The Night America Trembled (1957)

H. G. Wells’ groundbreaking 19th Century science fiction novel The War of the Worlds is fascinating, not only in itself, but just as much because of all the adaptations and sequels it has spawned. Not only has it resulted in six feature films (the 1953 version is a classic), an infamous TV series, an amazing music album by Jeff Wayne and countless comic adaptations. Perhaps most well-known of all is the 1938 radio dramatization by Orson Welles, an adaptation that allegedly created mass panic (historical consensus nowadays seems to be that it was not quite as bad as all that). Today is the 79th anniversary of that broadcast.

Panic or no panic, the radio drama, together with the events following, has itself been adapted on numerous occasions. Perhaps the first such adaptation was an episode of the CBS TV series Studio One, titled The Night America Trembled.

Warren Beatty and Warren Oates in Studio One: The Night America Trembled (1957)

After a brief introduction, the episode begins with a car racing along a deserted highway. We hear the radio. A voice is talking about the ongoing invasion. The car takes another bend, but too fast. A crash, then everything goes silent. All we see is a spinning wheel.

Through the rest of the episode, we get to follow a number of different people. We see and hear their reactions, and we also get to follow important events in their lives, as they play out to the background of, and sometimes augmented by, the radio.

The cast of this adaptation of an adaptation contains several young actors who would later rise to various levels of fame, not least Warren Beatty and James Coburn. Orson Welles, who both directed and played the main character in the original play, is here played by Robert Blackburn. However, Welles is not once mentioned by name.

In addition to The Night America Trembled, the Internet Archive contains several interesting subjects connected to The War of the Worlds, although not so many on film. A short selection: The original novel The War of the Worlds is a must read; there is also a LibriVox recording. Edison’s Conquest of Mars was one of the first sequels, though truth be told it is a pretty terrible read; again there is a LibriVox recording. Mercury Theatre on the Air: The War of the Worlds is Orson Welles’ original radio play, well worth listening to, and a Universal Studios newsreel from the day after contains some snippets from a press conference with Orson Welles; in itself a classic. Another radio drama is based on the 1953 movie, and with the same principal actors. You can also read the comic adaptation in Classics Illustrated (1955); one of the classic comic versions. Then there is a 1984 video game based on Jeff Wayne’s musical version – expect neither breathtaking graphics nor perfect surround sound. And there is more. Much more.

This episode is best enjoyed perhaps not foremost for its description of Welles’ radio drama and its consequences – as a historical documentary it is sorely lacking. It is much more interesting because it reflects a willingness in society to believe that things are generally much worse than they really are. Many politicians built their careers on this phenomenon, and so to some extent did Orson Welles. In addition, though the technical quality of the available copy leaves something to be desired, the drama is pretty well produced. It will hold your attention for an hour’s entertainment, and it is an excellent example of 1950s American television.

Alexander Scourby and Robert Blackburn (as Orson Welles) in Studio One: The Night America Trembled (1957)

The Night America Trembled
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Year: 1957
Running time: 59 min
Director: Tom Donovan
Stars: Edward R. Murrow
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (320×240)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (247 M)

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The Crystal Egg (1951)

Normally, I do not include films that are considerably less than 40 minutes in length, but I am going to make an exception for The Crystal Egg. Partly, I do this because it is the only screen adaptation I have seen of a very good story by H.G. Wells (Wikipedia says that it was also adapted for a 2001 TV series, but I suspect that one may be hard to find), but also because it is an example of what American sci-fi fans could watch on television in the early 1950s.

Thomas Mitchell and Edgar Stehli in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

Specifically, it is an episode from the first season (out of two) of the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow. Tales of Tomorrow was all science fiction, usually based on literary sources. Famous examples include Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (not available at the Internet Archive) and Frankenstein. Like most early television, it was broadcast live.

The Crystal Egg is the story about an antique shop owner who asks his friend to help him examine a strange crystal egg. The egg turns out to produce strange images that can only come from the planet Mars. In the episode (but not in the original story) there is also a mysterious stranger who wants the egg for himself. The TV episode makes a number of changes to Wells’ story, but in my opinion these are tastefully executed in order to make the story suited for the short TV format.

