A Film Rumination: When Worlds Collide, Rudolph Maté (1951)

WhenWorldsCollide1951.jpg image by Casino923

6/10 (Average)

The famous science fiction producer, George Pal (Destination Moon, The War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space, Time Machine, 7 Faces of Dr. Loa), vividly brings to the silver screen an adaptation of the famous 1930s novel, ‘When Worlds Collide’ by Philip Gordon Wylie and Edwin Balmer.  The visual spectacle is quite spectacular (and rightly won an Oscar that year for special effects).  Although the acting is plagued by some pretty atrocious performances (Richard Derr as Randal for example), When Worlds Collide is still an enjoyable film despite being painfully dated and highly flawed.

If anything embodies the 1950s rugged optimistic individualism espoused by Heinlein and the like, When Worlds Collide is a shining beacon.  Especially refreshing (although probably misplaced) is the optimism shown in corporations.  When was the last time a movie plot describes a corporation providing the impetus (in massive amounts of cash) to save the human race?  When have the CEOs of corporations voluntarily given huge sums of money even if they themselves are not going to be the saved?  This bizarre corporate philanthropy is thankfully tempered by Rudolph Maté (the director) with a self-centered CEO who will only give his financial support if he can save his own skin…

A brief plot summary might be useful…

The story begins at an observatory in South Africa where Dr. Bronson discovers a extraterrestrial planet circling a star careening at ridiculous speeds towards earth and sends the photographs to Dr. Cole Hendron, in America.  The world’s politicians don’t believe the Hendron’s story and with the help of the aforementioned corporations, he embarks on building his own space ship for the purpose of landing on the approaching planet.  Eventually the help of a self-centered, crippled, industrialist Sidney Stanton is needed to complete the spaceship on time.  A lottery is developed to pick the lucky 44 people from the hundreds and hundreds assisting in the creation of the vessel.

As is often the case, the interesting premise — the construction of an Ark to save humanity and Earth’s various species — is side stepped for a silly romantic triangle between Hendron’s daughter, Joyce, Randall and Drake.  However, Joyce’s character is quite interesting since  clearly her father has taught her the ins-and-outs of running an observatory and all the math.  For a female character of the 50s, she seems quite intelligent, although her desire for the unqualified Randall to be among those guaranteed to be among the 44 selected for the flight smacks of complete and utter self-righteousness in the face of the potential destruction of the human race.

Remember, we are not dealing with the realm of hard-science fiction.  The probability of the very planet threatening earth being able to supporting human life is utterly preposterous.  And yes, there’s not a single minority among those lucky 44 — now that I think about it, there’s not a single African-American to be seen.

However, we are in it for the ride!  The explosions!  The rocket launch! And, at the end we get to giggle uncontrollable at the painted alien landscape backdrop…. Fun fun fun.  To bad Pal’s Conquest of Space was such a commercial disaster for a sequel was in the works….  And with alien landscape backdrops like that, it would have been worth watching!


19 thoughts on “A Film Rumination: When Worlds Collide, Rudolph Maté (1951)

  1. Pingback: Another egregious classic movie remake in the works, When Worlds Collide « Science Fiction and other suspect ruminations

  2. Yeh, you just about nailed it. The backdrop really is terrible, the only saving grace being the suggestion of an alien city and maybe people… But there’s some rank stupidity – they land on the planet and don’t even check the content of the atmosphere? They just go right ahead and open the door! The workers leave it a bit too late to riot as well.

    The scenes of destruction on Earth are pretty good though. And at least John Hoyt brings a much needed edge to proceedings, pity the rest of the cast don’t back him up. But overall, the movie just feels leaden.

    Nice review.

  3. Right. Sommers directing suggests they want to keep the campy tone. I think it possibly needs a more serious approach. I mean, it’s a crazy concept anyway and the film makers probably feel camp is the only way to go. It’d be a mistake.

    WWC isn’t untouchable; it’s not a classic, in my opinion thanks to some terrible acting (Hoyt apart), shonky FX and a lead-weighted narrative. The story can be updated and improved, I believe. But I’d rather see a film where the cataclysmic weather event has already occurred (no need for more 2012 type stuff) and concentrate on the ramifications of who stays and who goes and how that impacts relationships. And we can see a workers rebellion gaining momentum over time, rather than deciding to riot at the last minute!

    I’d also like to see more of the destination planet. Plus, would there be a surviving civilisation on there; how traumatic has it been for them?

    In general, I’m fairly ambivalent toward Sommers as a director. I haven’t seen G.I. Joe (I’ve heard both good & bad reports) and I still think Deep Rising is his best movie. But he’s wrong for a WWC remake.

  4. I hope your right. I suspect he’ll concentrate more on the disaster aspect though — I hope it deals primarily on the social issues regarding who to pick. Have you read the original 1930s books?

