The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898)

Asked to compile a list of the ten most famous science fiction novels ever written, one might include 2001: A Space Odyssey by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Dune by Frank Herbert, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth – and no fewer than three works by H.G. Wells: The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon and The War of the Worlds.

While most of the above have been filmed, The War of the Worlds has to date spawned two major motion pictures, a number of radio dramas – one of which launched the career of HGW’s near-namesake Orson Welles, a TV series and one of the most successful concept albums of the 1970s.

It has inspired numerous other dramatisations including the 1980s miniseries “V” (which picked up on the idea of humans as a food source for aliens) and the 1996 movie Independence Day (in which the aliens are defeated by a computer virus rather than earthly bacteria). Even Dr Who’s arch-enemies the Daleks can probably trace their origins back to the Martian tripod fighting machines and their tentacled occupants.

The novel opens with the famous line “Nobody would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s”. Nobody would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century just how many times that line would have to be updated.

The original novel is actually set at the beginning of the last century, a few years ahead of the time it was written. The unnamed narrator is what would now be known as a popular science writer who lives with his equally nameless wife in Horsell near Woking in Surrey. They apparently have no children.

The narrator meets the renowned astronomer Ogilvy at his observatory in Ottershaw and observes a disturbance on Mars which turns out to be the launching of a Martian projectile. In all, ten projectiles are launched at almost exactly 24 hour intervals. (This would not in fact result in them all landing in the same place, as both Earth and Mars are in motion around the Sun.)

Wells followed Jules Verne 35 years earlier in using a space-gun to travel between worlds though for his later (1903) novel The First Men in the Moon he sent his travellers to the Moon in a spacecraft using a “Cavorite” anti-gravity screen, and was roundly criticised by the by now elderly Verne for so doing!

Some time later, the first Martian projectile lands on Horsell Common and attracts a crowd of curious onlookers, including the narrator. But the cylinder unscrews, tentacled creatures emerge and blast an approaching delegation, including Ogilvy, with a heat ray. The narrator hires a horse-drawn vehicle from a local publican and takes his wife and their valuables to stay with relatives in Leatherhead. Unfortunately he has to return the carriage and before he can return to Leatherhead he is caught up in the invasion as the Martians have now deployed tripod fighting machines and have broken though army units surrounding their projectile. The narrator meets up with an artilleryman whose unit has been wiped out and learns that more Martians have landed at Addlestone, making a return to Leatherhead impossible.

The narrator witnesses a battle at Shepperton, during which one Martian tripod is destroyed and a second is damaged by artillery fire. During the battle the narrator is separated from the artilleryman. The Martians regroup and change tactics, flooding areas where artillery batteries may be concealed with a chemical weapon known as Black Smoke.

As more projectiles land across South East England, the first signs that things are awry are seen during the Sunday afternoon as people on day trips to the suburbs begin returning by train unusually early and a few refugees are seen in Oxford Street. However panic breaks out early on Monday morning and millions of Londoners flee the Martian advance, including the narrator’s brother, a medical student, who together a woman named Mrs Elphinstone and her sister reach the coast and board a paddle steamer bound for Ostend.

Off the Essex coast they witness the battle between the warship HMS Thunder Child and the Martians. The Thunder Child goes to the aid of a ferry being menaced by a group of Martian tripods and destroys two of them before succumbing herself. The ferry escapes.

Thunder Child is described as an “ironclad torpedo ram” by Wells. The Royal Navy only ever had one ship of this type, HMS Polyphemus – a coastal defence ship armed with torpedoes, a ram and machine guns. She had no armaments capable of engaging a Martian fighting machine.

It was common practice at the time to equip warships with rams, but the tactic was little used after the Battle of Lissa in 1866. In 1893 – in what was probably the most spectacular own goal in naval history – the battleship HMS Victoria was sunk in a collision with HMS Camperdown as a result of a botched manoeuvre ordered by Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. Camperdown’s ram inflicted fatal damage on the Victoria, which foundered in a matter of minutes. Tryon was among the 358 who lost their lives in the disaster. Rams were abandoned thereafter. It seems more likely that Thunder Child was an armoured cruiser or a battleship. She is indeed depicted as the latter on the album cover of the Jeff Wayne musical version, more of which anon.

The battle between HMS Thunder Child and the Martians concludes the first part of the novel.

The focus then switches back to the narrator, who takes shelter in a house in Halliford, accompanied by a curate. The building is almost destroyed when a Martian projectile lands close by and the pair are unable to escape for fear of attracting the Martians. They are able to see the Martians going about their business and see humans being drained of blood, which the Martians inject directly into their bodies for sustenance. The humans have been collected by fighting machines, some of which are equipped with baskets for the purpose. Thus the narrator learns what the future holds for humanity under Martian rule. The curate – already traumatized by the invasion and behaving erratically – begins making so much noise that the narrator is forced to kill him before his ravings attract the Martians.

The Martians leave after 15 days and the narrator emerges to find red Martian weed everywhere. He falls in with the artilleryman he met earlier. The artilleryman is delusional, believing he can singlehandedly rebuild civilization and retake Earth from the invaders. The narrator leaves him and makes for London, which is deserted and fully under the control of the Martians. But soon afterwards both the Martians and the red weed begin to die. They have no immunity to Earth’s pathogenic bacteria and viruses – “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon the earth.” This is the only reference to God having anything to do with the defeat of the Martians.

