The War of the Worlds (1953)
What’s it about?
This George Pal-produced adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel starts off with a narrated intro detailing how the inhabitants of Mars have their eyes on relocating to Earth by invading it. One night, a mysterious meteor-like object falls to the ground in the California scrubland, just outside of a small town. It’s one of a series of similar events that have occurred across the globe. As it happens, scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is on a fishing trip with two friends in the area, and is called to the scene to investigate. While he is trying to identify what exactly has fallen from space, he befriends an attractive local woman named Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), and a pastor named Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin). The latter invites the pair to a church hall square dance that evening while the object’s molten-hot surface cools off.
Meanwhile, a trio of men left behind to observe the object are surprised when a circular metal hatch opens up in its surface, and a metallic tendril with an orange glowing eye-like object on the end of it tentatively peaks out. However, despite the trio waving flags at it to signify their peaceful intentions, it opens fire with a heat ray that vaporises all of them. Back at the church hall the power suddenly goes off, the phone line is dead, and everyone’s watch has stopped. Dr. Forrester notices that a pin is magnetically-attracted to his broken watch, and deduces that a magnetic pulse from the object has knocked everything out. He rushes to the scene with some of the other townspeople, including Sylvia and the pastor. They spot three manta ray-like floating ships above the crash site. The military is called in, but the pastor still holds out hope that he will be able to establish a line of peaceful communication with them. However, when he approaches them the ships open fire with their heat rays. Thus begins… The War of the Worlds.
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Why is it significant?
The War of the Worlds (1953) was the first of a number of movie versions of H.G. Wells’s 1898 novel and is arguably the most fondly-remembered. The other well-known one is, of course, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version, although that one tends to attract more variable opinions from cineastes. There were also a few little-seen low-budget versions of the tale released after Spielberg’s version to feed off some of its box office success, and earlier on an equally little-seen 1981 Polish reworking directed by Piotr Szulkin. The story has also been adapted to a number of other formats - most famously a notorious 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast, a 1978 progressive rock concept album by Jeff Wayne, and a 1988 TV series.
The Paramount studio had bought the rights to the film as early as 1925 and made a number of abortive attempts to get it made with various directors earmarked. At one point it was Cecil B. DeMille, at another, it was Alfred Hitchcock. Reportedly Orson Welles was also courted due to the fame he received from his radio broadcast, but he refused. In the end, a version was produced by George Pal, who was riding high on the success of his sci-fi efforts Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951). Byron Haskin was assigned to directorial duties.
Pal’s version cost a then-considerable $2 million and was a major critical and commercial success. It also won the 1954 Oscar for Best Special Effects and has since become a fondly-remembered childhood favourite from its many showings on TV. It made a number of notable changes to the novel, including transplanting the setting from Victorian England to contemporary California and replacing the “tripod” vehicles the aliens used in the original with manta ray-style craft (since the former proved difficult to create using special effects technology from the period). Despite the changes, the H.G. Wells estate was impressed enough with the end product to allow him to pick another of his novels to adapt; in the end, he chose The Time Machine (1960).
How does it hold up?
A few aspects here are admittedly rather dated. The visual effects, while consistently imaginative, do show their age at times - in particular, some of the process work and scenes involving flying miniatures (which are suspended on strings that are clearly visible in higher resolution formats - although apparently, these were pretty much impossible to detect on the original 35 mm release). The acting is rather hammy across the board. The depiction of women - falling apart in the face of danger and needing to be pulled together by the arms of a strong male - is very much of its time. There is a lot of stock footage used during a number of sequences, including WWII newsreels for the montages of destruction resulting from the invasion, along with some shots of real-life U.S. military aircraft. At the end of a recent screening I attended, a trio of Edinburgh scientists looked at some of the inaccuracies featured in the film. However, even those with a moderate amount of general knowledge will probably spot the mistake in the film’s introduction as it depicts Jupiter’s surface as a volcanic landscape (in reality it’s a gaseous planet), and would note that while the electromagnetic pulse knocks out the power, telephone lines and people’s watches, motor vehicles are rather conveniently unaffected.
Despite all of these issues however the film does broadly hold up well as both a piece of sci-fi entertainment and a chilling parable of the 1950s era, where anti-communist paranoia and the nuclear arms race cast a shadow over the daily lives of Americans - a period that is, in many ways, echoed by today’s East vs. West tensions. While nowadays the seams tend to show in the elaborate SFX sequences, there are many other aspects that are more important in defining its place in cinema. The splendidly psychedelic use of colour - oranges, greens, blues, pinks and reds - imbues it with a strange, otherworldly atmosphere. The electronic sound effects are suitably eerie. Director Byron Haskin makes effective use of slow, gradual reveals that help to build tension. When the hatch on the object from space starts to open up, it does so with a very slow, unscrewing motion that builds audience anticipation. The metallic tendrils move in a deliberate manner, rather like predatory cobras poised to strike at the right moment. An alien being is initially glimpsed as a looming shadow spreading across a wall before being revealed very briefly in one passing long shot, and then in full detail in an alarming close-up.
The film’s best moments come towards the end during a large-scale city evacuation. While the first images make things appear rather orderly as queues of cars calmly move down freeways stretching into the horizon, we soon get a number of smaller-scale vignettes as a child and a dog eat some half-melted ice cream from an abandoned vendor, trucks are frantically looted by mobs, and a man tries desperately to scoop up money and valuables scattered across the street into his suitcase. While the subsequent destruction of the alien assault provides the best SFX in the film (the miniature work is pretty impressive) the aforementioned lead-up makes more of an impression. The iconic conclusion - despite being somewhat contrived - is also effectively realised thanks to some fine use of understated visual storytelling.
Runtime: 85 mins
Dir: Byron Haskin
Script: Barré Lyndon, from a novel by H.G. Wells
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Lewis Martin