Title: War of the Worlds
Year of Release: 1953
Director: Byron Haskin
Length: 85 minutes
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
I know, I’m genre-hopping again. Much like The Fly the classic 1953 version of War of the Worlds isn’t as much of a horror film as it is a pure sci-fi flick. But it is considered one of the greatest of all time, and contains all the elements considered typical of horror movies – tension, suspense, conflict, and the threat of imminent death, right down to the spooky music. Not least, it was such a significant event in the history of cinema that I feel it would be a huge mistake not to include it in this series. So here we are.
This Paramount Pictures production was the first in a slew of film adaptations based on HG Wells’ groundbreaking 1897 novel of the same name, which was also the source material of the controversial Orson Welles radio drama that sparked widespread panic throughout America in October 1938 because everyone assumed it was an actual broadcast rather than a play and legitimately thought it was the end of the world. At its core, War of the Worlds is a straight-up alien invasion story, which in a Cold War setting becomes a direct metaphor for the perceived threat of communism and the detrimental effect it could have on the Western way of life. This is perhaps what sets this version apart from subsequent adaptations and makes it such an interesting case study. That and the fact that the release exploited the deep impression left on the public’s psyche by the infamous radio play 15 years previously meaning that the market was already primed long before the film even came out.
If you aren’t familiar with the premise, it’s simple, yet terrifying. The aliens come. Martians, to be exact. You know, from Mars. At first, everyone thinks earth is simply being pounded by meteors, so groups of people head to the impact sites for a closer look. As you do. At a crash site near Linda Rosa, California, well-known scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Barry), who’d been on a fishing trip, meets star-struck young waif Sylvia Van Buren (Robinson). The shameless flirting commences instantaneously.
Sylvia: You didn’t wear glasses on the Time cover.
Dr. Forrester: They’re really for long distance. When I want to look at something close, I take them off.
*Takes off glasses and leans in, which isn’t creepy at all.
After the initial excitement of the crashed ‘meteorite’ subsides, everyone files off leaving three men to guard the crash site. No sooner has everyone gone, a hatch opens in what is now clearly NOT a meteorite, a futuristic weapon emerges, incinerates the guards, and simultaneously shuts down all the technology in the town via an electromagnetic pulse. Wowzer. And that’s just the start of it. Someone calls the army and they roll up all guns blazing only to be met with death rays a-plenty. Carnage ensues just as reports begin to filter through (it’s unclear how, given the tech-fucking effects of that pesky electromagnetic pulse) that similar objects have crash landed all over the world. The condition is now critical. Before we know it, a full-on war breaks out (yep, a war of the worlds). Mankind, even when using the atomic bomb, prove no match for the alien invaders and are soon reduced to running around in a blind panic trying to stay alive. Many of the world’s capital cities are now aflame, and in the chaos Dr Forrester and the God-fearing Sylvia become separated. They find each other again in a church, but just when they face certain death the Martians abruptly start keeling over and dying. Apparently, they are unable to deal with the germs and bacteria in the earth’s atmosphere to which people have ‘long since grown immune.’ A little bit anti-climactic but it was as easy as that, the quasi-religious take-away message apparently being that where man (and nuclear weapons) fail, the smallest and most innocuous things sometimes succeed, so we should never lose hope. The stupidly unlikely romantic sub-plot is maintained right to the bitter end, so I guess there’s also some observation to be made about the all-conquering power of love, something which went right over my head.
At the time, War of the Worlds was celebrated for its use of movie-making technology, winning an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Okay, there were no other nominees that year, but it still won. Producer George Pal originally wanted to shoot the entire final third in 3D, but that plan was blackballed for being too expensive. Instead, the alien ships were superimposed over stock footage. It might sound tacky, but there’s a lot to admire. Whatever trickery was used results in a beautifully dark, apocalyptic landscape against which people are portrayed as being awfully weak and vulnerable. Not least the US Marine who catches fire. You don’t often see people catching fire in movies from 1953. Many of the visual techniques used became industry standards for years to come, the echoes of which are still being felt today. A bona fide classic people will still be watching in another 65 years.
As a homage to the 1938 radio broadcast, at one point voice specialist Paul Frees appears on-screen as a radio reporter and does a pretty convincing vocal impersonation of Orson Welles.