The narrator learns that Leatherhead was destroyed by the Martians and believes his wife to have been killed but on returning to Woking, finds her alive and well in his house.

Speculation that the Martians may try again, but astronomers suggest they may have mounted an invasion of Venus.

Belief that Mars was a dying planet was widespread at the time. The then-prevalent model of the formation of the Solar System, put forward by Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1796, proposed that the planets had been formed from a contracting cloud of proto-solar matter. As the cloud contracted, planets condensed out of material, with outermost planets being formed first. Thus Mars was believed to be older than Earth, and probably dying; and Venus was younger and possibly habitable. The Laplace model had to be abandoned, because it did not account for the observed distribution of angular momentum within the Solar System, but not until the 1960s was the true nature of Mars and Venus revealed when they were first visited by unmanned US and Soviet space probes.

The War of the Worlds was influenced by fear that Britain would be invaded – like later versions, the original novel reflected contemporary fears.

Orson Welles notorious 1938 adaptation for radio was an episode of the American radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air, broadcast by CBS on October 30, 1938. It was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which led many listeners to believe that an actual Martian invasion was in progress, though the actual degree of panic has almost certainly been exaggerated.

The location was changed from South East England to Grover’s Hill, NJ and Welles plays the “famous astronomer” whose name is changed from the quintessentially English Ogilvy to Pierson. The Martians advance on New York City and are opposed by artillery and bombers. The gunners damage one tripod and another is destroyed by the bombers, but more Martian cylinders are landing all over the country.

A news reporter broadcasting from the CBS building describes the Martian invasion of New York City — machines wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River “like rats”, others “falling like flies” — until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas.

Following an intermission, Professor Pierson describes the aftermath of the attacks, which ended when the Martians were killed by terrestrial pathogens as in the novel.

The broadcast and its attendant panic was itself the subject of the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America.

The 1953 movie was produced by Hungarian-born George Pal, who had previously produced the 1951 doomsday epic When Worlds Collide. Screenplay was by Barre Lyndon. It starred Gene Barry, Ann Robinson (no relation) and Lewis Martin.

The film opens with an updated version of its famous opening sentence, spoken by Cedric Hardwicke. “Nobody would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century…” Hardwicke then describes the Martian deliberations as to where they could go to escape from their dying world as they consider the Solar System’s other planets, accompanied by memorable art-work by Chesley Bonestell. For some reason, though, Venus is not mentioned.

The location this time is southern California. What is at first believed to be a meteorite lands near Linda Rosa, near Los Angeles, and is investigated by physicist Clayton Forrester (Barry) and local residents including Sylvia van Buren (Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins (Martin). The object is too hot for an immediate investigation, so Forrester decides to return to the town while it cools down.

Three men are left by the local sheriff to guard the object, but it unscrews and deploys a Heat Ray device which kills the men as they approach it. The blast also brings down pylons, plunging Linda Rosa into darkness and starting fires. Everybody’s watch stops. Forrester returns with the sheriff to investigate and discover the remains of the three men. Their driver panics and drives off without them – but is blasted by the Martian heat-ray. A second inbound Martian spacecraft is seen passing overhead.

Forrester recommends calling in the military and a force of Marines surrounds the impact site. The Martians deploy three fighting machines.

The tripods are replaced by sleek copper-coloured manta-ray like machines, which float above the ground on beams of electromagnetic force. They are armed with a heat-ray mounted on a cobra-like projection, and wingtip-mounted secondary weapons shooting green bolts that cause their targets to disintegrate.

The curate of the original becomes Sylvia van Buren’s kindly uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins, an altogether more sympathetic character who goes out to meet the Martians, Bible in hand, reading the 23rd Psalm. He is promptly blasted with a heat-ray – to Sylvia’s predictable horror, and setting a strongly religious tone for the rest of the movie.

The Marines open fire, but their concentrated bombardment is completely ineffective. Unlike Wells’ original fighting machines, which could be taken out by early 20th Century weaponry, these machines are seemingly invulnerable.

Forrester and the distraught Sylvia van Buren flee in a light aeroplane, ahead of an attack on the Martian nest by the USAF. They fly too low in order to avoid the incoming bombers, clip a tree and crash. They are unhurt and take shelter in a deserted farmhouse. Meanwhile the Martians destroy the force of bombers.

A Martian spaceship lands near the farmhouse, partially destroying it. While Forrester and van Buren hide, a Martian – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Spielberg’s ET – investigates the farmhouse. A remote camera spots the pair. Forrester hacks off the camera and the pair flee the farmhouse just before the Martians blast it. They also have a sample of Martian blood. They make it back to LA safely and rejoin their colleagues. The blood turns out to be anaemic, suggesting the Martians might be rather less mighty than their machines.

But by now the Martians are causing devastation on a global scale with all attempts to halt them ending in defeat. A decision is made to use nuclear weapons. A flying-wing aircraft nukes the group outside LA, but the fighting machines are not damaged. Forrester realise that mankind’s only hope is to fight the Martians, not their machines.

