#23) The War of the Worlds (1953)

90695827a54e073ca8367891489b36b4#23) The War of the Worlds (1953)

OR “Jesus Saves…us from Martians, I guess?”

Directed by Byron Haskin

Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel by H.G. Wells.

Class of 2011

See the trailer two years in the making!

The Plot: A large object crashes near a small town in southern California, and Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) investigates. The object begins emitting alien spacecrafts, which then proceed to destroy everything in their path. On the run with townsperson/love interest/only woman Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), their only hope is that the government’s nuclear bombs will stop the Martians.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s special effects (calling them, among other things, “hackle-raising”) and singles out the film’s capitalization of “the apocalyptic paranoia of the atomic age”.

But Does It Really?: If it were just a highlight reel of the effects, sure. This film, while not awful, is not that great either. Maybe it’s because I’m watching this relatively soon after “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, but “The War of the Worlds” is lacking a lot of that film’s substance. In the span of two years sci-fi went from “We come in peace” to “RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!” This would have all been fine if it weren’t for this film’s very Christian ending. Most films end an alien encounter with ray guns or effective communication. This one ends with the power of prayer and some very good timing. A noteworthy film to be sure, but compared to others of the genre, not the first one I’d preserve.

Everybody Gets One: Both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson would find later success on television; Barry on “Burke’s Law”, Robinson on “Fury”. Barry would also achieve later notoriety in the original Broadway cast of “La Cage aux Folles”. This movie also features a rare on-screen appearance by legendary voice actor Paul Frees.

Wow, That’s Dated: Despite the growing popularity of television, radio is still the only way to get news around here. Also this film reeks of Cold War paranoia, but you knew that already.

Seriously, Oscars?: The film won the Oscar for Visual Effects and was nominated for its editing and its sound. That’s about all I’d give it, too.

Other notes

  • Obviously, since the source novel was written in 1897, this film version takes a few liberties. To quote MST3K’s take on another H.G. Wells adaptation; “Based on? Oh, in that they’re both in English.”
  • According to the credits, Sir Cedric Hardwicke isn’t doing the narration; he’s doing the “commentary”. Huh?
  • Early on it’s mentioned that the crash site would make a good roadside attraction, like “a lion farm”. Apparently that used to be an actual thing.
  • This film has the old “talking to a stranger about an important person and then realizing the stranger IS the important person” cliché. It’s Clayton and Sylvia’s meet cute.
  • Square dancing! That’s what the original novel was missing!
  • Forrester’s pronunciation of “gyroscopic” (with a hard g sound) is incorrect. Some scientist he is.
  • I’m just gonna go ahead and ignore the countless wires holding up all the Martian ships.
  • Whoa, slam on Hinduism for no good reason! I do not like this film’s pushy religious views at all.
  • How is traffic on L.A.’s freeways less packed during an alien evacuation than during a typical rush hour?
  • The “bacteria ex machina” in this film comes directly from the original novel. The divine intervention part definitely does not.

Legacy

  • “The War of the Worlds” has been remade several times over the years, most notably in 2005 by Steven Spielberg of all people.
  • The 1953 version spawned a TV series follow-up in 1988. Ann Robinson showed up in that one, too!
  • This film’s Dr. Clayton Forrester was the namesake of MST3K’s Dr. Clayton Forrester.
  • Speaking of, if “The War of the Worlds” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still” had a baby it’d be called “This Island Earth”.
  • Based on the success of this film, producer George Pal got permission from the H.G. Wells estate to adapt another of his stories. Pal chose “The Time Machine”.
  • For you Trekkies out there; the sound effects used for hand phasers and photon torpedoes on the original series came from the Martian ships in “The War of the Worlds”.
  • Bonus Clip: It was during promotion of the 2005 remake that Tom Cruise did this:

Listen to This: 15 years prior to this film, “War of the Worlds” was adapted by Howard E. Koch for the radio program “The Mercury Theatre on the Air”. It was directed by a 23 year old wunderkind named Orson Welles and, depending on who you believe, scared the bejesus out of the country. The National Recording Registry included this broadcast as one of its original 50 recordings in 2002. You can learn more in this essay for the NRR by telecommunications expert Christopher Sterling.

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