Thursday, January 23, 2014
BATTLE OF THE WORLDS (1961)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
BATTLE OF THE WORLDS was the second film whose direction was entirely credited to famed Italian genre-director Antonio Margheriti. Previous to BATTLE Margheriti had directed a much more static science-fiction film, ASSIGNMENT OUTER SPACE. BATTLE, while hampered no less than ASSIGNMENT with a miniscule budget, does a far better job in conjuring the "sense of wonder" that was the province of most Italian-made SF films.
In my review of two 1970s Italian space-operas, I noted how much Italian SF-cinema seemed entrenched in the tropes of "the Buck Rogers comic strip." BATTLE, however, is more kissing conceptual cousins with the Flash Gordon comic, which, as all SF-devotees should know, begins when a rogue planet invades Earth's solar system and begins causing havoc.
In the comic strip, Earth's havoc is the fault of the evil master of the planet, Ming the Merciless. In BATTLE, the audience eventually learns that there is no living villain behind the rogue planet: that it was originally meant to function as a "Noah's Ark" for the alien race within, but instead became "their tomb."
Both the comic strip and the movie felicitously ignored the more cosmic disruptions that would ensue if an entire planet somehow forced its way into a solar system. Such disruptions probably would have wiped out all life in said system before any denizens had a chance to be heroic. But of the two, BATTLE OF THE WORLDS makes a modest attempt to treat the planetary catastrophe in straight, pseudo-scientific fashion, rather than as an excuse for pure heroics, a la Flash Gordon. That's not say that the science invoked by BATTLE's script is credible. But there's at least an attempt to provide a reasoned account as to how the planet enters the system, and how the embattled Earthmen can get rid of it.
The spokesman of the glories of science is also the film's most noteworthy character, the acerbic Doctor Benson (Claude Rains). Benson seems to have been conceived somewhat along the lines of Conan Doyle's equally caustic Professor Challenger, in that Benson considers all of his colleagues to be illiterate jackasses and that he alone has the genius to counter the threat. Even allowing for the vagaries of the English translation, I suspect that even the Italian dialogue is no less loopy, as Benson says things like “I do not maintain! I ascertain!” To be sure, at the conclusion Benson shows that he can walk the walk as well as talking the talk, for at the climax he accompanies the younger astronauts in their exploration of the alien world, which Benson has dubbed "the Outsider." This name is providential, for Benson loses his life in his pursuit of this scientific Holy Grail, displaying a quasi-heroic idealism that ameliorates his cantankerous crankiness. BATTLE has been called Claude Rains' worst performance by some reviewers, but at worst I find it serviceable, and certainly not out of line with what the producers apparently wanted. I have certainly seen worse performances by American actors taking "jobber" roles in Italian cinema.
The film's worst aspects are not its wonky science or its budgetary limitations: rather, the script tries to throw too many ill-defined viewpoint characters at the audience. Two of those characters, Fred and Eve, are about to elope at the film's opening, and later they break up for reasons that are far from pellucid. One character, a Mrs. Collins, is seen hanging around the eloping couple and Doctor Benson, but whether she's a servant or a neighbor is never clarified. The only relationship that works, even meagerly, is that Eve somehow sees through Benson's crusty defenses and attempts to make him admit his own humanity. But though this is the closest the film comes to human conflict, it lacks any real payoff.
The most interesting aspect of BATTLE may be its attempt to provide a space-battle-on-a-budget between Earth rockets and flying saucers. Some of these scenes are risible. A rocket deliberately collides with a saucer, but they both just spin away without being breached. At one point the Earth-pilots employ music against the saucers for some damn reason: all I remember is Claude Rains quoting Pythagoras. But from a purely historical vantage, BATTLE does provide one of the first cinematic realizations of an outer space dogfight.