The Martians begin to move towards the city. Forrester’s colleagues evacuate in a bus with Forrester following with the vital blood samples in a pickup truck. They are attacked by panicky residents trying to get out of the city. Forrester tries to find Sylvia. He remembers that as a child her uncle, Matthew Collins, once found her hiding in a church, and he figures that’s where she’ll be.

The Martians have by now entered Los Angeles, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and blasting the iconic City Hall. Meanwhile the churches are doing a roaring trade, packed out with Los Angelinos praying for deliverance. Not until the third one does Forrester locate Sylvia. By this time the Martians are close at hand. A heat-ray takes out a stained-glass window and part of the building collapses. But suddenly the attack halts. The fighting machines begin falling to the ground. One of them opens up, but when Forrester investigates he finds its occupant dead.

Hardwicke’s voice-over explains that the Martians had no defence against earthly bacteria, but the ending, with its church bells and hymns, implies that that it was God who really deserved the credit and that the attack on a church was the last straw that convinced Him to put the boot in on the Martians.

Like the original, this movie was strongly influence by contemporary fears and its religiousness is undoubtedly a Cold War reaction to the atheism of the USSR. (In addition there was an obvious connection between Communists and hostile beings from the Red Planet!)

It is often said that the 1953 movie bears little resemblance to the original novel but common elements can be recognised: Forrester is a conflation of the narrator and Ogilvy; in both versions a delegation of three men try to make friendly contact and are wiped out; military surround the initial landing site; and both versions have a scene in which the main character is trapped in the basement of a building partially destroyed by the landing of a Martian projectile.

A quarter of a century later, in 1978, rock musician Jeff Wayne released a musical version, a double album that was narrated by Richard Burton. It remained in the UK album charts for 290 weeks and remains popular three decades later, with a live tour in 2006.

A TV series of The War of the Worlds appeared in 1988. Intended as a sequel to the 1953 movie, it was hamstrung by the ludicrous idea that due to a government cover-up and a condition known as “selective amnesia”, nobody could remember the invasion of 1953, despite the devastating attacks on Los Angeles and other cities around the world. The aliens – who it turned out were not from Mars but a distant planet called Mortax – had merely been put into suspended animation by Earthly bacteria. Why nobody noticed this in 1953 is among the many things this series left unexplained.

The comatose aliens were stored in metal drums in various army bases around the world; in the case of those in United States these drums happened to be stored near some radioactive waste that was released when the base was attacked by terrorists. This killed off the bacteria and revived the aliens, who far from being the puny, anaemic creatures of the movie possess considerably more upper-body strength than a human. Rather more worryingly, they can also take over human bodies. They start with the six terrorists.

The government form a group to tackle the threat, headed up by Dr. Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin), adopted son of Clayton Forrester. The top-secret Blackwood Project also includes microbiologist Suzanne McCullough (Linda Mason Green), her daughter Debi (Rachel Blanchard), wheelchair-bound computer wizard Norton Drake (Philip Akin) and Native American military man Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse (Richard Chaves). Ann Robinson made special guest appearances reprising her role of Sylvia van Buren.

The aliens were led by a ruling triumvirate known as the Advocacy, whose catch-phrase was “To Life Immortal”. Early on, they established a base of operations in the Nevada Desert, where radiation from bomb testing kept earthly bacteria at bay. Their objective was to continue their 1953 mission of eliminating humanity, to make way for three million colonists en-route from Mortax.

The series was notable for its level of violence. Discarded human hosts would simply disintegrate into a mess of steaming slime and episodes frequently dwelt on the terror of human captives – the equivalent of Star Trek’s “redshirts” – waiting to be used as hosts or in one of the Mortaxans’ fiendish experiments. Rarely did this add anything to the story; one exception was when Blackwood fell in love with a woman who had (temporarily) escaped the Mortaxans’ clutches.

Blackwood and his team rarely came out on top, though they did succeed in thwarting every attempt by the aliens to recapture their fighting machines. Three of these had been stored at Area 51; another was buried at Grover’s Mill after the abortive 1938 invasion (Orson Welles’ broadcast was part of a government cover-up); and an earlier tripod model had been left on Native American land. To deal with the latter, Blackwood called on the aid of a shaman, who used supernatural power to destroy it.

For the show’s second season, the format was changed considerably. After a battle with the aliens that left Lt. Col Ironhorse and Norton Drake dead, the Blackwood Project was disowned by the government and the survivors were forced to go underground, where they were joined by John Kinkaid (Adrian Paul). Meanwhile, a second group of Mortaxans (the Morthren) arrived and began executing the first lot, who passively accepted their fate despite outnumbering the newcomers at least ten-to-one. The Morthren cloned humans rather than take over their bodies as their predecessors had done.

Innumerable loose ends from the first season remained unresolved – these included the fate of Quinn, a duplicitous survivor of the 1953 invasion who was immune to infection; and that of the Synth, a sexy punk female android who zapped Mortaxans at will, but only to preserve humanity as a source of food. Also unexplained was how the world had apparently deteriorated into a post-apocalyptic society overnight.

