JOHN BOORMAN IN HOLLYWOOD ( “QUEEN AND COUNTRY” AT THE AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE )

John Boorman color

I will never forget the first time I entered the unique film world of John Boorman. I was around 17 or 18. A matinee screening of Zardoz at the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank. I wandered out of a misty Autumn day into the mist-shrouded strangeness of the opening of that film and was spellbound. A giant stone head floats across a rocky wasteland —

zardoz2

— and Sean Connery emerges reborn out of the ashes of his tour of 007 duty as a bare-chested, mustachioed enforcer in a post-apocalyptic society populated by actors I knew from British sitcoms.

ZARDOZ Connery enforcing

Strange does not even begin to describe this film and yet….. Yet…..

This was film making that did not play it safe. It tackled big themes and mythological subtext was pushed to the foreground. It was artful, adventurous, and frequently fell on its face. The performances pushed the envelope. In short, it was everything that mainstream British film-making of the time mostly wasn’t: risk-taking, emotionally naked, larger-than-life, intellectually challenging, and willing to put it all on the line.

Zardoz chamber

I was hooked. I sought out Boorman’s previous work in late-night screenings at the Penultimate Picture Palace on the outskirts of Oxford, my film school at university. There was Deliverance; the masterpiece Point Blank (the ONLY truly great color film noir that is also the quintessential, ground-zero genre exploration of existential angst); the extraordinary Hell in the Pacific, in which Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune play two combat soldiers from World War II still fighting the war on a remote Pacific atoll long after VJ Day.

hell_in_the_pacific_1962

In 1981, Excalibur was released.  This was Boorman’s vast, sprawling telling of the Arthurian legends, and I was spellbound. It was (and still is) the only time that a film has utterly committed to telling myth as if it was real history, with magic and the supernatural acting as strongly on the protagonists as their own turbulent emotions. Yes, the film is occasionally wayward, and elicits giggles in some of its more on-the-nose moments, largely because of memories of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which had been released some years earlier.  But then again there are images, scenes, juxtapositions which are as breathtaking as any in cinema.

Excalibur in forest

And then there’s Merlin: Nicol Williamson’s entirely off-the-wall, off-kilter, playful, eccentric characterization that was savaged (and I mean savaged) by the critics of the time, but which I believed then, and certainly believe even more now, is one of the most iconoclastic and brave performances ever put on celluloid.

Excalibur-Merlin

And a young, entirely sexy Helen Mirren as his evil nemesis.

Excalibur Helen Mirren

Plus one of the most priapic, Jungian/Freudian (take your pick) sex scenes in movie history (you know the one….)

Excalibur sex scene

The best book written about Stanley Kubrick is by the leading critic of the French journal Positif, Michael Ciment. Which other director did he choose to write about in similarly expansive fashion? John Boorman. There’s a good reason for this. Like Kubrick, Boorman has consistently challenged our expectations of what a mainstream genre film can and should be. Both books have sat prominently on my bookshelf since they were published, and I dip into them often.

Michael Ciment (left) with John Boorman

Michael Ciment (left) with John Boorman

These thoughts were much in my mind last night as I strolled into the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to see the Los Angeles premiere of John Boorman’s self-declared final film, Queen and Country, presented by the American Cinematheque.

Queen and Country

It’s a sequel to his masterly autobiographical film about growing up during the London blitz, Hope and Glory. In attendance was Boorman himself, a spritely octogenarian, his eyes sparkling with all the wit and impishness that drives the originality and risk-taking at the heart of his work.

The author (l.) with John Boorman outside the Aero Theatre

The author (l.) with John Boorman outside the Aero Theatre

The film itself was as fresh and surprising as any of its predecessors. It focuses on the young hero’s experiences as a conscript doing his British national army service during the Korean war. In characteristic Boorman fashion, the film serves partly as an anthropological investigation of a social group adrift from its moorings – in this case an army that is not actually fighting a war. The absurdities of the hierarchies and rituals of the institution are thrown into relief as Britain and its inhabitants reach for meaning in a post-War world.

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Within this world we follow our hero through the travails of first love, the complexities of adult relationships, and discovering his passion for movies.

queen-and-country

The film ends with the hero and his girl locked in a playful embrace, sinking beneath the waters of the Thames, as his abandoned camera film the scene. It’s a lovely, perfectly apposite image on which Boorman ends his film maker’s journey, recalling the many rivers that run throughout his work, conduits of destruction and rebirth – tactile, universal, mythological.

