H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (1898)
Nineteen fifty-three brought American audiences not one, but three, science fiction/alien invasion films, with Martians stepping into the role of malevolent invaders in two of those films. One of those films, Invaders From Mars was severely hampered by its limited budget and script problems. While The War of the Worlds, an updated adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 19th-century novel of the same name, has its share of deficiencies, it still remains the cornerstone of 1950s alien invasion/science-fiction films, primarily due to the top-notch, imaginative special effects and its pessimistic vision of an Earth invaded by a technologically superior alien force. Not surprisingly, The War of the Worlds won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects that same year.
Here, Wells’ novel of alien invasion and massive destruction demanded a scale unseen in Hollywood genre films. The Martian invaders have more in mind than a simply reconnaissance mission or limited goals (as in Invaders From Mars). Instead, the Martian goal was worldwide domination. To achieve that goal, producer George Pal (Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, Conquest of Space, The Time Machine), director Byron Haskins (a special effects supervisor given a rare opportunity to direct), and their special effects team built miniature ships, landscapes, and, of course, landmarks and cities. Gone are the Martian tripods from the source material (to this day, a sticking point for fans of Wells’ novel), replaced by sleek, sting-ray, cobra-headed shaped ships that hover over the ground. The ships travel and operate in threes, protecting themselves with an almost impenetrable electromagnetic force field. The creative ship design is complemented by spectacular set pieces, including the first sight of the Martian death ray in action and an extended scene inside an abandoned farmhouse (where the audience gets its first and only sight of a three-eyed Martian and a periscope-like object). Unfortunately, the effective, if dated effects (i.e., the black wires used to suspend the Martian ships are visible in multiple scenes), are still the primary reason to see The War of the Worlds.
The storyline, featuring a scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and a stereotypical female lead, Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), who seems to be on hand to serve coffee and grow hysterical at inopportune moments, is probably more dated than the special effects. The War of the Worlds opens in similar fashion to Invaders From Mars and the other 1953 alien invasion film, It Came From Outer Space, with a meteor-like object falling from the skies and landing in a more or less isolated here. Here, the first Martian ship lands outside a small town in California. The first sightseers assume a meteor has landed, and rush to get a view. Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist for the fictitious Pacific Institute of Science and Technology, just happens to be vacationing at a nearby lake. Called into action by the local authorities, he meets Sylvia Van Buren, a library sciences instructor at USC. Before long, they begin a romantic flirtation, interrupted only by a local power failure, and the first signs for our characters that the meteor-like object is, in fact, a ship from Mars. In short order, three men, attempting peaceful contact (they inaccurately presume that a white flag is a universal sign of peace), are the first to tragically encounter the full effects of the Martian death ray.
The American military is called into immediate action. Led by Major General Mann (Les Tremayne), the military rapidly brings the latest American weaponry to bear against the Martian ships, without success. It soon becomes clear that the Martian war machines are far superior to anything human beings have in their possession. In one of the more harrowing moments, the Secretary of Defense orders a nuclear strike against the Martian ships. After the mushroom cloud clears, the Martian ships appear, unscathed. The rout of humanity is on (aided by stock footage derived from WWII newsreels), with only the faintest glimmer of hope for humans, circa 1953. That hope comes no longer from the military, but from the scientists and their research into Martian physiology.
Rather than following the scientists to the end of their research, The War of the Worlds takes a different path, showing our worst instincts in action, as gangs of looters roam the semi-deserted streets of Los Angeles attacking buses and convoys, with the two lead characters separated from one another and Forrester searching for his romantic partner through the war-torn streets of Los Angeles. The War of the Worlds then segues into a heavy-handed message about the need to rely on (and hope for) divine intervention (complete with church bells and choral voices) and a literal deus ex machina ending outside a Christian church. Hopefully, Steven Spielberg's updated version of H.G. Wells' novel will contain a more satisfying ending, with the protagonist (or protagonists) playing a more decisive role in the film's final act.
© Mel Valentin, 30th January, 2005
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