Film Review: The War of the Worlds

 

The classic alien invasion film retains its status thanks to its horrifying portrait of humanity facing extinction.

Producer George Pal’s 1953 movie version of the H.G. Wells novel is lavishily mounted and visually stunning, thanks to imaginative production design and imipressive technical effects — a rare example (along with FORBIDDEN PLANET) of a big-budget ’50s science-fiction film from a major Hollywood studio, made during an era swamped with low-budget B-pictures and independent productions.

Taking the basic concept from the book, Pal produced a popular Hollywood entertainment, complete with a love story played out against the backdrop of the devastation of Earth; fortunately, the devastation still packs a wallop. A nicely structured build-up leads to scattered initial encounters, and only gradually does it become apparent that Earth is helpless against the invasion. The sense of futility is nicely conveyed, especially in the riot-like mass exodus in the third act, and director Byron Haskin manages to wring a few horror-movie type scares (the old claw-on-the-shouler gag, nicely done in a dark, abandoned farm house), thanks to the creepy-looking Martians, who are seldom more than glimpsed. With humanity unable to save itself, it’s up to our microscopic accidental allies to do the job for us—perhaps the only time in film history that a deus ex machina ending has really worked.

The screenplay by Barre Lyndon updates the setting from the Victorian England to the (then) contemporary United States. As in the book, the Martians themselves are physically weak; it is only in their machines that they are a threat. But the machines themselves are radically redesigned and far more invulnerable: graceful green hovercraft that float suspended above barely glimpsed electro-magnetic pulses (an effect shown only in their first appearances, for fear that the on-set electricity would set the effects stage on fire!) and are shielded by an invisible force field that can even deflect an atomic blast. Also changed are their weapons: the lethal black smoke is nowhere to be seen, and the heat ray becomes a disintegration ray (notably similar to the one used by the alien robot Gort in DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL two years previously).

These changes actually help keep the film faithful to the spirit of the novel, which portrayed the world’s most powerful nation humbled by an almost infinitely more powerful alien adversary. Many incidents find their way from the page to the screen, but for the most part the film is an original work fashioned as a crowd-pleasing entertainment. Rather than Wells’ humbling warning about the precarious place humanity holds at the top of the food change, the film offers reassurances that even the worst challengers imaginable will be defeated because God is on our side.

This becomes evident in a number of ways. Wells was crafting an ironic scenario in which the Martian invasion acted as a magnified mirror image of British imperialism: that is, a technologically superior army using its advanced weaponary to evict and/or annihilate a native population. The film is all about Cold War paranoia and the fear of “Godless Communism,” with the Martians standing in, more or less, for the Soviet Union. (In a montage of Martians attacking countries around the world, the USSR is conspicuous by its absence.) We know beyond doubt that the Martians are evil when the heartlessly blast into oblivion a priest trying to communicate with them. (Of course, he is reciting the famous psalm “As I walk through the Valley of Shadow, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me Lord.”)

The editing even implies that it was not so much bacteria as True Love (sanctioned by God, of course) that defeats the alien enemy: Searching through the devastated streets of Los Angeles (a marvelously well-done sequence that includes a convincingly shot destruction of City Hall), our scientist-hero (Gene Barry) finds his love interest (Ann Robinson) in a church. He’s not there to save her; they just want to be together when the end comes. But as the walls begin crumbling around them, they embrace, and the film cuts to a shot of a Martian war machine crashing to the ground. The juxtapostion of images (hug=crash) seems to imply a cause-and-effect relationship, at least on a metaphoric level, whatever the narration may tell us about Martian lack of immunity to Earth’s micro-organisms.

The cast of characters is fairy typical for the era: brave men and vulnerable women. Fortunately, the actors fill their rolls well, emerging as likable archetypes — charming to watch even if they are not fleshed out much beyond their professions (the General, the Scientist, etc). And the script gets in a few nice touches. (Barry is first seen wearing glasses; he tells Robinson they are for viewing distant objects and that he doesn’t need them when he wants to examine something up close –whereupon he takes them off and turns his eyes full upon her, signalling his romantic interest.)

The special effects were state-of-the-art for the time, and they remain impressive today. If a few wires are visible to discerning eyes, at least the images are interesting in design and colorful in execution; something about the smooth, sleek look of the Martian hovercraft make them fascinating to watch, even if their miniature origins are sometimes apparent. Although subsequent films (such as INDEPENDENCE DAY) would outdo WAR OF THE WORLDS in terms of depicting mass destruction, this film retains its classic status thanks to the dramatic conviction with which it portrays its characters helplessly fighting against an unstoppable enemy bent on driving humanity into extinction.

THE NOVEL

The 1898 novel by H.G. Wells portrays the devastation that befalls England when Martians land sometime near the beginning of the 20th century. The novel reverts to a practise that the author used on The Time Machine’s — that of using unnamed character types to express viewpoints in line with their professions, thus allowing the author to express his thematic concerns unburdened by the requirements of individual psychology. Truly, the point of the book is to act as a sort of assault on the sort human complacency that assumes mankind’s domination of the Earth will always go unchallenged: “[B]efore we judge of them [the Martians] too harshly, we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

The book’s scenes of Victorian era military equipment crushed beneath the foot of mechanical Martian tripods (equipped with heat rays and poisonous black smoke) are chilling. Particularly memorable is the chapter entitled “Thunderchild,” in which an ironclad warship protects a boatload of refugees fleeing the country, in the process destroying two of the Martian war machines before being melted and sent to the bottom of the ocean by the lethal heat ray. The book also introduces the deus ex machina resolution (the Martians are destroyed by Earth bacteria, to which they have no immunity) that would become an oft-repeated cliché in sci-fi movies and TV shows: nature defeats the invaders after mankind has failed.

The book’s scenes of panicked evacuation and of the human military being swatted down like helpless insects are devastatingly memorable (and have been reasonably well served by the film medium), but the novel has other virtues that are not so cinematic. In the later chapters, the author takes the opportunity to expound upon the nature of the Martians (one of the first literary attempts ever to conceive of what an alien race might be like) and speculates upon the evolutionary path that ultimately made them, essentially, walking brains (Wells’ description sounds somewhat like an octopus: a head supported by legs that look like tentacles). Of course, the ultimate irony is that the Martians are not so different from us; in fact, the author even more or less tells us that they are what we will be after a few more million years of evolution.

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (Paramount,1953). Produced by George Pal. Directed by Byron Haskin. Screenplay by Barre Lydon, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite; narrated by Cedric Hardwicke.