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Deliverance rapids

Excalibur 40

Emerald Forest

After the screening, the director took the stage to a standing ovation. He offered insights and advice that any film maker would do well to heed, including the recommendation to seriously consider an alternative career: he reflected that he had spent more time on films that never got made than on ones that did.

And he told some great stories about working with two of the cinema’s greatest acting legends: Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune.

hellinthepacific on the beach

Boorman’s relationship with Mifune could best be described by the title of the film they were shooting: Hell in the Pacific. Boorman recounted how, at one particularly fraught juncture, he let fly with his criticisms, then insisted that the interpreter through whom they communicated repeat his words verbatim to the star. Mifune listened, then proceeded to punch out the interpreter. Without missing a beat he turned to the director, smiled and nodded. At one point in the shoot, Boorman fell ill and production halted. Worried producers offered Mifune the opportunity to replace Boorman, which they thought the actor would jump at. Mifune instead insisted they stick with Boorman.  It was, he said, a matter of honor.

Not a familiar concept to your average Hollywood suit, commented Boorman.  The audience at the Aero ate this up.

john-boorman-lee-marvin-e-toshiro-mifune-no-set-de-hell-in-the-pacific

Boorman recounted how he and Lee Marvin became close friends, and he told several wonderful stories about their friendship.

LEE MARVIN, UN PORTRAIT SIGNE JOHN BOORMAN

After Marvin and Boorman had completely reworked the original script for Pont Blank and it came time to start filming, Marvin literally flew the script out of the window. At a meeting with the studio brass Marvin said that he was ceding all his story and casting control to the novice director. Boorman never forgot this support. He noted that the film, about a man who is shot and left for dead, then goes in search of his killers, became a means for Marvin to confront his own demons from combat duty during the war.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and John Boorman on set

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and John Boorman on set

On a lighter note, Boorman recalled a memorable evening out with Marvin who, by closing time, was very drunk indeed. Boorman struggled to prevent Marvin from taking the wheel of his car to drive home, finally wresting the keys from him. Marvin proceeded to jump onto the roof of the car and refused to come down. Boorman decided to drive him home anyway.

There they were, weaving their way up the Pacific Coast Highway to Marvin’s home in Malibu, Boorman at the wheel, the star clinging to the roof. Suddenly a siren sounded, and the cops pulled him over. Up walks the patrolman.

“Sir, you do realize that Lee Marvin is on the roof of your car…..?”

How many directors can tell a story like that?

John Boorman in river

 

JAMES EARL JONES REMEMBERS ( Filming “THE COMEDIANS” with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Alec Guinness )

The Comedians - table scene

Long before he provided the ominous tones for Darth Vader and created the most iconic-sounding villain in screen history, James Earl Jones made his mark in a number of major productions of stage and screen. It was his role in Jean Genet’s groundbreaking play The Blacks, first staged in New York in 1961, and running for a record-breaking 1408 performances, that led to one of his most memorable early film experiences.

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Blacks

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Blacks

Polish poster for The Comedians

Polish poster for The Comedians

Peter Glenville

Peter Glenville

Peter Glenville, a leading British director of the time who had closely collaborated with Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams, was looking for a number of black actors to take roles in his forthcoming film of Greene’s The Comedians, set amidst the turmoil of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s Haiti.  Going to The Blacks, which was one of the top off-Broadway hits of the decade, Glenville was presented with an embarrassment of acting riches.  Jones was not the only one to be cast in the film as a result of his performance in the play: joining him were Cicely Tyson, Zakes Mokae, and Roscoe Lee Brown.  Also in the film was a young Gloria Foster, who later made a mark as the Oracle in the first two Matrix pictures.

Jones and Zakes Macae

The-Comedians James Earl Jones

For Jones, working on The Comedians was memorable both on, and off, screen. For rarely can a young actor have found himself spending time with such a luminous A-list cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, not to mention the legendary star of silent pictures, Lillian Gish.

Peter Glenville with the cast of The Comedians

Peter Glenville (c., standing) with the cast of The Comedians

A few years ago I produced an oral history of the life and work of Peter Glenville, and James Earl Jones kindly agreed to share his reminiscences with Susan Loewenberg, Producing Director of L.A. TheatreWorks, who commissioned the history on behalf of the Peter Glenville Foundation.

