From the product packaging:
“From the height of the Italian sci-fi craze comes Battle Of The Worlds, a creepy thriller about a runaway asteroid dubbed ‘The Outsider.’ Scientists are puzzled as it begins orbiting the Earth before intentions are made clear with an unleashed fleet of lethal flying saucers!”
Yes, yes, and yes: I’ve most definitely seen Battle Of The Worlds somewhere sometime in the TV days of my youth.
While others might have their very own reasons for remembering it – some goofy special effects, maybe some stiff acting here and there – I can tell you mine without hesitation: actor Claude Rains has a big part in it, and I’ve always thought he was one of his era’s finest character actors. He was the original Invisible Man (1933); he was more than a bit angelic in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941); and he put a likeable face on what could’ve been a dark turn in filmdom’s highwater mark, Casablanca (1942). So I can assure you that I’d seen this particular Battle, though I may not have had fully appreciated what director Antonio Margheriti accomplished with it when I was a young boy.
For those who don’t know the name, it could be for one of two reasons. One: he was an Italian filmmaker – a bit of a second-tier one, at that – so it’s entirely possible his career may’ve passed you by. Second: in the U.S. (and abroad, often times) he appeared in the credits under the name Anthony Dawson. I’ve been told that there were several reasons why he went under a pseudonym, but the one most often cited is that ‘Dawson’ was a surname that audiences wouldn’t likely associate with Italian features, perhaps giving a more (ahem) international hint to his motion pictures.
Although there are more films in the man’s resume (he was making pictures into the late 1990’s, including the 1983’s schlocky Yor: The Hunter From The Future), I’ll leave it there as I think these mentions crystalize where he was at this time in his career and demonstrate his affinity for Science Fiction in general. Drawn to the realms of the fantastic, Margheriti was a pioneer in affordable filmmaking; and it’s easy to see why something like Ennio Di Concini’s script for Battle Of The Worlds might very well have tickled his fancy. (FYI: Di Concini would go on to win the 1963 Oscar for ‘Best Writing, Story, And Screenplay – Written Directly For The Screen’ with his Comedy/Drama Divorce Italian Style, so let’s just agree that the writer ‘had the goods.’)
For what it’s worth, Battle Of The Worlds plays out largely very similar thematically and structurally to Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s commercially successful popcorn flick, Independence Day (1996), but obviously without all of the visual pomp and circumstance. Special effects for the early 1960’s involved mostly smoke and mirrors (and a healthy amount of fishing line or wire), and there are plenty of those on display amply throughout this Battle. While modern audiences have been indoctrinated to expect only the best in their SciFi operas, Margheriti and his crew – production designer Giorgio Giovannini, art director Umberta Cesarano, and set decorator Massimo Tavazzi – clearly had to make do with far less; and yet the film never suffers the way other low budget tales did under the weight of inferior efforts. Their solutions work well enough to convey the intent of a scene – space battles rely on heavily re-used shots, and the alien environments make use of colored plastic tubing and what looks to be aluminum foil to convey the otherworldly. If anything, there are a few awkward pieces of obvious animation – faux laser beams and explosive effects – that don’t serve the story as well as they should, but those are small potatoes in the scope of the meal as dished.
Still, I stop short of christening Battle as a truly great film. It’s good – sometimes very good – and it incorporates both harder elements alongside some of cinema’s pulpier sensibilities with grace and conviction. I think it rather ably demonstrates both what a good Science Fiction film of its era ‘was’ and ‘was becoming.’ Studios weren’t investing much capital in SciFi and Fantasy, so those hired to give them life had to create workable and practical solutions at a time wherein effects studios didn’t exist. This would change – and change dramatically – in the next decade; and – in some ways – that was owed to the kind of bigger-than-the-sum-of-us stories represented by Battle’s finer moments. Questions about how we might not be alone in the universe were pushing for bigger and bigger spectacles; what Margheriti and crew accomplished on a budget wouldn’t be possible when Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) threw open cinema’s doors to a whole new world.
As for the special features? The Film Detective has certainly given interested viewers a package worth considering. There’s a solid featurette (from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures) that looks back at the films of director Margheriti – I found it good though a bit dry. There’s an original essay (collector’s booklet) from Don Stradley which also reexamines the director’s contributions to Italian film history – it’s a good read. But the high point is (film historian) Justin Humphreys’ commentary track: it’s equally inspired and persuasive, so much so that the speaker might very well turn even Battle’s harshest critics into mild fans of the production. Well done, indeed!
Look, kids: older Science Fiction flicks are not for everyone, but for those of us who can strip away modern sensibilities, turn off the contemporary noise, and appreciate a good effort made for its day then Battle Of The Worlds feels like a 1960’s attempt to celebrate their Independence Day but on a vastly more affordable budget. Yes, performances here and there might be a bit stiff, and the script may meander a bit too loosely here and there, but what remains is perhaps a great misunderstood lead role delivered by one of Hollywood’s greats that transcends the usual muck and mire of the B-Movie in a way few others could match.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at The Film Detective provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Battle Of The Worlds (1961) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.