“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise the kids”: War of the Worlds and Cinema

To coincide with the “Being Human” events celebrating the 150th birthday of HG Wells I thought I’d dust off an old essay I wrote about the Tripods from War of the Worlds. It looks at their relation to the new technology of the camera, before exploring that connection in both the 1953 Bryon Haskin film adaptation and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. I wrote this around three years ago, so while I stand-by most of the points on offer here, some elements are somewhat superficial. Keep that in mind while reading. Also it’s far longer than anything I’d normally post on here, so feel free to read in chunks, or skip anything dull.

With no further ado:

“THE CAMERA THAT FIRED THE HEAT-RAY”: THE WAR OF THE WORLDS AND ITS ADAPTATIONS AS COMMENTARIES ON CINEMA

The late 19th century was a time of great technological upheaval. New inventions and discoveries abounded, such as the telephone and x-rays, and these in turn sparked the creative drive of H.G. Wells. His scientific romances often commented on the state of technology, or used these new discoveries as metaphors in allegorical tales. This is especially true of his 1897 novel, The War of the Worlds, which despite being seen as the archetypical alien invasion story, is far from an “empty fantasy”. It explores many subjects, one of which is the Lumière brothers’ new invention, the film camera and by extension, cinema. Created in 1895, cinema was quickly becoming highly popular with the masses, and recognising the power of the medium, Wells filled his tale of alien invasion with allusions the visual style and technology of film. This essay will examine these references and explore why Wells chose to focus on film. It will also analyse the 1953 Hollywood adaptation of WOTW for any trace of Wells’s cinematic commentary, before considering the possibility of a wider reaching influence in Soviet Cinema with Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Through these filmic examples it will discover whether Wells’s concerns about the new medium are simply of their time or are instead, universal.

Within Wells’s novel there a number of allusions to film, the intense imagery used to describe the action being particularly cinematic. In the first book the Martians roam England in an unrestricted fashion, and as does the plot itself concentrating on both the unnamed narrator and his brother. This freedom is paralleled in Wells’s imagery. When the Martians are first revealed, the vivid language of a “flickering light [that] was blinding and confusing” and the narrator’s unsure comment of “How can I describe it?” generate a very cinematic, but also very personal image. In contrast, Martian military progress is highlighted with reference to specific locations almost in the style a map, for example: “through the charred and desolated area – perhaps twenty square miles altogether – than encircled the Martian encampment on Horsell Common”. This implies an aerial view to the mind of the reader. The freedom to use such varying visuals is highly reminiscent of the different camera angles used in cinema. This is most apparent when the narrator and a curate are trapped in the basement of a “ruined house” destroyed by a Martian cylinder. From this confined space the two men are able to covertly observe the invaders at work through a “vertical slit open in the debris”. The idea of secretly watching action through a static opening is evokes the image of an early film audience. Wells had previously dealt with similar themes in his short story, Through a Window (1894). In this work an injured man (named Bailey) is forced to stay indoors, watching the outside world from his window. He witnesses various different ‘set pieces’ of action such as the hunt of a native Malay and begins to gain a perverse “glee” through observing. Both this and WOTW feature a sense of judgement upon the viewer, portraying the act of watching as “sickeningly voyeuristic”, and the pleasure gained as immoral. The viewer is punished for their misdemeanour, as in Window Bailey is violently attacked by the insane Malay and in WOTW the curate is captured by the Martians, with the implication that they will feed on him.

It could be argued that these viewing experiences have a wider scope than simply a commentary on film. Certainly due to the heavy reliance on imagery Wells is describing a visual experience, but it is possible he is commenting on the theatre or paintings. There are a number of reasons however that make film the most likely target of Wells’s text. Firstly it must be noted that while film is now filled with moving cameras and changing frames, in the period in which Wells was writing the camera was locked in a specific position paralleling the ruined house sequence. As for the other options of art forms: the amount of movement in frame, such as the rioting crowds, as well as the varying locations, seem to discount the static form of painting. The theatre can be discounted due to the scale and surrealism of Wells’s visuals. It seems almost impossible to imagine a looming tripod “higher than many houses”, as a product of the stage. Instead this seems closer to the trick early films of Georges Méliès. Méliès would later demonstrate a flair for the scientific romance with A Trip to the Moon (1902), but even at this early point in his filmmaking career he was producing non-realist pieces, such as A Terrible Night released in 1896, one year before WOTW.