Peter Glenville directing Ustinov and Taylor

Peter Glenville directing Ustinov and Taylor

The segment about The Comedians was my favorite, enlivened by Jones’s commentary, his extraordinary presence, and that voice. (In a technical sidebar, that voice was so resonant with bass frequencies that the engineer had quite some trouble recording it without distortion).

Jones and Burton

Now you can enjoy his story too……

Narrator: Martin Jarvis.  Voice of Peter Glenville: Simon Templeman.

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IN A HOLLYWOOD STATE OF MIND

Chinese_Theatre vintage premiere

Living and working in Hollywood one is inclined, somewhat more than the general population, to suffer from a variety of movie states of mind. After all, wanting to escape reality is what brought us to California in the first place, and the Hollywood in our heads is substantially preferable to the reality. (Have you ever been to Hollywood and Highland, where they’ve turned the gates of Babylon from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance into a mall? And that’s the upscale bit of Hollywood!).

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Old Hollywood Babylon —

-- and Babylon Mall

— and New Hollywood Babylon

Hollywood is also intrinsically hyperbolic and, since making movies is actually a pretty arduous process, I’ve heard grown men who have Oscars in their cloakrooms liken it to war. Ridiculous? Maybe not so much. A little mental meandering can be a healthy counterbalance to too much Hollywood reality. (Or unreality).

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In fact, going from that blissfully innocent initial movie idea (“How about a shark terrorizing a resort? We can build a mechanical Great White, no problem, and film it in the real ocean so we don’t have to fake it. Easy!”), to actually opening a film is kind of like finding oneself in the third act of The Shining. During the required three plus years it takes to get a film made one mostly feels like that film’s seven year-old endeavoring to elude the unwanted homicidal attentions of an axe-wielding paternal figure (a Freudian mash-up of the studio, investors, critics, paying public).

Shining Nicholson axe door

The only way to offset the seemingly inevitable drop of the blade is to take one’s life into one’s own hands and, like little Danny, run out into the petrifying night, and lure the enemy into a frozen maze from which neither of you may return in one piece.

the-shining-frozen-jack-nicholson

Of course I exaggerate. No one would work in movies if it was really like that. (Yes they would! They want to meet movie stars!) It’s really no worse than being a lawyer or member of Congress. (Where are the axe murderers when you really need them?).

So, getting back to my point about Hollywood’s denizens entering into Hollywood states of mind, let’s consider some possible favorite choices.

The writer – for example – is susceptible to Sunset Boulevard. He’s found himself floating face down in a swimming-pool so many times he’s forgotten how he ever got there (or how to stop it happening again).

SunsetBoulevardWilliamHolden

Of course, writers live mostly in their heads anyway, and in Hollywood that can be a nice place — all that sun, sand and, well….

But what's in the box, Barton?

What’s in the box, Barton?

Yes, any writer who’s gone through what is politely called Development Hell will feel a particular empathy with Barton Fink. The prospect of seeing John Goodman’s gun-toting psycho charging down a spontaneously combusting corridor screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” will almost seem like a relief compared to another round of studio notes.

Barton Fink gif

The producer – a much-maligned creature in movie lore – might veer between two possible models of how to go about getting the show on the road. There’s The Bad and the Beautiful, in which a group of filmmakers reflect on how they were aided in their careers, and then terrorized, by the Machiavellian producer played by Kirk Douglas, who will charm, swarm, cajole and bully to get his way.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) 8

And then there’s The Producers, wherein the titular characters set out to make a deliberate flop out of an all-singing, all-dancing Nazi musical, and end up with a smash hit.

Just another day at work

Just another day at the office

But which of these two films represents how one should go about being a producer? Which one is the cautionary tale, and which one the blueprint for success?

The eternal dilemma of how exactly to go about producing hit movies is played out, second-guessed and dissected in the trades after every opening weekend. However, for every producer who yearns to cut through all the crap, Get Shorty will hold a special place in his or her heart for its gangster-turned-producer hero played by John Travolta because, deep down, every producer wishes he could make the odd recalcitrant collaborator/executive/critic/second-guesser an offer he cannot refuse.

Get Shorty Travolta with gun 2

The studio executive on the wrong end of Travolta’s pistol will always have Robert Altman’s The Player to console him. Tim Robbins’s sleazy protagonist does, after all, get away with murdering a difficult writer – and ends up marrying his victim’s girlfriend. (Add this film to the writer’s list of grievances).