    • May be silly to be posting a reply a year later – and – I just heard about the WWC remake and did a search, finding your ‘ruminations’. I have read both When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide. I think that like any movie of a book many layers are lost and some are invented. The social impact is addressed; in the book once a skin material was found that seemed to make the trip possible, a second ship was hastily built and hundreds were included over the lottery. Everything was done in secret and the camp and ships were built over multiple years, giving the uprising time to form as the project was discovered. Details like checking the atmosphere were included in the book. In After, you see that other countries had built ships that made the journey successfully, including “Asians” – setting the stage for a conflict of dominance over the domed cities left by the planet’s previous occupants (who had known of their doom and prepared for it.) I would love to see both books put on film – leaving out the white mans bent, of course. 😉 And – okay, I am female – the triangle is given a reasonable treatment in the book and is a focus for expressing a number of social ideas about love/marriage in a new paradigm where that convention might not be useful. Thanks for having this space for my voice; I do not know a single person in my daily life who knows or would even be interested in these books/movies. I am resigned to believe that the current remake will be some slick action thing. But I have the books. 😉 Cheers.

      • Thanks for stopping by! I enjoy all comments….. even on super old reviews 😉 I’ll definitely have to check out the books — I love old sci-fi especially ones which engage (however minimally) with the social impact. It’s good to know that the books at least discuss the saving of at least some non-whites…

        Yeah, the remake (by the director of the recent shlock G.I. Joe: Revenge of Cobra — Sommers) will probably be horrible…

  5. Hmmm… might be worth investing in the books. I need to read more, just don’t seem to find the time nowadays.

    Also need to read Haldeman’s The Forever War, now that it looks like Sir Ridley is going to have a tilt at that novel. Sounds an interesting story…

  6. I like the sound of a Ridley Scott take on Haldeman’s material! I read The Forever War quite a few years back and really really enjoyed it — especially when thought of as a response to Heinlein’s (great story) but politically atrocious Starship Troopers. I’ve not seen a satirical Riley Scott film though — and The Forever War has a pretty strong satirical streak.

  7. Yeh, Sir Ridley is a full-on visualist (and that’s the way I like him) and I can’t, off the top of my head, pull out any instances of satire in his filmography.

    And I’m afraid I haven’t read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers either. When the movie came out (which I liked), I recall a number of the book’s fans more than upset with Verhoeven for dropping the ‘power armour’ among other things. Were the troops also able to bounce and hover or something as well?

    Anyway, I made a note at the time to read the novel – but never did. I get easily demotivated sometimes…

    • Read the novel! It was once required reading at one Eastern Ivy league college (1960’s), and used as an example of how Heinlein espouses fascist ideals. (Heinlein was an Annapolis graduate)On average I read it about every 16 months, just to refreash myself with RAH’s fundamental principles of the Federation(not the one in Star Trek).

  8. Again, I read Starship Troopers as a Freshman in high school so I don’t remember very much besides the fact that I was put off by the full fledged jingoistic militarism. And, I thought the soldiers in their special suits leaping out of the space ships through the atmosphere and jumping across the landscape shooting aliens was kind of hokey. There’s more to the story of course…

    The Forever War is much more appealing novel. Again, I might have just interpreted it being satirical (time dilation brings the straight main character into a future of only homosexual people — apparently a method of keeping the population under control — sounds like satire to me!). Read The Forever War — it’s considered a great classic — the follow up, Forever Peace was interesting as well…

    Although I’ve read some 25 or so Heinlein novels I think he’s one of the more overrated greats (personal opinion — offensive to many — haha) out there — The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress is definitely his best work (perhaps if I read Stranger in a Strange Land in previous era I would have enjoyed it).

  9. If I’m being honest, you could smack me in the face with satire and I’d probably miss it…

    I’ve read Heinlein’s Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, many years ago and I thought it was a very good novel. That’s my one and only Heinlein.

    I believe there’s an omnibus edition of Forever War out there, including Forever Peace and Forever Free. I’ll probably go for that one.

  10. Now that I heard all the critiques for this movies about being dated (well, its been nearly sixty years ago, right?) now its my turn:

    First Class Originals!

    Although both films, War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide, were produced a few years apart in the early 1950s, they’re a match set of true science fiction adventure! One reason is because of George Pal, the Producer, the Man. In the early 50s and throughout the 60s, George Pal–along with Ray Harryhausen–kept science fiction films alive. Harryhausen is not involved in the films in question, but his legacy science fiction/fantasy should not be left out. Again, the number one reason that War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide make the grade in film making is because of George Pal. Under his control, both the storyline and production value soars above other adventure films of its day. And, compare to the trash of today, including those that are produced and televised on the Sci-Fi Channel, Pal’s works is uncompromising. The remake(s) of War of the Worlds paled in quality and integrity. I hope the upcoming remake of When Worlds Collide would not make the same mistake. Either way, George Pal’s accomplishments will a hard act to follow.

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