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This short film features an impossibly oversized insect crawling up a hotel wall, and it seems likely a similar trick film could have inspired some of Wells’s more outlandish visuals. Even if Wells had not yet seen such a film, he would certainly be aware of the concept of the cinema as well as both the trick photograph, in which a “double exposure” could produce the image of a transparent ghost, and the magic lantern show, in which such trick photographs were projected for the entertainment of a crowd. Linking these well-established traditions with the new technology of film could easily be the inspiration for the “blockbuster” style imagery presented in WOTW. Later in his life Wells would go on to write a number of film scripts and describe the medium as “the art form of the future”. WOTW is an earlier flirtation with these ideas as he attempts, through choice language and description, to appropriate the visual style of early cinema to enhance his literary work.

In reference to WOTW’s allusions to the specific technology of the cinema, it has been noted that “Wells’s writings are fascinated with advanced instruments of vision”. This can be observed from the very first chapter in which humankind is “scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water” by the Martians. Humans in turn, specifically the narrator and astronomer Ogilvy, watch Mars through a telescope. Both of these activities involve the use of technology as an aid to natural sight. The idea that the humans would not “have believed” they are being watched, also reiterates the themes of voyeurism. The strongest example of this technological gaze is through the Martians’ “Fighting Machines”. These Tripods are clearly relatable to the film camera and projector. The three legged shape is reminiscent of a camera stand, but it could also be related to any other tripod, for example the heliograph (an early form of military communication) which is specifically mentioned in the novel. If reading the tripod as a heliograph strong parallels can be drawn between the British Army and the Martian war force, and the idea that the Martians can be read as simply “imperialists who use superior technology”. In Wells’ novels however, there are often many different interpretations available for each aspect, and with the Tripods he provides abundant evidence to read them as metaphors for film. Specifically their heat ray projectors are referred to as “cameras”, and the heat rays themselves have connotations of the light of a film projector. The Tripods’ need of a living operator also evokes the cameraman who is as invisible to the audience as the Martians are to the narrator, who claims the machines “so far as I could see [are] without a directing Martian at all”. Similarly an article printed one year before WOTW in Pearson’s Magazine details an “electronic eye” for detecting a newly discovered form of radiation, whose illustrations bear a striking resemblance to the Tripods.

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Obviously this idea of technological surveillance resonated with Wells as it not only appears in WOTW but also in a number of his other works. Two specific examples are The Crystal Egg (1897) in which the titular artefact acts as a camera and screen for Martians and humans to observe each other across space in scenes prescient of television; and When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) in which the government of a futuristic metropolis watch their citizens through visual technology in the style of Orwell’s Big Brother or modern CCTV cameras.

In WOTW Wells uses the Tripods as metaphorical film cameras for two reasons. One is a paranoid response to new technology. In a number of Wells’s earlier works he questions the use of machines and their role in shaping the future of human society. In The Land Ironclads (1903) tank-like war machines sweep away any resistance in a manner not unlike the Tripods, while in When the Sleeper Wakes the CCTV-style camera system is used by the government to oppress their people. In these early pieces Wells seems to be highly suspicious of technology’s capacity for misuse. With the Tripods Wells is commenting on the power of cinema and specifically its negative destructive ability if placed in the wrong hands. As noted, neither the Tripods nor film cameras can work without an operator, and Wells is worried about who that operator may be. There is also a warning of overreliance on film through the horrific description of the Martians “huge round bodies – or rather heads [with a] pair of very large, dark coloured eyes”. Specifically the narrator makes a meta-textual reference to Wells’ earlier essay: The Man of the Year Million, claiming it: “pointed out […] that the perfection of mechanical appliances must ultimately supersede limbs, the perfection of chemical devices, digestion – that such organs as hair, external nose, teeth, ears, chin, were no longer essential parts of the human being” and would degraded through time. The descriptions in the essay of humanity’s descendants as “enormous brains [with] liquid, soulful eyes” whose “entire muscular system will be shrivelled to nothing” are almost identical to the Martians. It seems clear then, that the invaders are twisted mirrors of humanities own future. In linking this “supra-rational, technologised humankind” with the cinema, Wells argues one should not be overly drawn toward film. This parallels with The Plattner Story (1896) an earlier short about a scientist’s journey into a surreal spirit world. These spirits are specifically referred to as both “tadpole-like” paralleling with the Martians’ appearance and “Watchers of the Living”, implying their lifestyle of observation has made them metaphorically dead. This and WOTW are both warnings of the degrading effects of the cinema.