Greta Scaachi

The director who’s knocked around a bit channels Richard Mulligan’s beleaguered auteur in Blake Edwards’ sublime satire of Hollywood, S.O.B. (short for “Standard Operational Bulls**t”).

SOB poster

Driven to the brink of insanity by a mega-flop, Mulligan decides to wrestle victory from the jaws of box office defeat, and Robert Vaughan’s cross-dressing studio boss —

SOB R. Vaughn:Berenson

— by reshooting for an R-rating. How does he do this? Well, he persuades his star (and ex) Julie Andrews that her wholesome family-friendly image needs retooling (literally). To accomplish this he revamps his central MGM-style musical number as a porno.

SOB fantasy

Its climax (ahem) is Mary Poppins going all spring break on us (“You like my boobies?” a squiffy Julie declaims in a state of deshabillé).

sob_julie_andrews boobies

That Mulligan gets shot to death for his pains —

SOB dead director

— and is buried at sea in a viking helmet by William Holden and his buddies (after a spot of fishing) —

SOB fishing

— is merely a tribute to his auteur credentials.

SOB sinking boat

Actors adore All about Eve, Joe Mankiewicz’s paean to theatre folk, and dissection of the naked ambition (and unsheafed knife) lurking in the sweet smile of one’s understudy.

Baxter, Anne (All About Eve)_02

Cinéaste actors go nuts for Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Carné’s Dickensian canvas of a theater troupe’s lives and loves.

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Why are we so fascinated by actors and movie stars? Because life is a performance, and we’re all acting a part — as Shakespeare so pithily pointed out. Movie stars just do it bigger and better than we do. David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, hardwires into our pop cultural obsession with everything actorly. It finds the intersection between performance and the con in the pursuit of the American dream, and milks the results for all their worth. And as per usual Russell pushes his cast out onto an emotional high wire — the resulting thespian high jinks and precarious balancing acts are glorious to behold.

American Hustle cast

But for me the film that maybe most perfectly embodies the surrealistic double-think a screen actor must hold in his head is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. This is the one where a daydreaming projectionist —

Sherlock asleep

— wanders into the movie he is screening.

sherlock-entersscreen

Surviving a series of jump cuts that launch him from one perilous, and hilarious, scene to another —

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sherlockjr in the film 2

Keaton. Sherlock Jr. Bike sit back.

sherlockjr train

— he ends up solving the mystery and getting the girl, because he entered the movie. Now that’s what I call commitment to a role. What an endorsement of film’s curative powers. (For a later spin on this idea, see Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.)

But if you had to select just one film to embody all the obsessions of Hollywood in one convenient package, I suspect that would be —

vertigo eye with spiral 2

vertigo eye with spiral 1

vertigo-title

vertigo main title

But, I hear you say, that movie has nothing to do with the movies. Au contraire, I counter. It is, in effect, the ultimate metaphor for making pictures. Consider.

Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a fabrication, an illusion of a person, who in this case happens to be Kim Novak.

Vertigo Madeleine in bed

“Screen siren obsession” is, in my opinion, a completely certifiable medical condition; a symptom familiar to moviegoers everywhere since the dawn of moving pictures. (Erotic fixation upon fantasy figures lies at the heart of film’s mesmeric dance of seduction). Then, when Novak “dies”, Stewart sees another woman who reminds him of the earlier one, and proceeds to refashion her into a replica of his earlier love.

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What he does not know is that both women are actually one and the same.

Vertigo transformation

Vertigo transformation 2

Vertigo - Madeleine and Scotty

That he’s the victim of an intricate con-job to cover up a murder is largely co-incidental, and barely relevant to what the film is really about. That crafty Hitch – he made a movie about making movies, and the danger of trying to build real-world romances upon the flickering shadows of fantasy and obsession, projected or otherwise, with death as the trickster “I do”.

Vertigo Madeleine doll falling

“So what!”I can hear many a movie guy say. So what if the gal’s a fake, the guy’s a basket-case, and no-one gets to say “I do”. We’re making movies! How great is that! I know people who would kill to do what we do.

Vertigo dead Judy 1

Yup, in Hollywood, Vertigo is the one you come home to.

Vertigo Jimmy Stewart after nightmare

( HOW MANY MILES TO ) BABYLON?

