War of the Worlds (1953)

Your tentacles too short to box with God
Byron Haskin
Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite
The Setup: 
Adaptation of HG Wells’ novel in which Martians try to take over Earth, and nearly succeed.

I’ve been vaguely curious about this movie since the Steven Spielberg remake in 2005, but became especially curious after recently reading the original Wells novel. I must unfortunately say that while engaging, this is not a novel anyone really needs to read. Anyway, turns out this film was optioned in 1924, but there wasn’t much interest until Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of 1938, and then it still took them quite a while to get together. Apparently the estate of HG Wells was so thrilled with the outcome that they offered George Pal the opportunity to do any of Wells’ works, which he took them up on with The Time Machine.

Okay, so we begin with this newsreel footage on the topic of world warfare, which goes through world war one, two, and finally—and here the film bursts into color—the WAR OF THE WORLDS! The voice-over continues in a passage very close [if not verbatim] from the novel, discussing all the many planets the Martians considered before settling on Earth, while we have visualizations of the different planets. I found two things very interesting about this sequence: 1) it’s interesting that the planet Mars, probably because it was among the first planets we had some information on and is RED, became characterized as the PLANET OF EVIL. I suppose this was more prevalent in 1898, when the novel was published. Secondly, one recalls that when this movie came out, no human being had been to space, we had only received pictures back from probes, so it was fascinating to see how all of the different planets and even Earth were visualized. It was clear we had seen pictures of Earth—the version here has clouds on it—but underneath that, it still looks like a schoolroom globe.

So this meteorite lands in Southern California, where the main action of this book has been relocated [from England]. The authorities gathered there discuss turning the meteorite into a tourist attraction. There’s a comely young woman, Sylvia Van Buren, niece of priest Uncle Matthew. She has a 50s meet-cute with the handsome Dr. Clayton Forrester—she did a paper on him, and he’s her hero, but she doesn’t recognize him without his glasses! He looks like an improbably sexy mixture of Jeff Goldblum and Rod Taylor, and has an appealingly dorky look without his glasses. He’s a little worried, because a meteorite* of that size should have created a bigger impact crater. It takes a while to cool down, while most people leave and only three men are left, and then part of it starts unscrewing, causing one of the characters to exclaim “Damndest thing I ever saw—the way it’s unscrewin’!” They decide to be friendly—heck, it’ll probably make them FAMOUS!—but sadly, they get vaporized, leaving only negative-style shadows on the ground. This is surely a reference to the shadows of people left by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which really freaked people of the time out. Now, of course, we’re all like “whatever.”

*Is ANYONE appreciating my careful observation of the difference between a meteor and a meteorite?

So the alien ships finally emerge. In the novel they are these things maybe 100 feet tall that walk on three legs [much closer to the Spielberg version] but the legs proved too problematic to get working here, so in the first scene they discuss how the aliens are suspended on three energy beams. Regardless, the ships look absolutely fantastic and have justifiably become icons of 50s sci-fi movies. They look like manta rays with a creepy eye on a stalk coming out the top, and float eerily along. Turns out none of these original models exist today because they were made out of copper and were donated to the Boy Scouts copper drive and melted down! Anyway, they’re going to let go everything the military has at them, but Father Matthew just feels so bad that we haven’t even tried to communicate—maybe they’re just trying to sell magazines to raise money for their trip to Pluto—so he ignores the orders and wanders out on his own, waving his cross and bible, thinking well, once they see THAT they’ll surely invite him in to have tea and discuss the Lord’s divine plan. But no, they vaporize him, giving Sylvia the first of her many opportunities to squeal and jump into Clayton’s arms. So the army shoots all they’ve got but it don’t do a dern thing, since the aliens have shields that look like glass bells over them. Why, in fact they ARE glass bells, shot in a black room and superimposed over the shot, and I have to say they look great. I had no idea how they did it until I watched the documentary on the disc. Now, as for the superimposing of the alien’s death rays—obviously sparks—but they kept illuminating wrinkles in what looked like a screen, and ultimately, I think what happened is that they were projecting the movie on a screen, then would project just the light beams in sync with the model shots. They don’t discuss this in the documentary, but if you look carefully you can see that when the rays appear, they seem to illuminate slight wrinkles in a screen the original footage is being presented on. None of this diminishes the wonder of these effects, in fact they make them more interesting, as you have to wonder over how they did it, as opposed to thinking “Oh yeah, they did it on a computer.”

