# 40: The War of The Worlds


1953

Director:  Byron Haskin

Cast:  Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Less Tremayne

1954 Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects

Watch the trailer!

Introduction     Plot Summary     Impressions     Wells’ Novel     Wrap-up

My rating:  Class A (3/7).  It’s a pretty fun romp.

Introduction

Before I get into the film, let me make a few things clear.  This is my first post, but the film is number 40 on our list and we’ve actually seen ten films so far.  Well, the idea to do the blog took a while to settle in, and then it took me a little while longer to figure out how I wanted to try and do this.  I’m also not a film reviewer by any stretch of the imagination, and my heavy-duty analytical work with language (both literary and professional) as opposed to numbers is well behind me by at least ten years.  So you’re going to get something interesting, I hope, but it may not be very polished and it will probably take me a while to get into the swing of things.

I’ve come in since the original post and edited this one a bit for clarity and brevity…

If I’ve done everything correctly, there will be internal HTML links which should allow you to jump around within the article.

So..that stuff aside, let’s get to the film.  The War of the Worlds is one of the classic alien invasion movies; it is remembered for its special effects and extraordinary visuals of an Earth under attack by a vastly technologically superior culture.  Released in 1953, it is based on a novel by H. G. Wells originally published in 1898, so it should seem terribly dated.  However, aside from the “human element,” the film holds up quite well and creates a spooky and terrifying vision of disaster.  Ultimately I give the film two thumbs up, though it does have some issues with pacing and a very speedy, almost abrupt, denoument—though that quick ending was inherited from the novel.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)

Short summary:  Boy is camping with his friends when a meteor crashes nearby.  Townspeople summon boy, where he meets girl.  Alien war machines emerge from the meteor and wreak havok.  Boy and girl flee, taking refuge in a farmhouse.  Farmhouse is half-destroyed when alien meteorite crashes into it.  Boy and girl see martian.  They flee, returning to Boy’s college, where they do science stuff.  Meanwhile the martian war machines wreak more havoc.  Atom bomb fails to damage the war machines.  War machines continue their implacable advance.  Everyone evacuates the city.  Boy loses girl in the confusion.  Boy searches for girl amidst the destruction.  Boy finds girl.  Alien war machines suddenly start having problems.  Aliens are dying because their immune systems can’t handle earth bacteria.  The day is saved.

Impressions

Overall, I enjoyed this film immensely, giving two thumbs up and a big grin at the end.  It has a rather unique and fascinating opening, amazing visuals, and the destruction of the human race is always compelling.  That said, the film suffers from a few flaws which do weaken it a bit.  The human element in the film is lacking, and that may also account for some pacing issues.  The film also has an abrupt resolution, which is implicit in the original novel as well.

The film opens with astronomical drawings and a voice over prologue, in which we learn that otherworldly intelligences have been studying the planets of our solar system, and have chosen Earth as their new home.  The prologue is similar to the opening of Wells’ novel, but has been updated to reference the first and second world wars.  It is clear from the opening of the film that this is going to be all about the weapons of war, but the story also includes a love story and a personal struggle for survival.

The male lead is Dr. Clayton Forrester, played by Gene Barry.  I’m not sure what went wrong with his character, but I never warmed to him.  In spite of the fact that we see Dr. Forrester fishing with his friends, chatting up a pretty girl, and square dancing before the invasion gets rolling, he doesn’t come off very personably.  While I was willing to see him as the Scientist Hero, I never really liked him.  Was it the actor, Gene Barry, or the script?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  All I can really say is that he felt flat.

The Sylvia Van Buren character, the female lead, was more interesting, but that may be because I’m a red-blooded American male, and she’s very attractive.  I do believe that Ann Robinson may have done a better job getting her character across, but she also had immensely more to work with in the script—we see her relationship with her uncle on-screen, and hear about it in the farmhouse, and we also hear about the time she got lost and sought refuge in a church (which is also important because it tells Forrester where to look for her when she’s lost).  And we see her interest in Forrester from the beginning, when she hasn’t yet recognized Forrester from his picture and talks about the great scientist Clayton Forrester to Forrester himself.

Some of the pacing issues probably come from the novel, but some of them are also the film alone’s.  It starts off nicely and gradually, and even the square dance scene in the community center is interesting.  While not a slow burn, the film at least feels like it’s going to a nice even pace…until the war machines emerge.  Then things begin happening very quickly; we get three deaths almost immediately and they are quickly followed by a fairly action-packed sequence.  It’s fun and moves along pretty fast…at first.

Then the film begins to slow; General Mann gives his briefing to the press.  Up to this point, the film has been personal and up-close to the unfolding disaster, and now the focus is pulling back to give us a bit of exposition and show us that the entire world is in sorry straits indeed.  This should be incredibly tense and upsetting, and we actually get to see the Martian war effort doing terrible things in lots of far-away places.  And perhaps that’s the problem.  As the film pulls back to the big picture, as it were, I lost some of the identification with the characters and the homy, small town feel of real people confronting a disaster.  In my self-centered way, I didn’t really care about the bad things going on in Europe and Africa and who knows where else when they were also going on in the United States.

I do wonder how a viewer in 1953 might have reacted.  I’m a modern man, as well as a science fiction fan.  I’ve been inundated with both the idea and imagery of mankind’s destruction or near-destruction at the hands of aliens since I was a little boy.  So I suspect that at the time of its release, the film might have played better.

When the focus turns back to our protagonists, with the nightmarish scenes with Forrester searching Los Angeles, I was frankly bored.  As a viewer, I knew that Forrester would find Sylvia, of course, but after the stunning visuals of the Martian assault threaded through the film, this felt like a visual let-down as well as the kind of thing a modern screenwriter might either speed through, or add obstacles to finding Sylvia as well as clues, some perhaps misleading, to build tension.  It’s also the first real indication we’ve gotten that Forrester really cares about Sylvia.  Up until that moment, he’s been the cool collected Science Hero who may have simply been protecting a fellow human being.

The ending of the film is also very sudden and abrupt.  It brings to mind the ST:TNG factor, or in a more classical sense a deus ex machina.  To be fair, that’s straight out of Wells’ novel.  As I recall, the ending there is very nearly as abrupt and unanticipated, which is more or less a major part of Wells’ point.

One thing that came through loud and clear was a significant religious element in the film.  Sylvia’s uncle holds his Bible up as he advances to greet the war machines, and he’s reciting the twenty-third psalm.  The penultimate moments of the film take place in and around a church.  Sylvia comments on the irony that the earth will be destroyed in six days, and it took six days to create the earth (although the implicit assumption that humanity and the earth are identical is interesting, as obviously the martians aren’t going to destroy the planet, just mankind).  And at the end of the film, we learn that the martians have been defeated by the smallest creatures which God, in his wisdom, has put on the planet.

The religious element is refreshing in its way.  While the film seems to assume that all of its viewers will share a religious background and be open to the idea of divine providence, it’s nice to see religion openly discussed, albeit without any interest in opposing or different viewpoints.  It probably reflects the very real culture of the United States in the early 1950s, but so far none of our other film choices have given us anything remotely like it.

I was a bit disappointed in martian technology.  I had completely forgotten that the film simply did not use the tripods described in Wells’ novel.  I think it’s fair to say that the crescent shaped levitating war machines have become nearly iconic; while not everyone would recognize them as martian “tanks” a lot of Americans will recognize them as alien and dangerous.  I also really liked the Maritan metal; even the flexible metal actually looked metallic, and the machines themselves were creepy in their slow, deliberate and invulnerable advance.

I did notice that the film used what may actually be the first instance of “technobabble.”  Dr. Forrester describes the action of one of the Martian weapons—the green “skeleton” or disintegrater beams—as “neutralizing mesons” which he describes as “the atomic glue holding matter together.”  My immediate response was that this was bunk, as I remembered that mesons are very short-lived particles composed of a quark and an antiquark, but much to my surprise they were initially postulated as the carriers of the strong force (in the same way that photons are carriers of the electromagnetic force, gravitons the hypothetical carriers of the gravitational force, and the W and Z particles carry the weak force).  Now, I learned in my physics classes that gluons are the force carriers for the strong force, but Wikipedia tells us that lighter mesons are still thought to be strong force carriers.  Of course quantum chromodynamics hadn’t been thought of at that point, and nobody had even considered the idea of a quark in 1953, so it may well have been first rate science for the time.

It’s still technobabble, of course, since it’s the operation of some kind of magic with a thin “scientific” explanation that doesn’t actually explain anything.

The flying wing which dropped the atomic bomb triggered a few echoes for me, and I realized that some of the imagery in the film—the flying wing and the children playing struck me most strongly, but the military buildup is also a repeated element—parallels our previous Wells entry, Things to Come.  The nearly loving viewpoints of American military might are also strongly echoed in yet another previous entry on our list, Invaders from Mars (which is also a 1953 film).

As long as we’re talking about parallels, the opening sequence with the townspeople crowded around the meteor crater was strongly reminiscent of the opening to yet a third 1953 film, the black and white It Came From Outer Space.  The martian also resembles the monster in that film as well…

Wells’ Novel

Wells’ novel was set in London at the turn of the century, and predated the two massive “global” conflicts of World Wars I and II by some twenty years.  The change to the United States made this story more accessible to American audiences, of course.

Wells was damn near prescient about the weapons which might be used in the future:  he showed us chemical weapons in the Martian “black smoke” which paralleled mustard gas, and the mechanized assault predicted the tank.  We don’t have heat rays yet, but we are working on them (the Active Denial System comes to mind), and beam weapons are fixtures in science fiction now.  Fortunately we don’t seem to be using invasive species in our warfare yet, but part of the Martian assault gave us a fast growing weed (the Red Weed) which choked out native life and was probably the first postulated instance of ecological warfare.

As I mention above, Wells’ martians use a different kind of mechanized assault vehicle, a tripod, and the disintegration beam and the force field are new concepts not in the novel.

The novel is set in Victorian England near the turn of the century, and Wells’ depiction of Victorian culture and mindsets is dead on.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the novel and the film is the frank and strong religious element, which is simply absent from the novel.  There is a clergyman in the Wells novel, but he’s crazy, and his identification of the martians as demons presaging Armageddon is part and parcel of his insanity.  Wells was a student of Thomas Huxley, the man identified as “Darwin’s Bulldog” and a major proponent of the theory of evolution and a critic of the Victorian religious establishment.

Memory tells me that one of the major themes of the novel was a veiled criticism of the English Empire and in a larger sense the ideas of social Darwinism and the White Man’s Burden.  The Martians, superior to humanity by dint of their intelligence, are merely doing to humanity what it has always done to itself:  the technologically superior culture extinguishes the inferior one.  Religion simply does not enter into the picture in Wells’ novel.

Wrap-up

Over all, the film is a fine, if significantly different, adaptation of a strong novel.  If you happen to be in a position to catch this film, go out and do it.  It’s worth an hour and half of your time if for no other reason than its visuals.  What it lacks in a human story is more than made up for by the fact that it’s a good invasion story with a nice twist ending (which you know about, of course) and superlative imagery.

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