Grace Kelly b&w

BAB-Y-LON (noun): a city devoted to materialism and sensual pleasure (Origin: ancient city of Babylonia). (Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

LA LA LAND (noun): The term either refers to Hollywood, Los Angeles or a state of mind synonymous with Hollywood that is out of touch with reality, focusing on dreams, fantasies or frivolous endeavors. (Source: Urban Dictionary)

“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: that word is love.” — Sophocles

What do you say to the woman you love

Up there on the silver screen?

Where do you go at the end of the show

With nothing to hold but a dream?

What would you say to the golden girl?

How would you play the scene?

Oh, how would you play the scene?

to-catch-a-thief-kelly-grant

Did your dreams come true as the years rolled by

Young king of the silver screen?

william holden sunset boulevard 1

How does it feel to be tied and bound

To a fading movie queen?

What can you say at the end of the day?

How will you play the scene?

Oh, how will you play the scene?

Sunset Boulevard on couch

How many kisses crossed your lips

Before your lips met mine?

How many lovers held your hand

Before your hand touched mine?

How many hopes, how many fears?

How many hearts, how many tears?

How many miles to Babylon?

sunset boulevard dancing

Why do you gaze at the silver screen

Pretty girl in the second row?

mia_farrow_purple_rose_of_cairo

How would you act if the man came down

What do you need to know?

It’s cold out there in the neon nights

How far do you aim to go?

How far do you aim to go?

purple-rose kissing

How many kisses crossed your lips

Before your lips met mine?

How many lovers held your hand

Before your hand touched mine?

How many hopes, how many fears?

How many hearts, how many tears?

How many miles to Babylon?

Grace Kelly silhouette in LIFE

Vocal by Mary Carewe.

Song and Video by Mark Ward.

“Filmmaking is rarely glamorous. Being ankle deep in pig shit every day is the reality.”

Parker will write and diret for food

“A film director has to have the sensitivity of a poet and the stamina of a construction worker. The trouble is that rather too many of us get it the wrong way around.”

Alan Parker directing Bob Geldof in Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Alan Parker directing Bob Geldof in Pink Floyd The Wall (1982)

Parker on toilet

“Francois Truffaut said that British Cinema was an oxymoron. (Like French Rock music.)”

Parker - British Film Industry

Frankly-Seth-800x718 Parker

“I think you have to be strong willed and swift of foot to survive in Hollywood. I always said we are guerrillas on bicycles stealing our art away from them.”

INT-ROOM-NIGHT-800x686 Parker

And There’s More Where That Came From….

Parker Clooney cartoon

You can read my interview with Alan Parker talking about the career of fellow filmmaker and Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow here.

The Wit and Wisdom of Sir Alan Parker

WHEN MARTIANS ROAMED THE EARTH ( THE STORY BEHIND “THE WAR OF THE WORLDS” )

wotw headline large

Ever wondered what an alien invasion sounds like?

Well, 75 years ago, on October 30th 1938, large swathes of America got to find out. Listeners to CBS radio heard their regular programming interrupted by news reports of strange eruptions in space, and objects crashing to earth.  That was only the beginning. It wasn’t long before the eastern seaboard was gripped by panic, and people were flooding into the streets – trying to escape what they thought was a full-scale Martian invasion.

wotw book cover

Meanwhile, word of the panic spread to the CBS studio, where Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company of actors were gleefully rampaging their way through Howard Koch’s adaptation of this science-fiction classic.

orson_welles_1938

With little inkling of the furore outside, Orson Welles decided to defuse the situation. After speaking the last scripted lines of Professor Pierson, he announced – “out of character” – that the program had “…no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be”. With an impish smile in his voice he concluded: “And remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight.  That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living-room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and there’s no-one there, that was no Martian… it’s Halloween.”

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They went off-the-air. Then, leaving the cocoon of the studio, Welles was confronted by the magnitude of the panic he had unleashed. The laughter died on his lips. Even the master showman had been blindsided.

Young-Orson-Radio

History was made that night. It was the first major media “Got ya!” and it turned Welles, already a cause célèbre in the theater world, into a media star. Hollywood came calling with an unprecedented contract, which resulted in the equally unprecedented innovations of Citizen Kane and a film career of, in equal measures, maddening genius and frustrated intentions. Maybe the Martians had the last laugh after all.