The second reason for the use of the Tripods as film cameras is to provide what Keith Williams describes as the “alien gaze”. Williams refers to Wells’s use of the Martians as “defamiliarising” the ordinary world allowing the reader to view it from a new perspective. This is shown through the narrator’s perspective as his experiences with the invaders allow him to view the world anew. One specific point this is highlighted is when the narrator leaves the ruined house to discover the familiar English countryside is now “the landscape, weird and lurid, of another planet”. After this experience the narrator begins to question his own world, specifically reinterpreting the British Empire’s campaign in Tasmania as a truly “ruthless” atrocity. In the use of Martians as cinematic metaphors, Wells is commenting on the great power which the medium holds for defamiliarising the ordinary world and allowing the audience to view it anew. An example can be seen in Building Up and Demolishing the Star Theatre (1901) in which the demolition of a hotel is played backwards creating the illusion of reversed time in a fashion unimaginable before cinema. This may be a very simple example, but later cinematic techniques are still is used today make serious political points. Therefore in WOTW Wells’s “alien gaze” anticipates the power of the new medium through the metaphor of the Tripods.

With a novel containing so many cinematic elements and comments on the nature of film, WOTW seems the perfect subject for adaptation. It took 56 years, however, to reach the silver screen when director Byron Haskin and producer George Pal finally released their own updated version. Time had passed resulting in a change in world politics and public familiarity with the technology and techniques of the cinema, meaning Wells’s commentaries were rewritten by the filmmakers to make it more contemporary for the 1950s. The first notable difference between the original novel and The War of the Worlds (1953), besides the change in location to California, is the lack of Tripods. In this adaptation, due to the limitations of visual effects, Martian’s new travel machines float above the ground, similar to the flyer saucers which were popular in the media of the time.

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The only hint of the original Tripod nature is referenced is when they first rise out of their impact crater, and three green lines of light can be seen below the flying machines, described by lead scientist Forrester as “some sort of magnetic flux, like invisible legs.” Even this seems, however, not to have any particular metaphorical point behind it, instead only existing as a knowing nod to the source text. Similarly some of Wells’s other messages are completely removed, such as the vampiric aspect of the Martians (as metaphor for capitalism) being completely excised, replaced by their status as godless communists from the “Red” Planet.

This thematic pruning may damage a number of Wells’s aims, the interest in the defamiliarising powers of cinema escapes largely unscathed. With the lack of Tripods, their nature as metaphors for the camera has necessarily been replaced by a number of different aspects. In the Martians’ first scene a periscope-like eye rises from their meteor-like ship.

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This eye then fires a heat-ray or laser into three men turning them to dust.

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This explicitly links the powers of optical technology and destruction even more than the original novel, as it is the same device the Martians use to both see and kill. This ‘eye’ pulses with a red glow linking the destructive power of the camera with the Soviets, as a critique of the dangers of communist propaganda. The explicit link between the Martian eye and the camera provides an interesting parallel with their technological superiority over the humans as the latter are never shown with any media technology more powerful than a radio microphone. As in the original novel, from weapons (as the atomic bomb is no use against them) to media the Martians outclass humanity in every aspect. It is also notable that the fall of the Martian meteor occurs while a crowd are queued up outside a cinema. Seeing the meteor this crowd abandon the film to investigate the Martians. This idea of an audience for the Martians reaches back to the original text when the cylinder is at first watched by a “crowd of perhaps twenty people”. In the adaptation it is unclear whether these invaders more thrilling and interesting than “mere fiction” or if this a warning for America to put aside all else and concentrate on the dangers of communism. The film never reveals the answer, but both sides can be read in it.

