I recently re-watched George Pal’s 1953 version of War of the Worlds with Gene Barry and was struck by the scenes toward the end as Barry’s character runs through the abandoned streets of Los Angeles, dodging angry mobs and Martian spacecraft. Not having seen the movie for several years, I was surprised at how compelling those last minutes of the movie are, and I realized that Pal’s filming of the destruction of Los Angeles has resonated with me over the years.
I remember watching the movie for the first time at around 12 years old on a black-and-white TV, and then a year or two later I got to see it in color on the big screen in a double-feature with When Worlds Collide when a local theater did a special Saturday matinée revival. This would have been sometime in the late 1970s.
I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, just east of Los Angeles, and I remember being astounded that the film was basically set in my own back yard. The first Martian cylinder falls near Pomona, about ten miles from where I lived, and the creepy farmhouse scene is set in Corona, also not far away. But the most killer moment for me as a kid was when the flying wing dropped an A-bomb on the Martian nest located in the Puente Hills–a mere five miles from my house, site of the Puente Hills Mall where the first multiplex in the area had been opened a few years before (and where they later shot key scenes for Back to the Future).
I remember being astounded that the movie’s producers had singled out our unglamorous corner of southern California for such destruction. This was only echoed later in the film as Los Angeles falls prey to the Martians–dark, Technicolor skies contrasted with the empty streets as Barry’s character tries desperately to find the woman he loves. It’s a much more romanticized view of post-LA than would later be filmed in The Omega Man, another childhood favorite. I don’t remember feeling drawn to those particular scenes when I saw the movie as a kid, but watching it now, I realize that those images resonated.
Mike Davis has written about the literary destruction of LA, focusing on how writers and filmmakers have targeted the City of Angels for generations, having the city fall victim to plagues, invasions, floods, and earthquakes. There’s always been something deviously delicious about artists pulling the trigger on this town that’s been so good to so many, but has also been the site of more deferred dreams than one could ever count. And I realize now that I’ve taken similar pleasure in watching and reading these fantastic deconstructions of the city for years, going at least as far back as my first encounter with War of the Worlds.
I remember the glee I felt at coming across The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles in a used bookstore. The cover struck me as audacious and irreverent. And when I ran across Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and found that it was set in a different set of LA suburbs than I’d grown up in, the story still resonated. Maybe with our earthquakes and annual bushfires and the myth of falling into the sea, Angelenos have always been half-ready to be woken up from this dream of the good life that we’re supposedly living here. Writing about it and shooting it on film are just ways of making our anxieties a bit more real and maybe a bit less scary; we get to watch our lives go up in flames vicariously, and therefore relieve some of our worries that it might really happen. This way, we get to feel like we survive it when the movie or book is finished.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before I decided to destroy Los Angeles myself in a book of my own, but that’s a post for another time.
The literary destruction of Los Angeles may be rivaled only by the cinematic destruction of Tokyo. What other cities do writers and filmmakers keep targeting for destruction? And why do you think we keep going back to these same scenes, reliving these same fantasies?