WOTW-Cartoon-Callan

When I was producing radio theater for National Public Radio I had occasion to revisit that legendary night of broadcasting. L.A.TheatreWorks decided to record an updated version of Howard Koch’s script for Orson Welles with members of Star Trek, old and new generation.

War-of-the-Worlds_LATW

Thus Wil Wheaton and Gates McFadden joisted at the microphones with Brent Spiner, while Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, took the central role of Professor Pierson.

Leonard-Nimoy-MRT-Friday-AdventureHis voice commanded the airwaves in a manner all of these Hollywood old-timers, who grew up doing radio, theater and live TV, have to themselves. You felt every syllable of his awe and fear in the face of the alien invader. Researching the script for a subsequent rebroadcast on Halloween (naturally) I delved into the history of that original transmission, and of the book that started it all. There were a few surprises along the way. (In particular, Simon Callow’s excellent biography of Orson Welles provided a wealth of anecdotal material and pertinent observation, some of which I reference in the following.)

H.G.-Wells-Broadcasting- 1929

H.G. Wells at the microphone in 1929

Science fiction, it is fair to say, was invented by H.G. Wells, along with Jules Verne.

jules verne prophet

Wells had found a new way to explore the greatest aspirations and deepest fears of humanity through the metaphors of science and technology, and the worlds they were unveiling.  But he knew the quest for knowledge was a double-edged sword, and fully exploited the unease that walks hand-in-hand with our boundless curiosity for the unknown.

H.G._Wells_,_c1890

For his most famous prophetic warning of the fragility of  civilisation, Wells exploited the current fascination with the possibility that “We are not alone”.

schiaparelli

In 1894, the planet Mars had been near enough to Earth to be observed in detail. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli identified linear patterns on the surface that he named “canalli” which, in Italian, means “channels”.

schiaparelli_marte_2 1890 diary page

A page from Schiaparelli’s diary, 1890.

But in one of the great mistranslations of all time, English-speaking peoples thought he meant “canals”, leading to widespread speculation about the possibility of life on the red planet. Another observer claimed to have seen a strange light flashing on Mars, fuelling the debate.

schiaparelli mars map 1888

Schiaparelli’s map of Mars, 1888

Meanwhile H.G. Wells was making his own observations closer to the Earth.  Germany had unified, and embarked on a program of militarization. Wells and others feared this might lead to war in Europe. Inspired to fire his own warning shot, he turned to the public’s fascination with the possibility of life on Mars as a way to warn of the danger.

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Title page from 1913 edition

In his hands, the utopian vision of disparate cultures uniting, of civilisation reaching beyond the stars, disintegrated in the beam of a heat ray.

wotw cover 1899 cohen zonen

1899 Cover Art

Instead humanity faced the nightmare of a pre-emptive first strike by superior technologies of Armageddon, serving masters whose only thought was: what was the point of sharing when you could have it all?

Title page of 1st edition, 1898.

Title page of First Edition, 1898

Wells told his fantastical fable in a semi-documentary style, giving it a credibility and power it might have otherwise lacked.

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When, in 1938, Howard Koch came to adapt War of the Worlds for the radio broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air, he faced two major challenges. How to find a modern-day equivalent for the book’s hyper-realistic style, and how to overcome the dated, provincial aspects of the novel because of its period setting in  England. He decided to move the action to America, randomly selecting the New Jersey village of Grover’s Mill as the site of the invasion. From then on, realistic imperatives drove the script. Koch made the medium the message, turning radio’s ability to broadcast live events as they happened into an integral part of telling the story.

Welles-Houseman

Welles with John Houseman

It was a brilliant narrative strategy, but Orson Welles and John Houseman, co-founders of the Mercury Theatre Company, were initially underwhelmed by the script. Preoccupied by what had turned into a hellish theatre production of Danton’s Death, they picked at the script in their usual way, pulling it about structurally and demanding more realism.  Welles dismissed it as “corny”. A lot of emphasis was placed on sound effects, in the hope they would distract attention from the thinness of the piece.

Despite – or because of this – Welles and his fellow actors went for broke, playing it for all it was worth.

WellesWar_083012_tw_tif_

Everything was pushed to the extreme – the apparent breakdowns in transmissions, the desperate eruptions of dance music – all held longer than would be thought possible in order to build suspense. The vividness of the dramatization echoed the real-life newscasts whose bulletins so frequently concerned events ominously gathering in Europe. But whether Houseman or Welles intended any serious parallel is debatable: they just wanted to liven up the story, using what was going on all around them, on the air and in the papers.

