Sunday, April 1, 2012

The War of the Worlds (1899?)

You haven't seen tonight's film. I haven't seen it, and quite possibly no one in the twentieth century has seen it, but it's a vital if tiny footnote in history: G. A. Smith's unfinished silent version of H. G. Wells's The World of the Worlds (1899?). Historical legend tells us it's quite possibly the only film in history that, if it didn't directly prevent a war, at least bested a boastful prince certain of his military superiority.

The extremely early years of silent film contain much that is lost to us, and this first, aborted version of The War of the Worlds is no exception. It is barely a footnote now, but it would have become less, or even completely forgotten, had it not been for George Albert Smith and Arthur Balfour.

The latter quarter of the 19th century was the golden age of Invasion Literature: fiction postulating the imminent invasion of England or other countries by foreign—or alien—forces. The most important, and popular, example of this: H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, which began serialization in 1897. It captured the attention and obsession of the public and of George Albert Smith. G. A. Smith was one of the great early directors of British silent film and of special effects, pioneering important techniques in superimposition, multiple exposures, dreamtime and reversal. A correspondent with George Méliès, Smith developed his own stop-motion techniques using cut-outs and double exposures , and, in 1898 or 1899, began work on test footage of the Martian tripod war machines for a War of the Worlds short. He abandoned the project a few months later, only around 150 frames (eight to ten seconds) of footage completed.

It's fortuitous then, that Smith was acquainted with Arthur Balfour (both men were members of London's Athenaeum Club). History knows Arthur Balfour better as The First Earl of Balfour and the UK's first Prime Minister of the twentieth century. Balfour himself belonged to a great many clubs and was highly-placed in the British government: Balfour's uncle was Robert Cecil, Marquis of Salisbury, the current prime minister. Balfour had by this time served as a cabinet member, Secretary of Scotland, Secretary of Ireland (appointed by his uncle over a more popular choice, this event gave rise to the saying "Bob's your uncle"), First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons. Not your ordinary drinking pal, then. Balfour was a not close friend with George Albert Smith, but he had dined with him at Athenaeum events, and Balfour's private diaries indicate he had several discussions with Smith over the use of cinema as a training aid for the British armed forces.

Enter two other players of history: Garnet Joseph Wolseley, the First Viscount Wolseley and head of the War Office; and Prince Emanuele Filiberto, son of the then-King Amedeo I of Italy. Prince Emanuele had been spending the past several months in London, becoming high-placed in a society (he was often seen in the company of the Prince of Wales, the hard-partying Prince Edward aka "Bertie.") In a likely drunken bacchanal late evening drinking with Wolseley, Prince Emanuele boasted if Italy's recently launched battleships and major numbers of new conscripts to the Italian Army, and joked to Wolseley, perhaps injudiciously, that his father's forces could defeat Britain's on the field of battle at any time.

As he reports in his personal diaries, Balfour was present at this challenge, and after a whispered aside to Wolseley, declared that Britain was in the process of developing a war machine beyond anything seen on Europe, and that since its existence would soon be publicly known, he could provide motion picture camera footage of the British war machine the following night to Prince Emanuele. Emanuele placed a wager that if this machine proved to be beyond the Italian capability, he would pay one hundred pounds and a case of brandy to both Wolseley and Balfour.

You can guess the rest of the story: Balfour contacted Smith and the following night, Smith screened his abandoned test footage of the Martian tripods striding across Horshall Common.

Balfour wrote in his diary

Upon presentation of S.[mith]'s cimeona, E.[manuel] choked as if he had swallowed his tongue, proceed[ing] to gape dumbly at the screen as if struck deaf. He demanded S. to present this display once more, and again his words were struck from him.... and agreed with a shaking head that Rome had no such machine. Pr[ince of Wales] laughed and roared as if a lion and boasted that he himself had ridden in one of the machines.

There's no further mention of the occasion in either Balfour's or Wolseley's diaries, but Prince Emanuele returned with his retinue to Italy two days later. Whatever followed was unknown. In all likelihood Prince Emanuele was quickly informed that he had been tricked. Because of the presence of not one but two hard-partying princes of state, the practical joke remained exactly that and never escalated into accusations of warmongering. But for a short snippet of an uncompleted film that no public audience has ever seen and never will, that has likely long-crumbled into dust, it's a fine pedigree: the snippet of a motion picture that cowed a boastful Prince of Europe and frightened him back home, if only for a while, with his tail between his legs. Now that's the power of film.

1 comment:

  1. I have searched occasionally online for a silent version of War Of The Worlds and have finally found this site today, August 16, 2015.

    The reason for my search? A classmate in ca. 1958 told me that his father had a copy of the film (or film fragment, I'm not sure). I never saw the film, nor do I remember with certainty any details that may have been offered.

    I'm truly grateful for your post and the reassurance it provides that my memory hasn't gone completely down the tubes yet.