Towards the end of the second season, the show was cancelled and a concluding episode had the majority of the Morthren killed off in various battles, and the remainder suing for peace and agreeing to work with mankind to restore Earth.

The most recent outing for H.G. Wells’ now venerable tale was the 2005 movie by Stephen Spielburg, which starred Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins. Morgan Freeman speaks the opening voice-over, now updated to “the early years of the 21st Century”. The definite article is dropped from the movie title.

Although again set in the US, this version is truer to the original novel, following an ordinary man and his family trying to survive the invasion. Spielberg has however worked in elements from both the 1938 radio broadcast and the 1953 movie. The movie makes extensive use of Spielberg’s trademark lighting effects and a Hitchcock-like soundtrack (by John Williams) and draws on his earlier works involving (considerably more friendly) aliens. Those familiar with the 1953 version will recognise several lines of dialogue lifted from it. Early in the movie a van Buren Street is seen (albeit presumably named for President van Buren) and Gene Barry and Ann Robinson from the 1953 movie make cameo appearances.

Like the novel and the 1953 movie, this version plays on contemporary fears – in this case those of America a little under four years after 9/11.

Ray Farrier (Cruise) is a dock worker from Newark NJ (the 1938 Martians also landed in New Jersey). His young daughter Rachel (Fanning) and rebellious teenaged son Robbie (Chatwin) are staying with him for the weekend, having been dropped off for the weekend by his ex-wife Mary-Anne and her husband Tim, with whom he remains on reasonably good terms. Mary-Anne and Tim are going to Boston for the weekend to stay with the former’s parents (Barry and Robinson).

The fighting machines of the invaders revert to tripods, but instead of arriving from out of space they were buried in the ground thousands of years ago and are activated by freak electrical storms occurring all over the world. It later emerged that the storms were energy discharges produced by pods containing the aliens being inserted into their fighting machines.

The invaders’ homeworld is never revealed. At the start of the movie, a shot of Earth seen from outer space fades to a red disk, suggesting Mars – but it then turns out to be a red traffic light. Some have taken this to mean Mars but I’d take it to mean the opposite, deliberately rejecting a connection with Mars.

Electro-motive pulses from the storm causes Ray’s vintage Omega to stop – a double reference to the 1953 movie where watches were found to have stopped and that the watch itself (a gold manual wind chronograph) dates to the 1950s. In fact a watch from the pre-quartz era is probably one thing that would not be affected an electro-motive pulse. Also it would take rather more than changing the solenoids (as Ray advises a mechanic) in any car more recent than 25 years old to get it going again.

With Tripods blasting everything in sight with heat-rays, Ray and his children steal the re-energised car, now the only one in the neighbourhood that is working, with the intention of making for Boston. They stay overnight at Mary-Anne and Tim’s house in Bayonne, NJ. During the night a jumbo jet is shot down and crashes nearby. After an encounter with a TV crew they continue on to Boston, but Robbie is increasingly anxious to join soldiers who are fighting the invaders.

Near Athens, NY, they are attacked by a mob which seizes the car. They press on on foot. Everywhere posters of missing people have been put up – recalling New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In a dramatic sequence a train burning from end to end hurtles through (how it is still going isn’t clear). An uneasy crowd is waiting to board a Hudson River ferry. Rachel notices birds fleeing and a glow on the horizon. It is clear the tripods are close at hand. Ray, Rachel and Robbie board the ferry just as Tripods appear over horizon.

Cars are tipped off the ferry to make way for more people – reminiscent of the helicopters that were dropped overboard from aircraft carriers during the final frantic US retreat from Saigon in 1975. Thus the scene references two occasions when the most powerful nation in the world was reduced to impotence.

The Hudson Ferry scene echoes the scene in original when HMS Thunder Child destroys two Martian tripods and permits a ferry to get away, but in this version help does not come. The ferry is attacked by a submerged Tripod, which begins scooping people out of the water. However Ray, Rachel and Robbie swim to safety. They witness Tripods pursuing crowds of panicked humans, blasting them with heat-rays.

In Massachusetts, the Marines are trying to keep the Tripods at bay long enough to permit refugees to get away. At this point Robbie runs off to join the battle. But the Marines have no more luck than their 1953 counterparts and Robbie is believed to have been killed. A man named Ogilvy (Robbins) beckons to Ray and Rachel and they take shelter in his cellar. The man is a conflation of Ogilvy, the curate and the artilleryman from the original novel. The Tripods are broadcasting Red Weed, fertilized with human blood. Ogilvy flips and Ray has to kill him, as in the novel.

Ray and Rachel leave but are threatened by a Tripod which scoops up Rachel and puts her in a basket with some other humans. Ray finds some hand grenades abandoned in the heat of battle and hurls one at the Tripod, without effect. Ray is then scooped up himself. An arm periodically grabs humans and transfers them to the interior of the machine for processing. Ray is grabbed but the others pull him back – not before he leaves behind a couple of hand grenades, which detonate, destroying the Tripod and freeing the captives.

Ray and Rachel reach Boston where the red weed is apparently dying. The Tripods are also behaving erratically. Birds are circling near the hoods of one the machines, suggesting its shields are no longer operating. Ray urges a group of Marines to fire on the machine. They do so, taking it down. In another reference to 1953 a hatch opens and an alien hand reaches out. Instead of Forrester, it is greeted by gun-toting Marines, but it dies almost immediately.