Martin A. La Regina

So why did listeners think there was a real invasion from Mars being reported? Houseman attributed it to a chance circumstance. Broadcasting on another wavelength was the hugely popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show.

family-listening-to-the-radio

At twelve minutes past eight the improbable principal act –  a ventriloquist and his assorted dummies – took a break, and so did listeners. They reached for their dials, surfed the frequencies, and happened upon a news report, well under way, of the Martian invasion.  As the play progressed so did the hysteria.

war-of-the-worlds film poster

An estimate for the number of American families who had radios at the time was  twenty seven-and-a-half million. The radio was frequently the principal, and often the only, source of information for Americans about the wider world.  And in those days listeners trusted unquestioningly that what they heard was the truth. Despite announcements that this was a dramatization of a book, people took to the streets, screaming that it was the end of the world.

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There are many colorful stories of that night. Here’s one of them. In Staten Island, Connie Casamissina was about to get married. Latecomers to the reception took the microphone from the singing waiter and announced the invasion. As Connie recalled: “Everyone ran to get their coats.  I took the microphone and started to cry – Please don’t spoil my wedding-day! – and then my husband started singing hymns, and I decided I was going to dance the Charleston. And I did, for 15 minutes straight. I did every step there is in the Charleston.”

After the program went off the air, terrified listeners who’d called CBS angrily threatened violence against Welles and the company, after discovering they were victims of what they thought had been a malicious hoax. One employee recalled: “Someone had called threatening to blow up the CBS building, so we called the police and hid in the ladies’ room on the studio floor.”

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The fallout from the broadcast was extensive. How would the populace have reacted in the event of a real air raid?

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There were calls for censorship,  but freedom of speech on the airwaves was fiercely defended.  In a striking piece in the New York Tribune,  columnist Dorothy Thompson acclaimed the broadcast as “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time… It is the story of the century… Far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important of contributions to the social sciences… He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the menace is not from Mars but from the theatrical demagogues.”

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As for Orson, he made a chastened appearance in a newsreel, adopting the air of a schoolboy who’s not sure whether he’s gotten away with a prank.

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Welles at press conference after the broadcast

He wasn’t as worried about society’s judgment as he was about potentially more serious, legal penalties.  In the end nothing stuck, and it all turned out to be one of the most fortuitous events of his career.  But his personal creative responsibility for the show had been negligible, beyond the flair of his direction and performance.  In a foreshadowing of his attempts to take credit away from Herman Mankiewicz for the script of Citizen Kane, Welles repeatedly attempted to deny Howard Koch’s authorship of War of the Worlds. Unsuccessfully, to his considerable annoyance.

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There’s no evidence to support his contention that the program was planned as a Halloween prank all along. The idea was improvised on the spot as a sop to the panic released during the broadcast. Nor was there a conscious attempt to play on fears of a European invasion. The fact was that Welles barely thought about the program, being completely occupied until the last minute by his losing struggle with the theatre production of Danton’s Death.

However, he did get a Hollywood contract out of it.

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Grover's Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.

Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.

LILLIAN GISH in “The Wind”

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In celebration of Lillian Gish whose 120th birthday falls today. Below you can watch her introducing one of her greatest films, The Wind (1928).

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It is one of the most remarkable American films of the silent era, produced by its star, and helmed by the Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (anglicized to Seastrom), who later in life played the old Professor in Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”.

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The version to see is the one presented by TCM in collaboration with Oscar-winning film historian, Kevin Brownlow, with a specially composed musical score by Carl Davis. (Music buffs might be interested to know that the orchestrators on this score, which includes all manner of orchestral “special effects”, were Colin and David Matthews, leading avant-garde composers in their own right. Colin has also worked extensively with the Benjamin Britten Estate to bring many of Britten’s “lost” compositions back into the repertoire).

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I attended the premiere of this version of The Wind at the London Film Festival in the 80s, and it was a knockout.

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At a later screening in New York’s Radio City Music Hall I had a chance to meet Ms. Gish, and she was the personification of charm and old-world Hollywood graciousness. The following clip, alas, features music other than Carl’s, but it gives you an idea of the extraordinary imagery that drives this story of a girl pushed to the limit of her sanity by events in this inhospitable, windswept country.

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