The result was a fascinating movie but also a quite dull one at times, and I tend to agree with the reviewer who said that through a lot of this movie you are more amazed at the skill of Hines’ technique than moved or grabbed by the story. According to the Wikipedia page on the film (, which is a lot more informative than its entry ( only lists five of the actors in the film, while Wikipedia gives the full cast), Hines’ inspiration was the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which updated the story to Welles’ own time and presented it as if it were an actual news event being broadcast in real time. (The famous panic that ensued as many people listening to Welles’ broadcast thought the Martian invasion was really happening was the subject of the other movie on our double bill.) 

He wisely cast two actors as Bertie Wells, Floyd Reichman as the older man recounting the Martian invasion from 1965 and a younger actor (not listed on either or Wikipedia) playing him in the supposed documentary footage — which actually features a lot of “cheating,” showing scenes no cameraman could possibly have been there to film (though there are a few sequences in which a character appears using the hand-cranked film cameras of the early days on screen — it wasn’t unknown in the real days for a newsreel producer to send several cameramen to shoot a major battle or public event and have one cameraman get into another one’s shot). Hines actually made an earlier version of The War of the Worlds in 2005, though it’s unclear whether the 2012 release we were watching was cut down from that first one or whether the two were different projects by the same writer-director and some of the same actors; according to Wikipedia, Hines originally planned a War of the Worlds film in 2001 that would relocate the story to modern times, then abandoned it after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made that seem tasteless and commercially dubious. He apparently got a version into release in 2005 but complained that he couldn’t get it shown in theatres because that was when Steven Spielberg’s version, starring Tom Cruise and released by Paramount, came out, so it went direct-to-video instead (along with another one, directed by David Michael Latt for The Asylum — a company that specializes in ripping off major-studio productions of public-domain stories or easily replicated premises — they put out their own adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars just before Disney released John Carter, and their other films include titles like Ghosthunters and The Fast and the Fierce), so he went to the Wells well again and came up with this version in 2012. It was a highly capable movie but, as the reviewer noted, one comes away more admiring the filmmaker’s ingenuity than being absorbed, moved or entertained by the story.