In an ending that echoes the book, Ray finds Robbie and his ex-wife alive and well at the home of his former in-laws.

The defeat of the invaders is given as a more or less verbatim reading by Freeman Morgan the original novel, against a backdrop of the devastated Boston, but without the strongly religious undertones of the 1953 movie.

The DVD release references many chapter titles from the original novel.

The movie was actually one of three released in 2005 based on The War of the Worlds; the other two were both made for DVD. One of these, by Pendragon Pictures, was set in the UK at the time envisaged in the novel.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

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The End is Nigh!

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) & Crack in the World (1965)

During the 1960s, the Bomb, as it was simply known, held very much the same place in public consciousness as global warming does today. The fear of nuclear war was very real and even though the Cuban Missile Crisis had shown that the US and USSR could pull back from the brink, there remained the possibility that a nuclear war could be started by accident. Hollywood’s output reflected this fear with Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy Dr. Strangelove and the documentary-styled Failsafe, both released in 1964.

The possibility that mankind might be placed in peril simply by the testing of nuclear weapons or indeed by an attempt to make benign use of them was less prominent in the public imagination; nevertheless this sub-genre gave rise to two excellent “doomsday” movies: the British-made The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961) and the US-made Crack in the World (1965).

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is an offbeat but smart piece of movie-making. It was directed and produced by the late Val Guest, who also directed the first two screen-adaptations of the Quatermass series. Screenplay was also by Guest, in conjunction with Wolf Mankowitz. The film starred Janet Monroe, Leo McKern and Edward Judd, and featured former Daily Express editor Arthur Christansen playing himself. It was filmed in black and white, with some orange-tinted sequences.

The tinted opening of the movie shows journalist and reformed alcoholic Peter Stenning (Judd) making his way down a deserted, heat-baked Fleet Street to the Daily Express building, to cover what may well be the last news story ever. Four nuclear devices, the most powerful yet devised, have just been detonated in an attempt to push the Earth back into its proper orbit. It is too early yet to tell if the attempt has been successful.

Reverting to conventional b/w, the main section of the movie then tells the story of the events of the previous 90 days, beginning with near-simultaneous bomb tests by the United States and the Soviet Union. In the days that follow, earthquakes and freak weather conditions occur in many parts of the world, and a total eclipse of the sun is seen in London ten days before it was due. Soon after, the whole world begins to experience heat-wave conditions. London experiences thick fog, followed by violent storms.

These events are seen through the eyes of Stenning and fellow journalist Bill Maguire (McKern). Stenning’s relationships with his ex-wife (who left him for another man), his son and new love Jeannie Craig (Monroe) are skilfully worked into the story, forming an integral part of the narrative drive. Encouraged by Editor Arthur Christiansen (himself), Stenning and Maguire, with assistance from Craig, eventually expose a government cover-up. The bombs have caused an eleven-degree shift in the tilt of the Earth’s axis. The Prime Minister goes on the air to reassure the public that the Earth’s axial tilt has altered in the past without catastrophic effects, and that things will eventually settle down.

But temperatures continue to rise inexorably. Water rationing is brought in and the Thames dries up. Eventually Christiansen learns from a Russian correspondent that that the bomb tests have also affected the Earth’s orbit, and it is moving towards the Sun. With doomsday just four months away, the Prime Minister goes on the air again to inform the public that the heads of governments world-wide have decided that the only hope for mankind is to detonate four very large nuclear bombs, in order to reverse the motion towards the Sun. Meanwhile, law and order is breaking down. People are coming down with typhoid from contaminated bootleg water and bottles of Coca Cola are fetching four pounds (about £80 at today’s prices). A street party held the night before the corrective bombs are detonated gets out of hand and rioting breaks out.

The countdown is broadcast to an anxiously-waiting world by radio, by loudspeakers set up in the streets of cities around the world, and by producer-gas fuelled police cars on the streets of London. Stenning, Maguire and Craig follow events from the Old Bell, Fleet Street [a pub in which I have spent many hours!] and the bombs are detonated, through the only immediate effect is a that cloud of dust is shaken up. Stenning begs Maguire to let him cover the story.

The story returns to the tinted “frame” that began the film. Stenning dictates his copy, his typewriter having seized up. A camera pans between two versions of tomorrow’s front page, ready to go to press. One reads “World Saved”, the other “World Doomed”. Several shots show clocks, both inside and outside the building, each showing a later time than the last, suggesting the passage of time. Church bells ring out across the City of London, implying that the Earth was saved.

It has been suggested that the church bells were added at the insistence of the distributer, and Guest intended a completely open ending. In a director’s commentary to the DVD edition, he does not mention the ending. Val Guest died in 2006, aged 94.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is the definitive “cult movie”, a term that should be reserved for movies that punch above their weight, while delivering what they set out to deliver. This film does just that: in addition to the intelligent screenplay, the special effects belie the small budget, especially the scenes where Thames dries up. Londoners will particularly appreciate the location filming around the capital.

