I have always been fascinated by movies and their power to convey ideas. My parents were immigrants, and movies were a way to overcome the immigrant disadvantage, a way to learn about the world and the way it works. When I came to Berkeley and started Conversations with History, I made a conscious effort to explore the impact of movies on our imagination. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/PubEd/research/film.html
One of my best movie interviews is with film maker Oliver Stone. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/Stone/stone-con0.html In that 1997 interview, I asked Stone above the movie experience and he answered: I think you get in touch with your dream life, definitely. Or the collective dream life. There's something going on there. Sometimes you're watching the eyes or the chemistry, or some aura that's coming off of the actor. That's why we have movie stars, I presume. It doesn't matter what they're in, people want to watch them. There's something, perhaps, primal about that. I guess what I'm talking about is something in the pre-brain, the dream-life brain of human beings. He went on to say: At the same time, I'm of the mind that, like John Steinbeck said in his screenplay of Zapata: there is no one strong leader who can be held hostage or killed; each person is a leader in himself. It's because the people have the strength. Steinbeck paid homage to that in The Grapes of Wrath too, which I think was really brilliant, the Tom Joad idea of everyone being on the move, the whole country, you can't stop it. I love that idea. Finally, he emphasized that In any film there's always a historical implication. These words came to mind when I put together these notes on the new film version of War of the Worlds.
Well made movies are dreamlike and do reflect the times; they show the thinking of the movie makers as they project and shape our dreams and nightmares onto the big screen. From this perspective, movies hint at what their creators think audiences are thinking and feeling. For the wizards of cinema, film also offers the occasion to shape the world view of the audience. For a little insight into this process and to understand how much our perspective has changed in fifty years, my wife and I, on a recent Sunday, screened the two American versions of War of the Worlds, (2005, director Steven Spielberg) (1952, director Byron Haskin).
Both movies rework H.G. Welles' novel. The 1952 film was made at the height of the Cold War; the 2005 version was made well into the War on Terrorism. The adversary in both movies--creatures from outer space--are similar in physical appearance and vulnerability. These aliens scare us because they remind us of the real enemies we faced then and now. In 1952, the "evil empire" of Soviet communism was on the march and armed with atomic weapons. In 2005, Islamic fundamentalists are our enemy, and they aspire to restore a medieval Caliphate through violent means. In both cases, there is a real enemy to scare the audience even before they enter the theater. Despite these similarities, there are important differences in the two films that tell us how we have changed. Here is what stands out to an observer of foreign policy who has a passion for the movies.
Leadership In 1952, we had leaders, and central figures in that leadership group were scientists. The film's hero, Gene Barry, is one. He and his colleagues are shown analyzing problems. They make a concerted effort to find and use evidence to understand the aliens. The scientists ask: Who are these creatures and what do they want? If they fight, why? and how can we stop them. The focus is on a collective response with science and the military combining forces. (This alliance has unfortunate consequences when a nuclear device is used with apparent indifference to fallout.) In 2005, alas, we apparently have only Tom Cruise to save us. The actor is a working stiff whose immaturity and irresponsibility have shattered his family. Driven by passion, impulse and an instinct to save his family, the Cruise character leads us from scene to scene as witness and combatant. The focus here is on the heroic Cruise and we see his thinking as he confronts the destruction of his way of life. The story is personal with Cruise learning to love his children even as he fights both domestic terrorism (in the form of Tim Robbins as a troubled, savy survivalist with a perverse liking for little kids) and terrorism from outer space (in the form of sleeper cells). In a key scene, Cruise almost single handedly rises up from a holocaust like setting within the belly of the monster and successfully kills one of the aliens with a grenade. He is assisted in his escape by his fellow prisoners. Ironically, Cruise's most important decision is to let his son join a military unit engaged in combat. Interestingly, the Cruise character hints at being opposed to war even as his son chooses to fight.
The Role of Community In both films, everyone is on the run. The 1952 film, however, is organized around community response. We see the initial attack from the perspective of a small town where the hero happens to be on vacation. Before the military is brought in, the first line of defense is the small town. In the 2005 movie, the attack comes in the city and the hero flees to the countryside. The focus is on the family. Unlike the 1950 film, in 2005 there is no strategy or collective response only heroic individualism together with family therapy. When the world falls apart, both films show anarchy reminiscent of the Twilight Zone.
The Idea of a Community of Nations In the 1952 version, the focus is entirely on the United States. However, at key points in the film, images make us aware that the aliens are attacking the great cities of the world. In 2005, there is only a passing mention of the plight of others. In the 1952 movie, we see brief images of different countries working to confront the common enemy. In 1952, the United States is what matters but in the context of a world in which other countries are meeting the challenge in different ways. In 2005, there is not one image of either the suffering of other countries or the recognition that others are putting up a fight though Tim Robbins tells us that the Japanese have killed a few of the aliens in his monologue on the need for resistance. In 2005, our only hope is Tom Cruise who often stands with a cross section of Americans though none stand out for a playing an important role except one prisoner in the belly of tje creature from outer space. In 1952, the most moving statement of fear and salvation comes from the heroine played by Ann Robinson. In 2005, Cruise's young daughter takes no heroic action and is the source of no insight; however, her therapy seem to be working to control her hysteria.
The Role of Religion In 1952, religion plays a surprisingly important role. The heroine talks of the impact of her uncle who is a clergyman. The uncle finds in his religion salvation and a message of peace to guide his actions and his understanding. He attempts to talk to the enemy before war begins and he is killed in the process. When all the efforts to destroy the invaders fail, the hero, Gene Barry, in search of the film's heroine, seeks her out in the churches of Los Angeles. On the other hand, faith and the search for spiritual meaning have no place in the 2005 version.
Narration In both films, the magisterial voice of the narrator (Sir Cedric Hardwick in the 1952 version, Morgan Freeman in 2005) helps us understand the meaning of the invasion. Hardwick has the better script. He tells us why the creatures have come. Both Hardwick and Freeman explain the failure of the invasion. The immune system of the invaders could not deal with the earth's environment. From both narrators, we learn the limits of the technology of war and the power of biological process. The 1952 film links victory to divine plans and suggests that the ultimate victory was a miracle. In 2005, God's role in saving the planet deserves a passing mention by Freeman.
Conclusion If we are in a war of worlds for control of our planet, then much has changed in the way the United States responds on the big screen. While establishing Spielberg as a cinematic Brughel in the cinematic depiction of terror and its consequences, the new film is also a compelling statement of our assumptions about the world and about the preferred course of action. What can we expect the future to bring? I know because I saw it at the movies--hero driven unilateralism without community or spiritual purpose, an impulse driven heroism without strategy, and a willingness to try anything--even summary execution--in the quest for survival. Sound familiar?