Should I Watch..? 'The War of the Worlds'
What's the big deal?
The War of the Worlds is a sci-fi drama film released in 1953 and was the first cinematic adaptation (albeit, a rather loose one) of H.G. Wells' seminal novel of the same name. The film relocates the story from Victorian England to contemporary California amid rising tensions in the Cold War and an escalating nuclear arms race. The film starred Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and was directed by Byron Haskin. Despite many differences between the film and the novel, the film was released to critical acclaim from critics. Many of them described the film's apocalyptic tone similar to the legendary radio broadcast by Orson Welles in 1938 that sparked mass panic across the US. The film recouped its budget with domestic box office returns alone and even today, it's widely regarded as one of the best sci-fi films of the 1950's. It was later selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry in 2011.
What's it about?
Atomic scientist Dr Clayton Forrester is fishing with friends just outside the southern California town of Linda Rosa when they are distracted by an apparent meteor crashing nearby. Heading to the crash site, they meet up with Sylvia Van Buren and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins. Slowly, a metal hatch in the meteor opens up to reveal a mighty Martian war machine which instantly kills those guarding the crash site. Despite amassing a vast military presence, the Martian war machine easily dispatches the troops and initiates a power shutdown of the local area.
Fleeing for their lives, Clayton and Van Buren take refuge in an abandoned farmhouse where they recognise a mutual attraction. As the Martian invaders sweep aside all opposition, it becomes apparent that the entire world has been struck by the destructive powers of the Martians. Can Dr Clayton find a way of repelling the alien threat or is his relationship with Van Buren doomed before it even starts?
Dr Clayton Forrester
Sylvia Van Buren
Major General Mann
Pastor Matthew Collins
Release Date (US)
26th August, 1953
Action, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Best Special Effects
Academy Award Nominations
Best Sound Recording, Best Film Editing
What's to like?
One of the things that always strikes me about H.G. Wells' iconic tale of alien annihilation is that different generations have all been scared witless through one medium on another. From Orson Welles' hysteria-provoking radio adaptation to Jeff Wayne's musical version, the story continues to terrify people all these years later. No wonder that The War Of The Worlds had the impact it did back in 1953, when most Americans were already far too interested in what horrors could fall from the sky - be it UFO or Soviet nuke. Despite the change of setting and era, you still feel the creeping tension of the story when all hope is jettisoned once the heat-rays start shooting off.
The effects obviously aren't as crisp and shiny as those seen in Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds adaptation from 2005 but having said that, they are nowhere near as clumsy as you might expect. You think of 1950's sci-fi and you think of tinny models wobbling about on fishing wire over crude models towns rigged to explode when things get nasty. In short, you think of Plan 9 From Outer Space. The War Of The Worlds knocks that preconception into orbit with colourful chaos bursting out of the screen, powerful lasers laying waste to civilisation and those now-legendary flying machines hovering above the ground with their cyclops-like heat-ray scanning the horizon for new targets. It is nothing short of a revelation, especially if you have low expectations due to the film's age.
- Due to budget restrictions, a large amount of stock footage was used to demonstrate the alien's destructive behaviour. For example, Martian war machines are shown superimposed onto footage of the 1944 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
- Paramount originally only had permission to make a silent version of the film, delaying production while negotiations went on with Wells' estate. They were so happy with the finished product that they offered producer George Pal his pick for another film based on Welles' work. He choose and went on to produce The Time Machine in 1960.
- Clayton Forrester would also become the name of the evil mad scientist on cult TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000 played by Trace Beaulieu.
What's not to like?
The more puritan fans of H.G. Welles might object to the numerous changes between book and film (but frankly, they need to get out more anyway) but there is a slight pang of regret that the film is set in Hollywood's back garden instead of Horsell Common in Surrey. It makes the film feel lazier than it actually is although the change of setting matters very little. The film takes further liberties with the narrative such as Forrester's scientific background and romantic pursuit of the alluring Van Buren - Welles' hero had no name, was a writer and reunited with his wife before suffering a nervous breakdown.
The film almost seems to dispense with the narrative entirely once the invasion begins as the human cast get ultimately overshadowed by the film's effects and scenes of destruction. I liked the scenes of hysteria and mass panic in the streets as people scramble over themselves to flee the devastation but when the drama is on an individual level, none of the actors really make their characters stand out which is a pity. It also isn't as bold with its political subtext - there is brief talk about using nukes to defend themselves but there is little mention of the Cold War paranoia that is so evident in another classic sci-fi film from the time, 1956's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Did America really perceive the Soviets as an unstoppable alien force in 1953?
Should I watch it?
Sci-fi lovers and geeks of every nature will get a real kick from The War Of The Worlds which retains enough spirit to still provide plenty of chills amid the almost gleeful destruction of the West Coast. The film has dated somewhat, as you'd expect, but remains an impressive retelling of Welles' story. Truth be told, I actually prefer this to Spielberg's adaptation because it has a charm that was sorely lacking from the cold and emotionless modern version.
Great For: nerds, special effects wizards, paranoid Republicans
Not So Great For: anyone born after the Millennium, students of H.G. Welles, Martians
What else should I watch?
For me, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is probably the greatest sci-fi film of the 1950s as it is not only a chilling alien invasion story of a different kind but also a not-so-subtle metaphor for the creeping influence of Communism. Other classics from the time include 1958's The Fly, The Blob and the somewhat goofy Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman. You also cannot mention sci-fi from the Fifties without talking about Ed Wood's legendary stinker Plan 9 From Outer Space, a film so terrible as to almost be critic-proof. Almost.
Spielberg's War Of The Worlds updates the story once again and delivers huge alien tripods stamping all over the US while Tom Cruise sprints across the rubble. The film lacks any real tension, partly because we're all so familiar with the story nowadays, but it adopts a cold and almost impassive look at the end of mankind. Far more interesting and entertaining is Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! which features gleefully violent aliens landing on Earth and zapping anything in sights. With a cast featuring everybody from Jack Nicholson and Pierce Brosnan to Sarah Jessica Parker and singer Tom Jones, the film is a lot of fun and almost feels like a parody of films like this.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox