- Directed by Byron Haskin
- August 13, 1953 (New York)
What is believed to be a meteor that has fallen outside of a small California town turns out to be the vanguard of an invasion from the planet Mars!
The War of the Worlds is a classic example of Cold War science fiction. While not a beat per beat adaption of the book to the screen, it is rather an adaption in broad strokes. Extremely broad strokes. There are numerous differences between the book and the film. I could list them all and will inevitably touch on some as I go along, but I am trying to keep this short.
Gene Barry stars is scientist of several disciplines apparently (a common trope of the time) Dr. Clayton Forrester. Interestingly in the book as I recall the scientist was never named. Here he is named and all square jawed baritone hero though all he really does is comfort or generally shield his love interest in the film. Barry would cameo in the 2005 film as Tom Cruise’s father-in-law and the grandfather of his children.
Ann Robinson plays Sylvia van Buren who is essentially Forrester’s love interest. While she states in the film that she wrote a college thesis involving Forrester she was nothing more than a librarian in the film and her characters existence in the story was just to give Forrester somebody to protect and worry about. She also occasionally screamed in terror. Robinson would also cameo in the 2005 film as Tom Cruise’s mother-in-law and the grandmother of his children.
I can still enjoy the special effects in this movie even though they are a bit dated today. It is just such a great alien invasion story that looks good and that pulls you in. Despite the aspects that mark it as a product of its time, the serious treatment of the material holds your attention. Serious efforts, even dated ones, can do that so long as you go in with an understanding that it came from a different era. Let us face it, the cast is extremely white and the only significant woman cannot really function without a man present. The only minority character of any importance is a Latino who is quickly killed off. If you understand this was common of the time you can enjoy.
I just love the noise their heat ray weapon makes and just how it looks and just turns everything it strikes to ash. The noise was a standard sound for years in science fiction weaponry. Shockingly the sound effect was created by an orchestra performing an actual written score that mainly used violins and cellos. The Martian ships also fired a green ray that disintegrated targets. Created by hitting a high-tension wire with a hammer, this sound was reused in Star Trek TOS for an overloading phaser. In general this movie just had amazing sound.
This was a very imaginative science fiction film of the era. The Martian ships were a thing of beauty that avoided the saucer design. Created by Al Nozaki, they were made to look like manta rays that floated above the ground. And the adult in me is in agreement with the kid in me that they should have shown the Martian more than that brief instance. Give me monsters now!
There were heavy religious tones in this movie. Pastor Collins (Lewis Martin) is portrayed in a sympathetic light rather than with a touch of disdain like in the novel. He decides to confront the aliens with the Bible thinking somehow these creatures from another planet will know what it all means. And then there is the finale taking place in a church with the implication given by the narrator the microbes were placed on Earth by God to protect us from alien region.
We may find it a little surprising that during this whole alien invasion they treated the detonation of an atomic bomb rather casually, but this was the 50s and there were places near bomb testing sites of the time that people very far away from them would watch the bombs go off. No lie. The spectators on screen have picnic baskets and they are treating it as a day at the park despite an alien invasion and a nuclear bomb. Ma and Pa are out with their two point five kids on a hillside prepping to watch the genocidal space monsters get nuked. Cool!
They do a good job for the time of demonstrating that Martians are not just invading the United States but are invading the entire planet. There are snippets of events in other places around the world and mentions of what is occurring elsewhere. Nine times out of ten it seemed that aliens would attack the US in old science fiction with the implied next step the rest of the world. That would seem to me to be putting your extra-terrestrial forces in a bit of a bottleneck. Unless you were blatantly superior to whatever you were attacking the wise move would be to focus on the entire planet.
The direction by Byron Haskin in this film is great. There is a menace and a real sense of danger from these invading aliens. They are presented as a genuine threat and the outcome is made to feel uncertain. You can believe that we could be defeated.
The film has had an impact that has last to the present beyond the reuse of its sound effects. Mystery Science Theater 3000, a comedy series where mad scientists forced a guy to watch bad movies as part of an experiment, named one of their characters after Forrester. This film inspired a 1988 TV series that was a direct sequel. Spielberg mimicked the alien probe in his version of the story. Ready Player One directly referenced the film with a Martian ship. Not bad.
The War of the Worlds is a classic bit of science-fiction film making. There are points where it is dated but it is still an enjoyable classic piece of film making. This is a must see!