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War of the Worlds (1953)

Reviewed by David Longhorn

Based on the novel by H. G. Wells.

When Hollywood decides to film a classic British story it’s entitled to update the story. And relocate it to California. And turn the stupid, cowardly priest into a silver-haired old hero. And insist that the Martians are totally alien instead of (as Wells emphasised) biologically similar to ourselves. And so on, and so forth.

Even a Wells-loving Brit has to admit that George Pal’s free adaptation of the book is tremendously enjoyable and - particularly when judged by the standards of its time - a remarkable cinematic achievement. It’s helped a lot by Chesley Bonestell’s planetary images that grace the mini-documentary at the start. Sir Cedricke Hardwicke’s explanation as to why Earth would be the sole option for Martian colonisation is streets ahead of the usual clunking B-movie narration. Then there are the excellent Martian war machines, with their lovely swooshing Heat Ray. Virtually every ray gun in science fiction - such as those of Star Trek - are step-children of those blistering beams of annihilation. Admittedly some effects seem ropey by CGI standards, but the actual battles are still powerful.

In terms of plot, though, the film is broken-backed. The arrival of the Martians in small-town America is well-handled, and the first attack - on a party of solid citizens advancing under an improvised white flag - is true to Wells’ vision of a parochial human race utterly unprepared for alien invasion. Enter the Army. Exit the Army. The fact that even the A-bomb can’t touch ‘em proves the Martians are even worse than the Goddamn Russkies! It only remains for the earthlings to run away as resourcefully as they can until all the nasties suddenly drop dead. Cue big finish.

Pal’s team can’t be blamed for this, as he follows Wells’ basic plot. What he misses out are scenes that show human beings at their worst in the face of overwhelming odds. Wells’ clergyman is a cowardly fool whom the hero is forced to kill - here he is a misguided hero. The original story, which has two distinct narrative strands, is conflated into one, in which the hero gets to protect his girl from a groping Martian, and retrieve a bit of green blood and broken hardware into the bargain. This allows scientists to proclaim that the invaders are biologically rather simple, and sets up the denouement which, again, is faithful to the novel.

I can’t help feeling that the Martians - while suitably slimy and seldom seen - are a bit disappointing. Bear in mind that Wells was making a point about colonialism, so his aliens drank human blood to symbolise imperialist oppression. Pal’s Martians seem intent merely on exterminating the human race a city block at a time, which is undeniably a bad thing, but far less horrific.

The only major flaw is the acting, with the cast considerably less animated as the monsters. As Clayton Forrester, ‘the man behind the new atomic engines,’ Gene Barry is one of the least convincing scientists in big screen sci-fi, and that’s quite an achievement. He has the emotional range of a tree stump. His scenes with Ann Robinson are tedious, while the attempts at humour are desperately unfunny.

So why do I still enjoy The War of the Worlds? Perhaps because it’s very good for what it is - one of the first sf movies equipped with a decent budget and noble ambitions; a good movie that helped pave the way for better. I was amazed to find, when I bought the DVD, that this film was made over fifty years ago, so enduring is its visual and aural impact.

 

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Director
Byron Haskin

Screenplay
Barré Lyndon

Released
August 26, 1953

Cast
Gene Barry
Ann Robinson
Les Tremayne
Robert Cornthwaite
Sandro Giglio
Lewis Martin

Awards
Oscar (Special FX)
Hugo (Dramatic Presentation) Golden Reel (Sound Editing)

Full Credits at IMDb

DVD is currenltly out of production, check amazon.com for a used copy