The other day I was flipping channels and stumbled on BBC-America. The title of the program on next immediately grabbed my attention-The Great Martian War.
I still remember as a kid watching the 1953 movie, War of the Worlds with my dad and my dad explaining to me that the concept was based on a 1930’s radio program which in turn was based on H.G. Wells’ classic The War of the Worlds. Later I obtained the Classics Illustrated comic book titled War of the Worlds and read it until it almost fell apart (I still have it.)
I even watched the 2005 version of War of the Worlds starring Tom Cruise (it was okay).
So when The Great Martian War popped up I immediately knew the BBC was tinkering with a classic story. I spent the next two hours watching the special.
The Great Martian War is an alternate history. The war starts one year before the Great War started (1913) and ends one year before the Great War historically ended (1917).
The twist on the Great War is immediate because the Martians land in Germany destroying a significant part of the Kaiser’s Army. The Germans call for help as the Martians begin to spread out. The result is a type of League of Nations alliance uniting (rather than fighting each other as they historically did) to destroy the Martians.
The Great Martian War is cleverly put together. The producers took period film from the Great War and spliced Martian war machines into it creating a newsreel effect that was convincing.
The other device they used to give the alternate history an air of authenticity was the use of interviews. The producers had regular people who had survived the war tell their stories at various times during the special. Two modern-day historians are added to the mix to give their interpretations of the war. They do not agree.
Most of the regular people are soldiers from Britain, Germany, Canada and the US. At least one is a civilian-an elderly woman who was a ten-year-old girl at the time of the invasion. All the actors did a fine job but her remembrances were particularly striking especially as she describes her emotions as she witnessed the destruction of a Martian war machine and the crowd’s vengeful attitude toward the wounded Martian pilot.
The Martian War machines are virtually indestructible and come in two sizes. One is the massive tripod called a Heron. Herons are piloted by a Martian and might be compared to a modern tank except for their great towering height. Herons are protected by a force field and are armed with blasters (the heat guns of War of the Worlds). Herons are supported by “Spiders” smaller bipeds with blasters and nasty tentacles the impale people. Spiders are the infantry of the Martians.
Against these war machines the allies marshal the typical equipment of the First World War-heavy artillery, early tanks, massed infantry and bi-planes.
The war breaks down into a type of trench warfare with the allies using the tactics of massed infantry attacks to destroy the Martians. The casualties are horrendous thus reflecting the Great War’s butcher bill very well.
The Martians win every time but seem contented with small advances. The US in neutral under President Wilson but is heavily criticized by former President Teddy Roosevelt who recognizes the danger of sitting on the sidelines.
The US is finally pushed into war when the Martians (and some say the British) sink three American ships that were supplying the war effort.
Wilson resigns and Teddy takes over and declares war on the Martians this giving the allies a new source of man power.
It was an interesting segment in the special. The allies are desperate for America’s involvement but Wilson keeps the US out. The three ships are lost with all hands and everyone assumes the Martians did it except for a few that guess maybe the British did it to force the US to declare war.
Another interesting story involves the great-granddaughter of a Canadian-Iroquois soldier who eventually decipher the Martian language.
The allies get a break when they accidentally bring down a Heron with a massive under ground explosion. Seven Spiders surrender in the aftermath and the allies discover the Spiders do not have pilots but are controlled by the Heron pilots. The allies start to understand some of the technology used against them and begin to turn it against the Martians.
The big break occurs when a Heron breaks through the lines and makes it way to London crossing the Channel in the process. Three fighter planes bring the Heron down using the captured technology and the Martian pilot is wounded. The crowd wants to tear the Martian to pieces but the Martian is “saved” by British police mounted on horses.
Spoiler alert here.
The police take the Martian to a nearby hospital in an effort to learn about the enemy but the Martian quickly dies. The autopsy reveals the Martian did not die from its wounds but from a virus carried by the policemen’s horses!
The allies quickly realize that the Martians are vulnerable and mass produce the virus and infect every horse they can find with it. They launch one last ground offensive designed to get the Martians close to the massed horses and the horses do the rest. The Martians are killed by bio warfare in a similar fashion to H.G. Well’s classic except in that it was the common cold that brings the Martians down.
The downside of the horse born virus is that it morphs and kills millions of people just as the post World War One Spanish Flu did (50 million world-wide).
The Canadian Iroquois soldier decipher the Martian language and when it’s uncovered many years later it is discovered that the war is not over yet. And it that lies the message, although a bit ambiguous, it was ominous.
I enjoyed the special. I thought it faithful to The War of the Worlds conceptually and the use of a documentary format made it an interesting alternative history.
The obvious themes were the great nations uniting in the face of a common threat, the blessings and cursings of technology and the not-so-subtle suggestion that humans and Martians are all infected with a parasitical virus at the root of all wars.
The War of the Worlds and it’s spin-offs have always intrigued me. I know that H.G. Wells was a visionary of sorts and his fiction was meant to be thought-provoking as well as entertaining and by and large it is. I also know that Wells was a Darwinian Socialist and that he rejected orthodox Christianity. To what extent his shifting religious views influenced his fiction I am not sure. To what extent the world views of the producers of The Great Martian War and the War of the Worlds movies influenced them I am also not sure.
I guess my biggest take-away from The Great Martian War besides the entertainment value is the notion that mankind is capable of some kind of unity if the threat is substantial enough. We’ve seen this historically on more than one occasion. We’ve also seen that the unity achieved during the threat abates rather quickly when the threat is dissipated and the allies, once friends, now become bitter enemies.
A Darwinian like Wells might think long and hard as to why that is and ponder what the perfect World-State would look like but he would never arrive at the central problem.
As the great scholar Pogo once remarked, “we have met the enemy and it is us” and the truth is we are the problem. We are the problem because we carry the stain of sin, a virus we cannot get rid of because it is embedded in our spiritual DNA. What we can do is look to the Creator and his solution to the sin problem-a Savior, Jesus Christ who came to earth to redeem and restore a paradise lost. Whatever else might be said about The War of the Worlds it can certainly be connected to the war within us all if take the time to look.