The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds (1953) movie poster

(1953) director Byron Haskin
viewed: 09/02/2011

Like Ray Harryhausen, George Pal was a film-maker, animator, special effects specialist who put a huge stamp on his films and transcends the auteur-theory.  Above his effects and animations, Pal was also a producer, so looking at his work fits closer perhaps than Harryhausen to the sense of “authorship” usually applied to directors, though often attached to writers and producers as well.  But like Harryhausen, a lot of his work was stop-motion animation, and he was a friend of Harryhausen’s.

After watching 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, it struck me that it would be fun to watch his seminal version of Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a film, iconic as it is, I had never actually seen.  But then we watched Tim Burton’s send-up/homage of the alien invasion film, Mars Attacks! (1996), which in retrospect is really templated on Wells’ classic novel.   I was struck by the fact that Burton’s film referenced a number of films that the kids had never seen;  not that they would need to to appreciate it, but I thought it would be cool to go to one of the original science fiction films of the 1950’s, a theme that I’ve been digging on for several years.  But further still, I’ve gotten a real interest in the “alien invasion” film.

Modernized from the Victorian era to the 1950’s, George Pal and Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds was a breakthrough in pop cinema for Hollywood, and as dated as it would appear culturally and effects-wise, it’s almost quite literally the template of the modern summer block-buster.  Actually, I was surprised, perhaps unnecessarily so, by how much Steven Spielberg revisited the film in his version of War of the Worlds (2005), how one of the best scenes in the 1952 film was also one of the best scenes in the 2005 version.  I was actually eager to revisit it as well.

The film opens with newsreel-styled reports about Mars and how life there did exist, but that their natural resources were spent, that in all of the galaxy, only Earth offered the fecundity that they sought.  And when the credits burst onto the screen, the film itself bursts into rich Technicolor.

Simple, small-town America, in the outlying regions of Southern California, sees a strange meteorite crash outside of town.  They all rush out to it, including visiting scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (played by Gene Barry) and fawning post-grad Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson).  Barry is actually almost comic in his delivery, hokey, campy acting, but still, the film works because of the action, the spaceships, and the aliens.  It turns out that the meteorite is really a Martian ship, quite clearly set on the destruction of humanity, blasting down those who “come in peace”.  Soon, there are thousands of these ships all over the planet, wreaking havoc, and quite likely to take over the world.

When even the nuclear option fails America, things are looking dire.  But of course, assuming you know the story, the aliens are brought down by Earth’s smallest living things, diseases, microorganisms.

For this The War of the Worlds, this whole experience takes a Christian slant.  These microorganisms are God’s creatures, sanctuary is found in churches, and a big part of American idealism is tied to religion.  Whether this seam came from writer Barré Lyndon, director Bryon Haskin, or George Pal, I don’t know, but it’s actually surprisingly pervasive.

The alien ships, made to look like manta rays with cobra head periscopes, are the most iconic of the film’s images.  But the film pulls off some other iconic images that have also been copied ever and since, namely the shots of deserted downtown Los Angeles, with Barry running through the empty streets, with newspapers and other detritus blowing by like so much tumbleweeds.  Also, the slow “march” of the ships, laying waste to all the best that American heroism, nobility, and technology can offer, is still effectively eerie.  In some ways, even more so than in many more modern films, even knowing what the outcome will be.

The great scene, in the abandoned farmhouse, where Barry and Robinson cower and hide from the probing eye of the alien ship, is also very effective.  And when the Martian sneaks up on Ann and lays his three suction-cup fingers on her shoulder, her turn and scream is just pure classic Americana.  Another iconic moment repeated and copied ad nauseum and beyond.

The effects are really striking, even when you can see the wires holding up with spacecraft.  Even the sort of dated image of the alien physique, the low-tech nature of the effects, it still made the kids comment that it was “creepy”.

Really, when you get down to it, this is just plain great stuff.  Another film enjoyed by all, inspiring much else in our future viewing queue.  It’s brilliant.

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