Thursday, May 03, 2012

Ivor Montagu's unfilmed War of the Worlds

I was recently privileged to hold in my hands the treatment for an unproduced War of the Worlds script from approximately 1932. The detailed story of how this came to be written is explained in my recent article for SFX magazine, but briefly, it was the brainchild of a British film director, writer and producer by the name of Ivor Montagu, who had tried to entice Paramount into mounting an adaptation to be helmed by the Soviet direct Sergei Eisenstein. When the project collapsed, Montagu had returned to England and with his business partner Frank Wells, the son of H.G. Wells, tried to get the project up and running with an English studio. Of course posterity records that this too failed, but the treatment left behind, a flimsy yellowing sheaf of papers held by the BFI in London, is a rare and wonderful thing to read.

Immediately apparent is the boundless ambition of the script. Montagu is not one to be unduly restrained by the apparent limitations of special effects at the time, though he does admit that filming the battle between the Dreadnaught Thunderchild and the Martian Tripods would be a stretch, preferring to show only the evacuation by sea. “A finish like this will give us sufficiently the impression of the fight taking humanity right off the map and the Martians pushing the population into the sea, with necessitating the use of any of those model shots in the sea required by the Thunderer incident, which it is feared would lack realism.” But that doesn’t stop him crashing biplanes into Tripods and in a radical but quite logical departure from the original novel, imagining an actual underground resistance movement against the Martians, greatly expanding on the delusions of the lone lunatic artillery man imagined by H.G. Wells in the original novel.

The treatment begins with a lone observer in an observatory witnessing a jet of flame leaping from the surface of Mars. Though the newspapers pick up the story, it is considered a “silly season” story and a “Music hall joke”, and soon forgotten. We are then introduced to our hero Drage. H.G. Wells chose to keep his narrator anonymous, but in a perfectly reasonable departure from the original novel, Montagu provides him with a name and also a new profession. He is a doctor, and as we meet him, he and a female friend (a medical student) are concerned with the health of a child, so concerned in fact that the fiery descent of a “Falling Star” is all but ignored. The next morning however Drage is awoken by a neighbour, Ogilvy the Astronomer, who conveys him to the fallen star and there discovers it is a great cylinder. Here a crowd gathers and the Martians unleash their heat ray, killing first a peace delegation and then turning the weapon against the onlookers.

With communications cut, the London papers take the silence as confirmation that nothing untoward is happening in the provinces, but the Martians are swiftly on the move and with the army routed, the capital is thrown into turmoil. The descriptions of the advancing Martians are truly compelling and you can’t help but imagine what a black and white film of The War of the Worlds would have been like. Would we now think it quaint and laughable, or would Montagu have risen to the challenge of realising the potential of his script. “Rising against the horizon, approaching, coming nearer and large, tremendous, threatening, the flashes of lightening gleaming on their metal cowls and giant metal limbs, approach two Martians.”

Montagu doesn’t flinch either from showing the brutality of the Martian invasion. Witness these descriptions of the aftermath of Martian attacks: “Broken and melted with heat, a bicycle, gripped by a hand” and in his garden, the grisly discovery of carbonised bodies exposed in flashes of lightening and on his travels across a devastated country, “the body of the old woman swirling on the surface of the hole left by the Martian foot.”

But there is also a clear ambition to do more than shock with visceral imagery. There are some memorable moments of lovely descriptive prose and a clear enthusiasm to use the evolving medium of cinema in creative ways, such as a Bee buzzing into sky which transitions into a plane, and then this brilliantly realised moment of violence, witnessed at a distance, yet powerfully and poetically emotive: “The wheeling planes. Suddenly, one, two, three, four, five together, six, seven, eight, nine – in turn each is transformed with a tiny distant sound to a puff of smoke and flame, and down, down, whirring, one, two, the others, down they come, tumbling, down in rocket curves of smoke one after the other, gathering speed and sound as they fall.”

Yet there are also moments of humour. When Ogilvy ponders on the origin of the first cylinder, he muses that “the metal looks to be extraterrestrial”, to which a reporter asks, “Would you mind spelling that?” Then when the first Martian emerges from the cylinder to the consternation of the journalist, there is another moment of levity. “Breaks in the voice of a village policeman, clambered to the top and pausing, helmet off, to wipe his brow. "Now then, what’s the matter, come on what’s the matter?"”

In the latter half of the script, Drage falls in again with the artillery man who is now involved in a growing resistance movement based in the sewers, whose waters are now running crystal clear with the population dead or fleeing for their lives. In a superbly gripping scene, the resistance attempt to set off bombs beneath the Martians, but the Martians anticipate the plot and pump rivers of fire into the sewers. Unfortunately, this important document - a 3rd draft - provides the reader with only a partial view of the story, with many sections simply alluding to unseen sections of earlier drafts, but even with this incomplete picture, you can’t help but feel cheated that this remarkable vision of The War of the Worlds was never made.