Laden with Academy Award winning special effects, this chilling adaptation of H.G. Wells’ frightening novel detailing a Martian invasion delivers fiery thrills, laser-hot action and unrelenting, edge-of-your-seat suspense. Gene Barry (TV’s Bat Masterson) and Ann Robinson (TV’s Fury) are among the humans intrigued when a meteor-like object crashes to Earth…but its occupants are definitely not friendly. The assault on Earth is underway, and the Martian machines-hovering “swan”-shaped vehicles of destruction-are both beautiful and terrifying as they cut a relentless path of annihilation. Produced by George Pal (When Worlds Collide) and directed by Byron Haskin (Treasure Island), The War Of The Worlds is widely regarded as one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time and received three Oscar nominations.
eyelights: the Martian ships. Ann Robinson. the stunning scenes of destruction.
eyesores: the goofy-looking Martians creatures. Gene Barry.
“No one would have believed in the middle of the 20th Century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than Man’s. Yet, across the gulf of space on the planet Mars, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely joined their plans against us.”
I was first exposed to H.G. Well’s ‘The War of the Worlds’ through this 1953 film adaptation. I still remember being weirded out by the slow, creeping advances of the Martian crafts across the countryside, destroying everything in their path with their lasers. I also vividly recall the moment when our heroes are trapped in a house and try to escape a Martian predator. It all felt so heavy, so dreadful.
But I didn’t know about the book until much, much later – likely after discovering about Orson Welles’ controversial radio play. By then, the movie had become the definitive version of the tale, having seen it a few times here and there. Heck, when I started buying my own VHS tapes, having recently gotten my first VCR, one of the first movies I bought was ‘The War of the World’ (granted, price had something to do with it, but still…).
Due to nostalgia, I will always go back to this 1953 sci-fi classic (say what you will about the adaptation, but its special effects were ground-breakers at the time and it was included in the National Film Registry in 2011). But I must admit that it doesn’t have nearly the same impact that it once did; my more critical mind tends to pick it apart these days, and I find some of it a little hokey, as though it were designed by and for small-town America folks.
I suppose that some of it makes sense, given that the Martians first land in the countryside, away from Los Angeles: our first taste of civilization are a handful of simpletons living their simple lives. Even the more sophisticated amongst them are sitting around fishing and/or taking it easy around a fire. Then we get to see them square dance for a little while, to the charming warble of a good old boy who can’t carry a tune worth his life; I don’t even think he sputtered even one melody, actually.
Basically, in ‘The World of the Worlds’, we get a taste of a completely different lifestyle and set of priorities than one would expect in urban areas. I don’t know if it’s a realistic take on rural America, or if it’s all cliché, seeing as I never experienced the 1950s, but it was amusing to see the hicks respond to the alien meteorites by poking at it, waving white flags at it and deciding to turn it into a tourist attraction – seriously, you know your life is fairly vacant when a fallen rock is considered a big draw!
Not only this, though, but it was unusual for me to see the role of religion in this environment. For instance, as soon as the Martians land, the town’s Pastor shows up. Yes, the clergyman is a key player – in fact, he’s the female protagonist’s uncle, and he will “heroically” try to communicate with the aliens, being a man of peace. The presence of religion is felt right from the beginning, and continues to be felt until the very end.
In fact, Christianity was referenced throughout the picture, not just via the Pastor, but in having characters say prayers, setting some scenes in churches, by making references to God, by filling the soundtrack with church choirs, …etc. In killing a religious figure, the Martians are to be considered evil -if not satanic- creatures, and in hiding humanity in a Church, religion is given a predominant role as a sanctuary from evil – it elevates Christianity to the role of Saviour.
All in all, ‘The War of the Worlds’ gave off a really “traditional” American perspective: white, male and Christian. I don’t personally care, truth be told, but it was admittedly made in a spirit that is quite foreign today, given how multiculturalism has changed the face of our everyday lives: we now have more than just Caucasian neighbours, exposure to a variety of faiths are quite common, and men no longer are the rulers of this world – women have a place and a say too. And they can be heroines, not just febrile victims that need saving.
Still, as far as dead weights go, one could do worse than to be saddled with Ann Robinson’s Sylvia: she had a simple, lovely, but somehow sexy je-ne-sais-quoi going for her that makes you want to rescue her. Unfortunately, her counterpart was less inspiring: as interpreted by Gene Barry, Dr. Forrester was only okay – he seemed awkward, and always lost his groove when his character was supposed to be doing action. One thing that I found especially amusing was how he kept gripping Ann’s head and shoving it into the ground or putting her in a choke hold when his intention was to protect her!!!
Of course, it’s conceivable that he was simply in a panic, and didn’t mean her no harm. After all, those menacing Martian ships would likely freak the sense out of most rational beings: they were powerful, indestructible and unusual-looking – not only do they float (like all good UFOs should!), but they have peculiar wingspan and an almost-prehensile, top-mounted laser canon that inflicts severe damage. I always thought of that extension as the head of the ship, the eye, even – but one whose gaze one would especially want to avoid.
To this day, I still find them slick, and ominous.. eerily floating by in sort of deadly sweeping mission. And, while the ships are completely different from those in the book, which are tripods, they have a totally unique style to them that couldn’t subtly be borrowed by another film. I really like that. I love that this shape of craft will forever be associated to ‘The War of the Worlds’ – much like the xenomorph will always be associated with the Alien series. These Martian ships may seem a bit dorky today, but they’re nonetheless original – and special in their own right.
The Martians themselves, however, were real loser-looking creatures. I mean, not only did they not look real at all, what with their weird gummy bear three-part eyes and wobbly limbs, but they moved like big hunks of rubber (their arms, in particular, could barely be animated by the special effects or puppetry team involved. The final encounter is an especially lame sight). I don’t know if this is due to the era and if it simply didn’t age well -perhaps this looked good back in the day- but I find them risible now.
What wasn’t a laughing matter was the scale of the destruction in ‘The War of the Worlds’. Frankly, I was astounded by how boldly and credibly the filmmakers conveyed the invaders’ worldwide devastation. It didn’t always look real, admittedly, but there was a concerted effort to make it work and it shows. From the damaged Eiffel Tower to the decimation of L.A., it was near-impossible to watch and think that the Martians were a bunch of wusses – they were, without a doubt, a clear threat to humanity. Perhaps some would find it cheesy-looking now, but I think it’s impressive – with one’s expectations appropriately tapered, of course.
If there’s any complaint that I have to make about the picture, aside from its over-dependence on religious elements, it would have to be the pacing. As far as I’m concerned, it was slightly off, as though footage had been left on the editing room floor for the sake of making it a breezy, exciting action flick. That’s fine and good but, given that some sequences were rushed together without concern for a coherent narrative, I think that ‘The War of the Worlds’ could have benefitted from an additional 12-15 minutes in runtime to tie things together nicely.
Otherwise, I would have to say that I still enjoy ‘The War of the Worlds’. In spite of its flaws and age, it has enough entertainment value to warrant seeing it at least once – if not a few times. I would also say that it’s rightly regarded as a classic, even though time has not necessarily been kind to it, and although it may not have the lasting value of ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. This motion picture is based on a literary classic, which spawned the most notorious moment in radio history, and it is one of the first of its kind on the silver screen. Like it or not, ‘The War of the Worlds’ is here to last.
“The Martians had calculated their descent with amazing perfection and subtlety. As more of their cylinders came from the mysterious depths of space, their war machines, awesome in their power and complexity, created a wave of fear throughout the world.”
Date of viewing: November 11-12, 2012