The film is not without some “bad science”, however. Nuclear bombs could not possibly affect the Earth’s orbit. A major meteorite impact, such as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, would be many times more powerful than the world’s combined nuclear arsenals, but it would have a negligible effect on the orbit. Indeed, anything powerful enough to affect the Earth’s orbit to the extent implied by the film would almost certainly destroy the planet at the outset.

A solar eclipse can only take place at New Moon and one occurring ten days early would not happen without warning, as it would be apparent for days in advance that something was seriously wrong with the Moon’s phases. Four days before the eclipse, the Moon would have been seen as a waning crescent when it should still have been full. This would be noticed by astronomers and indeed any casual observer in possession of a diary or calendar. The anomaly would certainly have been picked up at a newspaper, where the current phase of the Moon is often published with sunrise and sunset times.

A eleven degree alteration of the Earth’s axial tilt would significantly alter sunrise and sunset times around the world, and postions of constellations in the night sky. Again, this would be widely noticed almost immediately.

Made four years later, Crack in the World is a more orthodox SF/disaster movie. It starred Dana Andrews, Janette Scott, Keiron Moore and Alexander Knox. The screenplay was by John Manchip White and Julian Zimet. The film was shot on location in Spain and its memorable score was composed by Johnny Douglas.

Project Inner Space is an international effort to tap geothermal energy by drilling down to the Earth’s mantle, but attempts are being frustrated by a layer of dense material lying at the boundary between it and the crust above. The project’s director, cancer sufferer Dr. Stephen Sorenson (Andrews) wants to use an atomic bomb to blast through the obstruction, and a government team headed by Sir Charles Eggerston (Knox) travels to the Project’s site, a massive complex two miles underground, to consider Sorenson’s plan. This is supported by nearly all the Project’s scientists, including Sorenson’s wife Dr. Maggie Sorenson (Scott). The one dissenter is Maggie’s former lover Dr. Ted Rampion (Moore), who has developed a “Rampion Theory” that the Earth’s crust has already been seriously weakened by underground nuclear testing, and that Sorenson’s plan would trigger a global catastrophe.

Despite Rampion’s objections, the attempt goes ahead but shortly before it does Sorenson learns that his illness is terminal. However he bravely keeps this knowledge to himself. The bomb does blast through the obstruction, and magma bubbles to the surface. All appears to be well, and Rampion happily concedes that he was wrong.

However a series of earthquakes begin to occur along a (fictitious) geological flaw in the Earth’s crust known as the Macedo Fault. Many of the places affected have no history of seismic disturbance. Rampion and his assistant Steele take a DSV to investigate an underwater portion of the fault and determines that a spreading crack has opened up in the Earth’s crust. If a way of stopping the rupture isn’t found, the Earth will be torn apart.

Sorenson and Rampion put aside their differences and try to come up with a solution. They decide the best hope of averting disaster is to explode a hydrogen bomb in the shaft of an active volcano that lies in the path of the spreading crack. Rampion and Steele volunteer for the difficult assignment of lowering the bomb into the volcanic shaft.

The bomb is successfully placed, though Steele falls to his death in the volcano’s magma chamber, and Rampion is almost barbecued alive. Believing him to be dead, Maggie Sorenson is distraught. Still unaware how seriously ill her husband is, her affections are drifting back to Rampion. However, the latter is only unconscious and rapidly recovers. The bomb goes off and the earthquakes appear to cease.

Relief is short-lived. Soon reports come in that suggest that the crack has simply switched direction, and appears to be doubling back on itself. To make matters worse, it is now moving twice as fast. As Rampion speaks to Sorenson by R/T, the latter collapses – it is finally apparent that he seriously ill. The group returns to the Project, where Maggie learns her husband has just days to live. Despite her renewed feelings for Rampion, she is grief-stricken. However she accompanies Rampion in a jeep on a trip to investigate a second crack that has appeared near the Project complex [where exactly this is located is never revealed]. Meanwhile, Sorenson determines that the two cracks will meet at the original borehole, and that a portion of the Earth will be blasted away into space to form a new moon.

On the surface, Rampion and Maggie Sorenson desperately try to stop a train that is heading straight towards the crack, but the jeep goes into a ditch. The train fails to stop and a bridge it is travelling over collapses. There are no survivors.

After freeing the jeep, the pair return to the Project, which is being evacuated. There is a dramatic shot of two converging cracks. Nobody has seen Sorenson, so Rampion and Maggie take the elevator down into the by-now quake-torn complex to look for him. They find him preparing to record the birth of Earth’s new moon. He points out that the Project is located outside the area that will be blasted into space, locks himself in and refuses to leave. Rampion and Maggie Sorenson head back to the surface, but the elevator becomes jammed by a quake. They manage to climb to the surface and reach safety just as the two cracks meet. A colossal explosion blasts the new moon into space, at the same time acting as a safety valve to prevent any further earthquakes. Calm returns and the old Moon and its new sibling are seen in the sky together for the first time.

The science in Crack in the World is well thought out, but became dated soon after the film’s release as the theory of plate tectonics became widely accepted. There are in fact many “cracks in the world”, corresponding to the tectonic plates that slide over each other to cause continental drift.

