War Of The Worlds (1953 USA)

the-war-of-the-worlds-1953-film-images-27b04727-755e-41e3-af8d-736bf4e1264H.G.Wells’ The War Of The Worlds remains a terrifying novel, and 2 adaptations of it have justifiably passed into popular culture, the Orson Welles 1938 radio show which convinced many Americans that creatures from Mars actually were invading Earth & Jeff Wayne’s 1978 musical album, which still holds up today. Then there’s this 1950s cinematic version which blows away Spielberg’s waste- of- time- and- money 2005 version. *Spoilers ahead*

George Pal’s “War of the Worlds” shouldn’t work, but it does. Transplanting H.G. Wells’ Martian invasion from the English Home Counties, circa 1898, to Southern California, early 1950s, seems ill-advised enough. But larding the story with religious sensibility must have set poor H.G. spinning in his grave. The movie’s air of can-do American gumption and prayerful Christianity is about as far from the mental universe of the original novel as can well be imagined. One scene even includes a square dance/hootenanny! But no matter: “War of the Worlds” is good, clean sci-fi fun, happily unencumbered by earnest messages or weighty philosophical considerations. Cedric Hardwicke’s opening narrative is cold but irresistible. I love those journalistic old voice overs. They add to the atmosphere.

waroftheworlds4My favorite “War of the Worlds” moment comes just before the fighting begins. Observing the Martians’ landing zone from a sandbagged bunker, General Mann (Les Tremayne) intones, “They’ll probably move at dawn.” Never has a film cliché been delivered with such perfect pitch! And sure enough, the fighting begins right on schedule with the incineration by heat ray of the saintly Pastor Collins (Lewis Martin). The troops surrounding the landing zone are routed with great slaughter, and the next thing you know, civilization itself is on the point of collapse. Not even the atom bomb, delivered by the US Air Force’s Flying Wing, can arrest the progress of the invasion. In the end, of course, the Martians are defeated—by terrestrial germs, provided courtesy of God’s wisdom.

The special effects? There is a cobra-like appearance to the Martian aircraft and tremendous sounds of their heat rays. They are so impersonal but colourful, and their very crudity lends the movie a certain period charm. The acting? This is a little weak but Gene Barry, Ann Robinson and the rest of the cast do just enough in their undemanding roles. Don’t expect much in the way of character development—like the SF pulps from which it draws inspiration, “The War of the Worlds” isn’t too interested in the inner lives of its characters. It’s simplistic, sensational, shallow, wide-eyed, unintentionally funny in spots—and isn’t that what we sometimes want in a fantasy film? I’ll take this one over the elephantine Spielberg/Cruise version any day. At least there’s no exes or irritating kids to deal with here.

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