War of the Worlds

This article was actually written by Chameleon.

Spielberg’s reinterpretation of H.G. Wells’ classic short novel (originally published in book form in 1898) allows for a marginally greater part to be played in the storyline by female characters, although the main focus in both versions is their vulnerability.

H.G. Wells in many respects adopted a more open-minded attitude to women and relationships (never permitting mere convention to inhibit his own appetite for sexual liaisons) than many of his counterparts, advocating a system whereby the ablest members of a society should be put in charge, dedicating themselves to a life of asceticism in the interests of the many as well as defending the idea of the “endowment of motherhood”, outlined in The New Machiavelli: “Women must become less and less subordinated to individual men, since this works out in a more or less complete limitation, waste, and sterilization of their essentially social function… After two centuries of confused and experimental revolt, it grows clear to modern woman that a conscious, deliberate motherhood and mothering is their special function in the State, and that a personal subordination to an individual man with an unlimited power of control over this intimate and supreme duty is a degradation… I want to see them bearing and rearing good children in the State as a generously rewarded public duty and service, choosing their husbands freely and discerningly… It is no use pretending that this is not novel and revolutionary: it is. The Endowment of Motherhood implies a new method of social organisation, a rearrangement of the social unit, untried in human experience – as untried as electric traction was or flying in 1800″ (as quoted in Ruth Brandon, The New Women and the Old Men, Flamingo, London, 1991, p208). In practice, however, his expectations were staunchly conservative: “The novels were about the social experiment. They were about his notion of the ideal companionship of equal men and women behaving freely; and yet (…) even in the novels the reality of what Wells wanted from women kept breaking through. What he wanted was the delight of companionship with his intellectual equals – which, in Wells’s case, meant the most brilliant women of his day – who would suddenly, when the scene became domestic, feel able and willing to provide the uncompetitive, smooth laying-on of creature comforts he was used to at home with his wife. But, things being what they were – and here the question of social institutions was indeed relevant – they were not his wife, and as a result could not compete in the domestic department even had they been so inclined” (Brandon, op. cit., p203).

In the novel, with its contemporary setting, the hero’s wife appears only fleetingly, wan and bloodless for the most part, she is a delicate flower, fortifying him with emotional and physical sustenance, her entire existence devoted to his welfare. Confined largely to the domestic sphere (except when she is being packed off to the narrator’s cousins in Leatherhead ostensibly to take her out of harm’s way, but I suspect more for reasons of plot expediency, as she would have represented both a distraction and an encumbrance had she accompanied him throughout his ordeals, self-sufficiency and resourcefulness not qualities deemed suitable for cultivation by genteel young ladies of the period, whereas with her out of the frame he is able to enjoy relative freedom of movement and indulge his curiosity, observing the battle between human and alien at close quarters) she symbolises the retreat from the trials and tribulations of a hostile outside world, order and the blessings of tranquillity, a perfect angel of the house, an indication of her respectability and status (lower class women gather to gawp and sell wares at the pit caused by the cylinder impact and throng the streets, their more prosperous sisters abandoning their sitting rooms only as part of the mass exodus following defeat, their very visibility in their finery signalling the rout). Her presence haunts the pages nevertheless, her memory invoked with wistful longing whenever the narrator casts his mind back to what that has been lost amongst the fallen masonry of a civilisation laid low.

The Elphinstones (wife and younger sister of a surgeon), rescued by the narrator’s brother when the action shifts temporarily to London, serve as an illustration of the corrupting influence of marital dependency. Whereas the (unattached) girl copes admirably with the situation (under male guidance), the older Mrs. Elphinstone suffers a nervous breakdown when they reach the coast and secure places on a paddle steamer bound for Ostend: “At the sight of the sea, Mrs. Elphinstone, in spite of the assurances of her sister-in-law, gave way to panic. She had never been out of England before, she would rather die than trust herself friendless in a foreign country, and so forth. She seemed, poor woman, to imagine that the French and Martians might prove very similar. She had been growing increasingly hysterical, fearful and depressed during the two days’ journeyings. Her great idea was to return to Stanmore. Things had been always well and safe at Stanmore. They would find [her husband] George at Stanmore” (H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds in Five Great Novels, Gollancz, London, 2004, p263).

To be fair, Wells’ primary concern in this particular work was not that of imagining a radical social restructuring, hence the crinoline-impeded women are bound by the then prevalent standards of propriety and decorum. The author chooses to concentrate on providing as realistic a portrayal as possible of what might occur should the most advanced city in the world be overwhelmed by a superior force. In a context where the supreme feminine virtue of motherhood condemned women to a life sentence of passivity, docility and stultifying inactivity between the walls of the home (most unambiguously amongst the middle classes), men dominated the public sphere, defending their privileges ruthlessly.

In 2005 the social landscape is (on the surface at least) very different. Yet Spielberg’s film views events through one man’s eyes, Tom Cruise’s character Ray, a stevedore, who is introduced at work, perched in the cabin of his crane loading containers. The hard hat, working class dockyard environment established an immediate association with rugged, no nonsense masculinity. His outstanding skill is likewise made clear by his superior begging him to return early as only he can load twice as fast as anyone else. Ray quotes trade union rules as he refuses (remarking inaudibly to the foreman that he could consult a number of women as to his numerous other faults) rather than own up to the real reason, which might compromise his “hardness”, namely that his ex, Mary Ann, is dropping off the children for a couple of days with him whilst she visits her parents accompanied by the new man in her life (by whom she is pregnant), Tim. The latter is obviously wealthy (Ray sneers at his choice of car, safe, reliable and probably fitted with a catalytic converter to avoid noxious emissions rather than the Ford Mustang – Bullit’s preferred model – loud and aggressive like the untamed stallion, which Ray prefers to hurtle through the streets in). Mary Ann has married up the social ladder, done better for herself and by extension the children (the implication throughout being that their welfare constituted her primary motive for splitting up and moving out). Ray bristles with hostility as she opens the fridge in front of Tim, commenting on the lack of produce chilled on its shelves whilst sniffing at the dribble of milk to check its freshness. He resents her invading his private space as if they continued to enjoy a sufficient degree of intimacy to entitle her to do so in his eyes, her evaluative scrutiny of the accommodation (the V-8 engine spread in oil blackened pieces over the living room table not the best token of suitability) touching the raw nerve of his failure to provide as well as Tim (Ray shuts the door to his bedroom firmly by way of indicating it is off limits, their sexual and emotional bond having been definitively severed). Mary Ann complains about the children being forced to share a bedroom with such a wide age gap between them (he cannot afford a larger house), the contrast thrown into high relief when Ray, Robbie and Rachel later tumble out of the car into the ideal home supplement perfection of Tim and Mary Ann’s spacious residence (not a speck of dust or stray magazine in sight).

Mary Ann is clearly the more mature and responsible of the two, Ray mired in perpetual, carefree adolescence. She has moved on and accepted the consequences of her decisions, whilst Ray remains in huffy denial, his male ego bruised by her rejection.

The gulf that separates Ray from his offspring is emphasised repeatedly during the first half of the film, for example when his daughter Rachel orders a takeaway from the health food shop. Ray casually dips some pita bread into a tub of humus, an exotic substance with which he is unfamiliar, denying it the status of food (his tastes are unrefined and do not stretch beyond the standardised cosmopolitan). Similarly, his son Robbie takes delight in rubbing his father’s nose in his lowly status in comparison with the usurper by reminding him that Tim is funding his college education. Indeed, in the course of the conversation in the back yard as Ray and Robbie practice throwing and catching a baseball (at Ray”s insistence), Robbie undermines his father’s authority by stumping him with a simple question concerning the capital of Australia and rejecting the joke he had heard so many times before (Ray’s defence had been to quip that between them he and his brother knew everything and that when unable to answer he would reply that his brother knew that one). When shown up for the deficiencies in his book knowledge, Ray responds by hurling the ball at his son with all his might. Robbie dodges rather than attempting to land it in the glove and the window pane is smashed signalling Ray’s sense of impotent frustration and the break between father and son. When the motif of the framing shot through glass occurs again (when Ray lies trapped in the pickup and has no choice but to watch Rachel being snatched by the mechanical arm of the tripod through the shattered windscreen) the reversal of the perspective (initially we look at Ray’s reaction from inside the dwelling, whereas on the second occasion we look through Ray’s eyes at what is going on outside) is matched by the complete mending of the relationship between father and daughter (she first voluntarily seeks physical closeness with him after he has murdered Ogilvy to protect her; he treats her rather brusquely at the beginning of the film, more or less ignoring her in favour of his son and brushing aside her advice on how to get through to Robbie with a bitter and unnecessary comment on whether she is his mother, clearly taking out his resentment at Mary Ann on the substitute female; his impatience with her is more understandable when they are fleeing the city in what could well be the only roadworthy car, its solenoids having been replaced by the local mechanic after the EM pulse paralysed traffic and knocked out the power grid and she loses the head, dissolving in noisy fits of tears).

However, the blame for the absence of spontaneous warmth between Ray and his children is laid firmly at the main character’s door. He has been a rotten father and is paying the price for his neglect. As in Close Encounters family tension erupts over food. Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) compulsion to sculpt the mountain to which he is being mysteriously called from mashed potatoes, heaping them high on his plate is so abnormal as to provoke tears and consternation, whilst Ray, having tried to lighten up the situation by dealing out slices of bread as if they were playing cards, betrays ignorance of his daughter’s allergy to peanut butter. In the mistaken belief that she is being fussy in order to bait him, he sarcastically enquires “Since when?” to which she retorts accusingly “Since birth”. Her quick-witted verbal sparring and cheekiness melt away under duress, the little girl reduced to whimpering, paralysed with fear. When whisked away by her father from the trauma of witnessing hundreds of corpses being washed down river after running to the bushes to relieve herself (a scene, which not only injects an uncharacteristic note of realism into proceedings – how many films have you sat through where the script discretely elides the matter of bodily functions altogether? – but also illustrates the extent to which our social conventions are ingrained as demonstrated by Rachel’s shyness about peeing in front of her brother and father even in the face of imminent danger) she runs to Robbie, flinging herself into his embrace and asking in despair: “Who’s going to take care of me if you leave?” Furthermore, when Rachel requests that he soothe her with a lullaby signalling her acceptance of him by turning to him for comfort and succour (albeit of a kind any good father would dispense without prompting), Ray confesses he does not know the words to her favourites, but to his credit improvises with a ditty about a car, true (compensatory) focus of his affections hitherto (revealing a willingness to learn and to reassess his priorities).

Throughout Rachel with her blonde hair and blue eyes embodies innocence and fragility, the defencelessness of the female when law and order can no longer be upheld. Our hard won autonomy is rendered meaningless once the chips are down and brute strength holds sway. Ray’s commitment to ensuring his daughter’s safety is emblematic of the resistance of civilisation and humanity to the selfishness of individual preservation at the expense of others. All of these themes converge powerfully in a single episode where Robbie arouses his father from the oblivion of slumber as the crowds become denser, closing in on their vehicle. Swapping seats without taking a foot off the pedal, Ray attempts to drive a path through them to no avail. The camera peers through the rain-trickled windows from Rachel’s point of view, the faces even more menacing as a result. Terrified, Rachel asks why they cannot take more passengers if that is the cause of their anger and threatening behaviour, betraying her sheltered upbringing (as well as the cruelty of a reality we all wish could be otherwise). Eventually hauled out, Ray is unable to retrieve Rachel from the back seat, battered to the ground as he fights, impossibly outnumbered. The confrontation ends with him firing the pistol he has concealed in his belt and he saves her. As they take refuge in a diner they witness the murder of the man who had wrested control of the car from them.

Spielberg pays homage to Byron Haskin’s 1953 version with the snakelike camera probing into the basement and the spindly arm and fingers of the dying beast extending slowly out of the open hatch of the fallen tripod towards the end. The function previously fulfilled by the hero’s romantic interest, that of channelling the fear of the audience and stirring empathy by screaming helplessly prior to the hero’s decisive and altruistic intervention has been displaced to a small girl clearly marked as a figure of nurture (the tie of blood rather than mutual amorous inclination). An adult woman can no longer credibly or creditably act as a wimpish, quivering foil to the unflinching determination of the man in serious drama (comedy a different matter). Males no longer enjoy a monopoly on heroism or bravery on screen, a trend that Spielberg has clearly recognised.

The peripheral female characters fail to elicit much by way of sympathy, flashing by in a succession of cameos (Ray’s neighbour and her daughter stranded on the quay as they are separated, prevented from boarding the ferry in spite of his good intentions; the hard-bitten reporter for whom people are no more than potential stories; the woman who virtually abducts Rachel when she thinks the girl has been left behind).

Spielberg steadfastly declines to endorse Ray’s emotionally stunted brand of maleness (after his protestations of being a “real” man in that he “works for a living”, Tim presumably being a member of an effete, white-collar profession under whose fingernails dirt never accumulates). After all that he has suffered in delivering Rachel back safely to her mother (for which Mary Ann indicates her gratitude by mouthing a silent “Thank you”), only Robbie rushes out to hug him as he stands isolated in the street. He experiences a reconciliation with his son after the sneering, defiance and rebellion, yet there is no hint that he will be clasped to the bosom of the family (therefore I do not agree with critics who regard the ending as syrupy). There is no simple reversion to the status quo ante where women have clawed out greater equality, the wounds of estrangement do not easily heal, Spielberg does not succumb to the temptation of echoing Wells’ restoration of harmony in his closing sentence: “And strangest of all is it to hold my wife’s hand again, and to think that I have counted her, and that she has counted me, among the dead” (op. cit., p319).

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