The theory that the Moon was spun off from the Earth was first put forward by Sir George Darwin (son of Charles) in the 19th Century and was strongly supported by the American astronomer William Pickering, who suggested that the Atlantic basin had been formed as a result. However the angular momentum of a system so formed would not correspond to that of the actual Earth-Moon system, so the theory had to be abandoned.

Dated though the science is, it is certainly on another level to the ludicrous Core (2003).

For some reason, Crack in the World has never been released on DVD. It is strongly to be hoped that this omission will be rectified in the near future.

In recent years, there has been a trend for remaking classic movies of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the 2005 version of The War of the Worlds. The Day the Earth Caught Fire and Crack in the World would both be excellent candidates for a remake. Although both films are rooted in ‘Sixties fears about the Bomb, they additionally tap into two highly-topical themes – climate change and emission-free energy.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The Blue Max (1966)

The Blue Max (1966) is a motion picture following the career of German fighter pilot Leutenant Bruno Stachel during the closing stages of World War I. The screenplay was by David Pursall, Jack Seddon and Gerald Hanley, based on a novel of the same name by Jack Hunter. It was directed by John Guillermin and starred George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, Karl Michael Voger, Anton Diffring and Darren Nesbitt. Music was by Jerry Goldsmith.

In the spring of 1918, the war is going very badly for Germany. Bruno Stachel (Peppard), after two years service on the Western Front, leaves the fighting in the trenches to become a fighter pilot with the Imperial German Army Air Service. The son of a hotelier, Stachel is greeted cordially by his new CO, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Vogler) and his adjutant Holbach (Diffring), but faces appalling snobbery from his aristocratic squadron-mates on account of his humble background. He determines to prove himself where it matters – in the air (and, later on, in the bedroom) and resolves to win the coveted Pour le Merite – the eponymous Blue Max – “the only medal worth having – people respect it”. The Blue Max is awarded to fighter pilots for downing twenty enemy aircraft (in actuality the number required was gradually increased during the course of the war from eight to thirty). One of the squadron’s pilots, Willi von Klugermann (Kemp) only needs another two kills.

On his first sortie, Stachel shoots down a British SE5, but the “kill” is unconfirmed because nobody saw the aircraft go down. He spends hours searching the countryside in the pouring rain for the wreckage, to the annoyance of his fellow flyers, who think he is more concerned about his unconfirmed kill than he is about his wingman Fabian (Nesbitt), who failed to return. Willi, however, has gained the two remaining kills he needs for his Blue Max.

On his next sortie, accompanied by Willi, Stachel attacks a British two-man reconnaissance plane, putting the observer out of action. Rather than shoot down a helpless enemy, he signals the pilot to surrender and fly to his base. The pilot complies, but while approaching the airfield the observer, who has only been stunned, revives and – unaware of the situation – reaches for his gun, giving Stachel no choice but to shoot the aircraft down. Both the crew are killed.

Back on the ground, Stachel is accused of cold-bloodedly shooting the plane down over the airfield to ensure that the kill is witnessed. After the fuss he kicked up over the unconfirmed kill, Heidemann refuses to believe that Stachel simply acted in self-defence. Only Willi supports Stachel’s version of events. But when the two British airmen are buried with full military honours, Stachel further annoys his fellow officers by branding them as hypocrites.

However things begin to look up for Stachel when Willi’s uncle, General Count von Klugermann (Mason), accompanied by his much younger and somewhat over-sexed wife Kaeti (Andress), visits the base to see his nephew awarded the Blue Max. Von Klugermann is intrigued by the incident with the reconnaissance plane and feels Stachel might be exploited for propaganda purposes – a “working class hero” who will appeal to the masses.

Von Klugermann isn’t the only one to take an interest in Stachel. His wife the Countess –who is having an affair with Willi – mistakenly enters Stachel’s room en route to Willi’s bedroom. Both appear to have their interest piqued!

Back in action, Stachel goes to the aid of the Baron von Richthofen and shoots down a British aircraft that has got on the tail of the legendary fighter ace, but he gets shot down himself in the process. He escapes with only minor injuries and a grateful von Richthofen offers him a place in his squadron. Stachel is flattered by the offer, but declines.

While recovering from his injuries, Stachel is ordered to Berlin by Count von Klugermann as part of the latter’s propaganda project – a photo-shoot in a hospital ward alongside Heidemann’s wife, who works as a nurse at the hospital. While in Berlin, Stachel is invited to dinner by the Countess. The inevitable happens. Willi is none too happy!

Returning to duty, Stachel joins Willi on a mission to escort a reconnaissance aircraft. They are attacked by British aircraft, but early in the engagement Stachel’s guns jam. However Willi puts the enemy planes to flight, shooting down three of them. On the way back to base, Willi challenges Stachel, flying under the centre span of a bridge. Stachel outdoes him by flying under one of the narrower side spans. Willi successfully follows suit, but then clips the top of a near-by tower. He crashes and is killed.

Back at base, Stachel reports Willi’s death, but is furious when Heidemann assumes that two confirmed kills are Willi’s and not his. He falsely claims the kills for himself, but becomes trapped by his lie when Holbach points out that he only fired 40 rounds before his guns jammed. Heidemann refuses to confirm the kills, but von Klugermann overrules him.