So Sylvia and Clayton hide out in this farmhouse where she makes him up a bunch of eggs. They’re not there very long when another meteorite lands and causes the house to collapse, although the damage in the kitchen doesn’t look that bad at all. Soon ships show up to attend it, suspending wires clearly visible, and one of them sends a little tendril with an eye on it into the house. It has a red, green, and blue light, and looks like one of those tri-projectors they used to use for projection TVs. Man, I am getting old! Anyway, they hide from it, then chop its ending off, and are trying to look outside when the tri-fingered tendril of friendship lands on Sylvia’s shoulder. Turns out there’s an alien, with a big 3-color eye just like its machines, and they throw a stick which hits it right in the eye. It shrieks in terror and runs off! Okay, now, I know these aliens are big meanies, and have already caused a lot of death and destruction, but the way this one just reaches out for Sylvia and receives a 2X4 in its eye for its trouble, and the pitiful shriek it emits as it runs off in terror, makes you feel kind of bad for it! Maybe Father Matthews was right—maybe they’re just destroying whole towns because they’re shy, socially-awkward, and feeling a little defensive! As Otis Redding wisely advised us, maybe we should try a little tenderness. Anyway, there’s a whole, quite-amusing little segment devoted to creating this creature in the “making of” segment of the extra features. This is also where Ann Robinson as Sylvia starts making some REALLY ridiculous faces, which she will continue to do until the end of the movie.

Now we have a big montage about how the aliens have destroyed cities around the globe and displaced millions from their homes, accomplished through stock footage from the various world wars. We also have footage of the flying wing airplane, both of which crashed shortly after and neither of which exist anymore. But then it turns out that the only place NOT affected is… Washington DC? These aliens haven’t done their homework. Assembled there is a group of scientists that seem clearly modeled on the group at Princeton that designed the atomic bomb, which, surprise, is what they decide to drop on the aliens next. They’re sure this’ll take care of them and, well, we all know better, don’t we?

So sure enough, they drop a nuke on the aliens, which requires all of our scientists to wear these super-cheesy goggles which look like scuba masks with the glass blacked out. Luckily for us they don’t just use stock footage for the atomic blast, but it doesn’t do a thing to stop the aliens. Blah, blah, Clay and Sylvia get separated, then the aliens start taking down L.A. Then Clay takes refuge in a church and they are reunited. Then the alien ships start crashing. You’ll notice they start failing immediately after attacking a church. Their tentacles are too short to box with God! The big fella upstairs gets credit, in an ending voice-over, for inventing the common cold, which is what finally fells our alien menace, and you’ll notice the final shot is of a church and we hear church bells. I swear, I need to make a list of sci-fi films that suddenly divert into religious propaganda.

It’s too bad the ending here is usually seen as a cop-out… and it IS pretty boring… because while it’s a clever idea that such a minor thing could defeat the aliens, the other message that receives less shrift is that mankind had to face that it is completely helpless and would in fact be wiped out if our little microbe buddies hadn’t come along.

As a movie, I can see where it would be cool at the time and how it was important in the annals of science-fiction films, but as something a person today might want to watch, it’s more a nostalgia trip. It’s not really that great as sci-fi or drama for a present-day viewer. What’s kind of interesting is to realize that the Spielberg movie is a remake of THIS movie, not so much another version of the novel. Several elements of this film that are not in the novel are recreated in the remake, and it only makes sense: one can imagine that this is one of the films that fired his imagination when he was a young lad.

Anyway, not to say that this film isn’t important in the development in sci-fi… If you’re into older sci-fi you should definitely watch this and Forbidden Planet. I’m just saying your kids aren’t probably going to be dying to sit through this, and you might find it a trifle tedious yourself. The DVD has extensive, and amusing, background material. Yep, and that’s all I have to say.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re watching it for historical reasons… as a good movie for today it doesn’t quite hold up.