The War of the Worlds (1953)


Year 1953

Starring

Gene Barry as  Dr. Clayton Forrester
Ann Robinson   as Sylvia Van Buren
Les Tremayne as General Mann
Lewis Martin as Pastor Matthew Collins  
Paul H. Frees as Radio Announcer
 
Director - Byron Haskin
Screenwriter - Barré Lyndon  
Book Author - H.G. Wells  


The 1953 version of The War of the Worlds is the boiler plate alien invasion movie. This, like the book of the same name, is the gold standard for anything to do with aliens attacking the Earth.

You must watch this movie at least once because it:

First the space travel aspect. When H.G. Wells completed the novel in 1897, space travel was a thing of fantasy. Back then, space wasn't even a vacuum. It was luminiferous aether. Scientists had a hard time getting away from the fact that anything outside the Earth's atmosphere was filled with a different type of air which they termed aether. They built formulae around the concept.

But along comes Herbert George Wells and talks about advanced civilizations traversing that aether. What a concept! Jules Verne shot rockets at the moon, but no one wrote of controlled space flight.

Then there's the movie. In 1953, man had not been launched into space. In fact Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, had not been sent up yet. The idea of ever being able to escape the gravitational pull of the Earth was considered by many to be impossible. (The idea of staged rockets finally allowed that, but no one was talking Saturn V or N1-L3 in 1953.) So at the time the movie came out, the writers were doing a lot of guessing and they did their best to try and remain as scientifically accurate as their knowledge at the time allowed.

One thing that everyone probably knew back then was that Mars had no advanced civilization. In the movie, people refer to "Martians" and talk about Mars, but no one definitively states that the invaders are from Mars. It was a fine line between being true to the novel and true to reality.

Invaders? Oh, yeah, we got invaders. They're non-humanoid, bipedal creatures with leathery skin. You actually get to see an animatronic one a couple of times in the movie. The result is not quite laughable and, at least when the creature is shown in toto, it is obviously fake. But there are details that make it more convincing and disturbing than it should be. The leather skin? It looks like leathery skin. The pulsing veins and arteries? They pulse. The glowing eyes? They have pupils. The movement of the tendril like fingers? At least in the final scene of the creature they're believable.

That last scene where the invader dies? I bought it.

As for societal commentary, it should be noted that H.G. Wells was a socialist. He believed that there should be one world state. At the time he wrote The War of the Worlds, in his early thirties, his thoughts regarding totalitarianism as as means to a utopian society had not reached the extremes of his later life. Still, he found fault with the Victorian expansionism and that was a starting point for his invasion story.

The movie, unlike the book which takes place in England, takes place in the United States. The theme of slavery mentioned in the book is not even alluded to in the movie. The invaders in the movie just want to conquer. The invaders in the book want to subjugate.

But the movie is nuanced enough to deal with religious themes. A pastor goes out to meet the aliens and communicate with another of God's creatures. Zap! That idea didn't work out so well. Maybe it was intended to mirror Wells' disillusionment with mankind after World War II.

The mob scene near the end offers a pragmatic, if pessimistic, lesson in human survival. The hero, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Barry) may be able to defeat the aliens. He says, "We know now we can't beat their machines. We've got to beat them. " He plans on using a blood sample to fight the creatures using biotoxins. But as he attempts to get to his laboratory, he is attacked by a mob who destroy all of his work. Mankind is finished because of their primal behaviors. They'd rather destroy the future for a chance at a little better present.

There are lots of religious themes in the movie. The love interest is the niece of a pastor, the pastor does his death walk for the sake of religion, and doomed people congregate in churches. It's stirring if you believe in an afterlife. (And who doesn't want a heaven after death?)

There's a racial fear the resonates with everyone - being conquered. I don't mean race as in white, black, red, or yellow. I mean race as in a societal organization. Imagine the natives in Heart of Darkness. The local races in the Congo were made into ivory gathering animals by their conquerors. In The War of the Worlds a technological superior race of beings is taking over the Earth.

Superior races conquer inferior races. That's the way of the world. The Hittites, because of their advantage of using iron weapons, conquered most of what is now Turkey and Syria. The Romans used standard issue equipment and training to dominate Europe. The Spanish used armor and gunpowder to wipe out the Aztecs and put the final nail in the Mayan civilization.

The problem is that this could happen to any race, even the human race. There's the old observation about humanity being alone in the universe. If we are, then it's frightening because we are all that there is. If we are not, then it's frightening because somebody is going to get wiped out. The race that initiates the contact is probably the more technologically advanced. If we meet the other race first, then we'll wipe them out. If they meet us first, we'll get wiped out.

That's just the "circle of life". You either fight on and survive, doing away with all of your competitors in the process, or you roll over and die.

This movie does not break any new ground in terms of special effects. But, despite the seeming cheesiness, it does manage to generate some suspense. When the hero and his gal are in the middle of a "nest" at a farm house, it definitely moves your butt a little closer to the edge of your seat. The mob scene as Dr Forrester tries to leave Los Angeles is also effective in generating a sense of anxiety and makes you wonder how the human race will survive. Even the attempt to use an atomic bomb gets you rooting for the home team.

This movie wasn't your standard fare for the theater at that time. Most science fiction was of the Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon style of indivuals fighting against each other. Either that or the plot twist was so ludicrous that it could have been written by a ten year old. Horror, and not science fiction, were the money makers.

This movie tried to be intelligent and be true to the book. It attempted, for the most part successfully, to depict groups banding together, consolidating efforts, and being selfless. Personally, I think socialism is for people who have the global understanding of a ten year old. But this movie manages to get Wells' socialism portrayed without it seeming too vapid.

As I mentioned, the special effects are kind of lame. Not all of them, but some of them. The enemy tanks look real. The miniatures were originally made out of copper and look shiny which is good. In the book, the tanks walked on three stilts. In the movie, they are supported by three eletromagnetic legs which glimmer occassionally.

Despite lobbying by Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop motion, the producer George Pal gave the visual effects to someone else. The result has its great moments like the bell shaped force field. But it has its weak moments, too, like the vertical wires that you can see suspending the alien tanks or the beams that fire in a different track than the weapons shooting them. It would have been a different movie with Ray Harryhausen, probably stop motion miniatures instead of animatronics. I liked the animatronics.

The sound effects are great. Loren L. Ryder was nominated for an Academy Awark for Best Sound. If that included the sound effects, he probably should have won.

At the time that I saw this movie, I wasn't into reading. Oh, I could read pretty well for my age but I didn't check out books from the library or anything. After the movie, which I liked, a friend suggested that I read the book. At eleven years old, it was a major revelation to me that movies were sometimes based on books. I read the book and was forced to expand my vocabulary to understand H.G. Wells. After that, I read more Wells. I read The Time Machine and The Invisible Man. Then I discovered Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt and Philip K. Dick. But it all started with The War of the Worlds.

Watch it at least once. Thanks to Orson Welles, no relation to H.G., it's the perfect Halloween movie.

For rants and rambles on other aspects of The War of the Worlds like Tom Cruise's deformity, or hearing interviews on WTTM with the people living in Grovers Mill, or why I mentioned Paul H. Frees in the credits see the link The War of the Worlds potpourri.

There's no profanity or blasphemy. No nudity. There's a minor love interest where a country girl falls for a scientist. There's even a legitimate square dance scene. A girl can watch it with you without being offended, but it may not hold her interest.


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