Stachel, resuming his liaison with the Countess, is overcome with guilt and rather unwisely confesses to “stealing” Willi’s kills.

With Germany now on the brink of defeat, the squadron is ordered to cover the army’s retreat and strafe British forces on the ground, with explicit instructions to avoid air combat. But Stachel disobeys and engages a group of British aircraft. The squadron follows him into action. They bring down seven aircraft, but suffer heavy losses in the process. Three of the kills are Stachels, giving him twenty-two – enough for the Blue Max even without Willi’s kills.

Heidemann has Stachel arrested and intends to have him court-martialed for disobeying orders. Both are ordered to Berlin, but once again von Klugermann overrules Heidemann and informs him that Stachel is to be presented with the Blue Max by Kronprinz Wilhelm, after which he is to test fly a new experimental monoplane. Heidemann resigns his command in disgust.

The Countess, meanwhile, wants Stachel to flee Germany with her to Switzerland. But Stachel refuses to be one of her “lapdogs” and she storms out in a rage. She then informs von Klugermann’s superior, the Field Marshal, about the two false kills. Hell hath no fury…

The next day, Stachel is invested with the Blue Max, but during the ceremony von Klugermann receives a telephone call from the Field Marshal, who is insisting on an enquiry into the two false kills. Von Klugermann berates his wife, whose anger is going to result in the whole German officer corps being brought into disrepute.

But then Heidemann, who has taken the new monoplane up for a preliminary flight, returns and reports that the aircraft is a death trap and that its load-bearing struts are far too weak. Seeing a way out, von Klugermann telephones Stachel and orders him take the monoplane up himself and show the crowd some fancy flying.

Surrounded by a cheering crowd, with the Blue Max around his neck, Stachel makes his way to the monoplane and takes to the air. Heidemann is utterly horrified when he sees the plane take off and realises that von Klugermann is deliberately sending Stachel to his death. Stachel proceeds to put the aircraft through its paces, but it breaks up, plummets to the ground and explodes. At the moment of impact, von Klugermann stamps and signs Stachel’s personnel file. He orders it to be sent to the Field Marshal as the personnel file of a German officer and a hero.

The story is presented as a clash between the honourable values of Otto Heidemann versus those of the ruthless Stachel and the cynical scheming Count von Klugermann. The Prussian aristocracy had traditional notions of chivalry which – no matter how commendable – had little or no place in the brutal reality of Twentieth Century warfare. Unfortunately there was in actuality a far more ruthless “working class hero” than Bruno Stachel serving as a corporal on the Western Front during World War I – Adolf Hitler.

Notes:

The Blue Max was filmed in County Wicklow with the consequence that the memorable flying scenes are set against the verdant Irish countryside rather than the sea of mud that was the Western Front by 1918. Another blooper is that the Irish Dail can clearly be seen in one of the “Berlin” scenes, which were filmed in Dublin.

It should however be remembered that people were less obsessed with absolute authenticity in the 1950s and 1960s: for example in The Battle of the River Plate, the panzerschiff Admiral Graff Spee is “played” by the heavy cruiser USS Salem. The inconvenient extra pair of main gun turrets was explained away as “camouflage”. The story certainly didn’t suffer as a result and is far better remembered for its sympathetic portrayal of the Graf Spee’s skipper, Hans Langsdorff, played by Peter Finch.

Modern CGI can achieve a degree of realism way beyond anything that could be achieved back then. Or can it? The flying scenes in the Blue Max used real aeroplanes flown by real pilots, including Peppard, who obtained a PPL especially for the purpose, though for the bridge scene he was rather wisely substituted for a stunt pilot!

Jack Seddon [my father] and his long-standing business partner David Pursall both served as airmen in World War II; my father flew with the RAF and David with the Royal Fleet Air Arm.

Beginning in the 1950s, David and my father formed a prolific screenwriting partnership which endured for almost three decades.

Much of their oeuvre was comedy but probably their best-known film other than the Blue Max was also a war movie: The Longest Day (1962) – an all-star dramatization of the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. This was notable for its use of subtitles in scenes involving French and Germans and for being made in black and white at a time when nearly all motion pictures were being made in colour. Both were at the insistence of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted to give the film a “newsreel” quality. The Longest Day was thus one of the earliest examples of both subtitles and b/w being used for dramatic effect.

The film was based on a book by the Irish-American author Cornelius Ryan, who also wrote a screenplay for the movie version. The screenplay was substantially revised by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and my father. But Ryan allegedly insisted that he alone be credited for the screenplay and although all five were credited in early cinematic releases of the Longest Day, later copies credited only Ryan. This did not come to light until the 1990s, over thirty years after the film’s appearance, by which time my father was the only one of the five still living. He got into a lengthy wrangle with the US screenwriters guild, but the matter was still unresolved at the time of his death in 2001. Happily a compromise now appears to have been reached, with Cornelius Ryan credited as writer of the original screenplay and the other four including my father with “additional work”. It should be pointed out that Halliwell’s Film Guide has always attributed the screenplay to all five writers.

© Christopher Seddon 2008