Finally, the film also deals with Wells’s “alien gaze”. When the two leads (Forrester and Van Buren) are trapped in a ruined house (an adaptation of the narrator and curate incident from the text) the Martians send in a probe to look for them. Unlike in the text, however, where this probe is “blind” and finds its way through touch, the film’s version has an electronic eye, explicitly referred to as like a “television camera”. This camera is split into three distinct “lenses” which are coloured red, green and blue.

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These colours can be seen as a reference to the three-strip colours of technicolour used in the making of the film itself, with the Martians themselves being shown to have identical lenses in their eyes again linking them and the cinema. Later the camera eye is removed from the Martian ship and its output signal is projected by the human scientists. The viewer is then able to see the world in the same way as the Martians, and it appears to be distorted and incorrectly coloured.

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The reason in the film is given as “a shift in their spectrum” due to the three lenses, but thematically this is the literal distorting “alien gaze” of the Martian eye, and by extension, the real-life camera. It has been suggested that the film does present a more metaphorical “alien gaze” of the modern America, as the original text does of Victorian England. This occurs on occasion, for example when the Martians first meet humans, one is a Native American and the “alien gaze” focuses on the ““taboo” history of internal imperialism” in America. The operative word is occasionally, however, as this happens infrequently and the film never challenges the American status-quo to the same degree as Wells’s biting satire of his own culture. Overall the Haskin/Pal collaboration produces a film still interested in Wells’s themes, but never quite reaching the same level of in-depth analysis.

None of the direct filmic adaptations of Wells’s novel look particularly deeply into the power of the camera, with this 1953 effort exploring it the most. For a more comprehensive study of these themes, a wider selection of cinema than simply direct adaptations must be taken into account. Wells’s influence can be seen throughout visual media from Nigel Kneale’s anti-military series Quatermass trilogy (1953-9) to Roland Emmerich’s retelling of WOTW as a jingoistic war story with Independence Day (1996). Soviet Russia in particular fostered a great fascination with Wells’s work, especially WOTW, possibly due to his socialist leanings. One particular Soviet filmmaker who appears to take inspiration from WOTW is Dziga Vertov with his 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera. This silent feature’s plot, if it can be said to have a plot at all, follows the “day in the life” of a cameraman. Over this day the cameraman journeys around “the city” filming various different events in the lives of its citizens. These range from birth to death, work to play, from realist footage of the masses to surreal meta-textual montages showing the editor of the film at work. In essence the plot of the film is the entire life of a city and its citizens. This may appear to stretch the contention that MWAMC is based on Wells’s novel, as their plots appear to be widely different.

There are, however, many visual and thematic similarities between WOTW and MWAMC’s cinematic commentaries. The camera is often shown within Vertov’s film itself, filming the footage that the audience are watching. Visually some of these later appearances match with Wells’s descriptions of the Martian Tripods, with the camera superimposed over crowds and looming over the entire city.

There is also a sequence in which the camera apparently moves through its own volition, with no cameraman in sight. This effect is achieved through stop motion animation, and has strong parallels with Wells’s seemingly autonomous Tripods as the camera has metaphorically “come to life”

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These examples are not simply empty nods however, as there are a number of thematic similarities between this evocation of the Tripods and their original purpose. The camera is portrayed as able to see into any aspect of human life, from a grieving family after a death, to a woman dressing in the morning. This is described by Philip Cavendish as “an ubiquitous, omniscient and quasi God-like eye” in a similar fashion to the Tripods’ “inescapable and all-penetrating” heat-ray. This evokes the ruined house sequence bringing to mind the voyeuristic power of the cinema, as a medium able to display anything or anyone without the subject having any knowledge of the viewer. The shots of crowds also display the power of cinema as a medium, as when a camera is superimposed on a shot, it towers above the people and when a human-sized cameraman walks through a crowd all eyes turn toward him and a path clears for him to pass through.

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Continuing this idea, there are a number of sequences of large crowds sitting in the cinema self-reflexively watching MWAMC. These begin from the very opening scene in which a band only start moving with the rolling of film, as if the film itself has given them life. This parallels with the crowds at the pit in the original novel, and the cinema queue in the Pal/Haskin adaptation, in showing the almost “mythological” mass appeal of the cinema.

As with Wells there is a strong connection between technology and humanity, with human actions and industrial machines being edited in time with each other, to show both as cogs in the machine that is “the city”. Within the filmmaking process itself, human and machine are connected, with a number of behind the scenes glances which explain that the technology displayed on screen is controlled by humans, such as seeing the editor. There is also a number of parallels between human movements, specifically of the eye, and the camera, such as a woman blinking matched with the opening and closing of the camera shutter. These culminate with a human eye superimposed over the lens of a camera literally making human and machine one.

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The idea that the camera is at one with and controlled by humans, is essentially an update to Wells’s paralleling of the Martian intelligences behind their seemingly robotic Tripods and the camera operator. Finally, Vertov uses the camera’s metaphorical “alien gaze” in order to politically explore the contemporary Soviet Union. Many cinematic techniques are used throughout the film, such as superimposing two shots together to create a kaleidoscopic view of the world.

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It has been suggested that these “tricks” are a “metaphor for the complexity of “life as it is””, but this does not seem completely accurate. Instead it appears Vertov is using the uniquely cinematic techniques to highlight specific aspects of the world in a new way, for instance, the editing together of human action and machine in rhythm foregrounds the Soviet ideal of the worker state. As Vertov claims, the camera “show[s] you the world only as [it] can see it.” These ideas are very similar to Wells’s use of the Martians alien perspective to highlight the concerns of Victorian England. Therefore Wells’s “alien gaze” and Vertov’s “Cine-eye” are one and the same. It is clear then that WOTW has generated a far wider influence than simply on its own adaptations, or even the science fiction genre.

Wells’s original text paralleled the Tripods with the camera to explore the power of cinema, but it focused on the destruction caused if such technology was placed in the wrong hands. As with many of Wells’s earlier works, while being highly interested and knowledgeable about machines and progress, there is a level of suspicion, and an implication that humanity may not be ready for such power. The “alien gaze” may help humankind evolve, but the Martians behind it are certainly not regarded as a positive force. With the 1953 adaptation this changes, the camera instead being strongly identified with the “red menace”, and Wells’s earlier concerns warped into a commentary on the power of Soviet propaganda. Again however, there is an uneasy tension between these negative connotations and the positive power of the “alien gaze” to reveal the world in a new way. This tension was resolved however, in a film released 24 years earlier, as MWAMC removes the stigma of danger attached to the camera by the metaphorical Tripods. Vertov agrees with Wells about the power of cinema, and its mass appeal, but unlike the author in the late Victorian era, he no longer worries about these aspects. The power of cinema allows filmmakers to project their message in an exciting and accessible form. Vertov planned for MWAMC to be for everyone by creating a “totally international absolute language of cinema”. This provides a fascinating contrast with original novel and the 1953 adaptation, with Vertov realising that cinema and its “gaze” are great powers for good in a way that Wells could not predict and Pal and Haskin have been jaded against, due to years of propaganda during WWII. Wells in his later life recanted the pessimism of his earlier works, hoping for a brighter, technocratic future. It would appear then that Vertov tapped into the aging author’s changing views and his film is a more accurate adaptation of the cinematic themes at play in the original text than the 1953 adaptation, simply through an optimistic perspective.

[Generally I agree with this work, but I’d say there are some important details missing. The comparison between the two works looking at views on the USSR never gets going, I think a closer look at the Futurist movement MWAMC grows from and the influence of SF on that would have been interesting, and I think the general look at MWAMC is fairly simplistic. Maybe I’ll come back and write an addition at some point, but for now view this as work in progress]

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