Tales of Tomorrow is notorious because of the uneven quality of its actors. The Crystal Egg illustrates this well. Thomas Mitchell is good as Professor Vaneck (Mr. Wace in the original story), whereas Sally Gracie as his girlfriend can barely remember her few lines. Little problems like this shine through very clearly in a live broadcast, but today it must be considered part of the charm of old-time television.

Another problem is image quality. Old television shows with good images are practically non-existent. This is because video technology had not yet been invented, so episodes had to be filmed from a television screen, when they were preserved at all.

Wells’ story is good enough to be interesting in itself, but also because there is a neverending debate among fans and scholars as to whether Wells intended it as a “prequel” to his famous novel The War of the Worlds. We shall never know whether he did, but it is always fun to speculate.

This episode is best enjoyed as an introduction to Tales of Tomorrow. If you like it, a few dozen more episodes, including radio shows, are available. Many actors appear that either were famous already (e.g. Boris Karloff), or were to become famous (e.g. Paul Newman).

Saturn seen from Mars in Tales of Tomorrow: The Crystal Egg (1951) by H.G. Wells

The Crystal Egg
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Year: 1951
Running time: 24 min
Director: Charles S. Dubin
Stars: Thomas Mitchell
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (620×480; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (432 M)

Things to Come (1936)

In his essay “Son of Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Stanley Kubrick,” sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke writes about the work that lead up to the classic movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Among other things, Clarke mentions that he first met with Kubrick to discuss the project on April 22, 1964 – exactly 50 years ago tomorrow.

Clarke also relates how he later tried to introduce Kubrick to some of the classic science fiction films, presumably to give him more insight into the genre. Kubrick was not very impressed by what he saw, and after they eventually got around to watching Things to Come, Kubrick said “What are you trying to do to me? I’ll never see anything you recommend again!”

Post-apocalyptic Everytown in H.G. Wells' Things to Come (1936)

Kubrick was right and he was wrong. Things to Come does have its share of weaknesses, as does 2001. But in the end, both are classics in the genre, and both deserve that status.

The two films actually have more than that in common. Both were born out of a cooperation between the most important living science fiction writer of the time (H. G. Wells for the earlier film) and one of the best directors (Alexander Korda, although he did not direct Things to Come; he only produced it). Both films are in some ways highly prophetic and, more to the point, try to convey important messages that are still relevant today.

Things to Come is divided into three sections. The first prophecies World War II (which begins in 1940 in the film) and is clearly anti-war. The second section deals with the world in the 1960s. The war never really ended, but civilization is in shambles and there is no central government. Local warlords fight for whatever remains. This part of the film makes it one of the first post-apocalyptic films, perhaps the first where a large part is dedicated to survival in the world after the apocalypse.

In the final section, we see the new world of 2036, typical of Wells, who was a firm believer in the wonders of technology, and how they could bring peace and wealth to the world, if used wisely. This part fascinates mainly because of its excellent sets and special effects, many of which still impress.

Things to Come is a splendidly effective and well-produced film, full of beautiful imagery and fascinating ideas. The film does have one major problem, however, in that it follows Wells’ script too closely. Wells, while one of my favourite SF authors, was always very didactic, which could sometimes give a rather stiff air to his books. In the movie, this shines through even more clearly, leaving in part a stilted, pompous and unnatural dialogue. Wells’ detailed synopsis for Things to Come has been published, and actually reads better than it comes through in the final film.

There are several versions of this film, all cut and incomplete to various extents. At least two are available at the Internet Archive. In this post, I mainly link to a version distributed in America, but there is also another version, slightly longer and with better resolution, but unfortunately the copy is very dark.

I understand that the copyright status of this film has been in question, and according to Wikipedia it is under copyright in the UK and the rest of the EU, but apparently not in the US. Whether you decide to download it or not is, of course, a matter for your own conscience.

This film is best enjoyed by those who, unlike Stanley Kubrick, realize that a film can have a few faults and still be brilliant.

Edward Chapman, Kenneth Villiers, Pearl Argyle and Raymond Massey in H.G. Wells' Things to Come (1936)

Things to Come
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Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Stars: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (426×320)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (838 M)