Released over 65 years ago, George Pal’s The War of the Worlds may be the pinnacle of alien invasion films, offering scope, drama, terror and awe to film audiences.
While not the first adaptation of H.G. Wells’ story, this 1953 film version sets the bar for films about alien invasion. It’s use of characters, location and special effects provide audiences with a thrilling disaster/invasion film that still entertains today.
The trailer for this film uses super-titles with many superlatives, promising the “biggest story” and a “mighty panorama” to film viewers. It also makes sure that the audience is aware that the story is adapted from HG Wells and brought to the screen by George Pal, two important names in science fiction. The narrator explains that the superior Martian race is invading the planet and questions what humans will be able to do to defend themselves. They chose to show many shots of the army shooting at the Martians, plus some of the panic that ensues when humanity realizes they are under attack. The only clue about the plot comes when a man says that if they can’t beat the Martian machines, they must battle the Martians themselves! Overall it’s a pretty epic trailer for the 1950s, hitting all the right chords for a science fiction film of the time.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
The War of the Worlds is an excellent example of just how a good science fiction story can capture the public’s imagination. The film opens in a black & white montage laying out the history and scale of the world wars, culminating in The War of the Worlds! A narrator then identifies Mars as a planet that has been keeping its eye on Earth for quite a while. While their planet is dying, the Martians have been searching for a new home, and Earth is the only suitable candidate. All the other planets, except Venus, are described as in a science lesson, pointing out why they are unsuitable.
Back on Earth, the citizens of Linda Rosa, California witness a meteor landing outside the town. The next day it has become a large tourist attraction, with citizens pondering all the ways they can make money from this site. Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a scientist from Pacific Tech, shows up after having his fishing trip interrupted. He is introduced to Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) who, while being a huge fan of his, doesn’t immediately recognize him. Forrester realizes that the meteor seems odd and wants to inspect it further once it cools off. The police ask the citizens to leave due to radiation concerns, while three men are left to stand guard.
While the rest of the town is at their Saturday evening square dance, the three men see the meteor unscrew part of itself. They realize there must be aliens inside and begin waving white flags in peace. They’re the first to die by the Martian heat ray. When the power goes out, Forrester and the Police Chief investigate and see the Martian ship emerge from its shell. They begin seeing other “meteors” landing nearby. They call in the marines, but there is little that any of them can do to stop these ships. The alien vehicles shrug off the artillery without a scratch. Sylvia’s uncle, Pastor Collins (Lewis Martin) decides he needs to try to broker a peace and communicate with the aliens, but is killed by the heat beam just as the men before.
Sylvia and Forrester escape in a small plane as the Martians overrun the redoubt, but crash outside a farmhouse, where they take shelter. Another meteor lands next the farmhouse and the two of them get a firsthand look at a Martian “camera” as well as an actual Martian itself. Forrester manages to detach the camera from its tentacle and wound the alien, getting a sample of its blood. They make their way to Los Angeles with what they hope to be the necessary intel in stopping the invaders.
Soon reports come in from around the globe that “meteors” and Martian ships have landed everywhere, destroying cities across the planet. Major General Mann (Les Tremayne) decides that they need to use the power of the atomic bomb on these invaders and orders an attack. But even the mighty power of the blast leaves the Martian vehicles unscathed. The aliens advance on Los Angeles destroying everything in their sight. Locals flee in large groups, making their way into the surrounding hills, while looters stay in the city grabbing anything they can.
Forrester becomes separated from Sylvia and the rest of his Pacific Tech team during the riots. He wanders around the destruction looking for Sylvia, having remembered her story that when she was young and lost, she sought shelter in a church. He eventually finds her, just where he thought she’d be. But all appears to be lost as the alien machines bear down on the church, until suddenly they stop and crash. The door to the ship opens and a Martian hands slumps to the ground – the Martians have all died by exposure to bacteria. Where all the technology of mankind failed in stopping the aliens, the smallest organism, created by God, was what eventually stopped the invasion.
“Everybody understands when you wave the white flag you want to be friends.” – Salvatore, moments before being vaporized by alien ray
History in the Making
The War of the Worlds proves that a time honored story can be told and retold entertaining generations. In 1897, Herbert George Wells released The War of the Worlds, a serialized science fiction story that has never since been out of print. Imagining a moment when an otherworldly force invades the planet Earth, the tale has captivated readers’ imaginations. In 1938, George Orson Welles modernized the story on All Hallows Eve, presenting the events as news broadcasts interrupting his Mercury Theater On The Air radio show. Stories of the ensuing panic have become legendary (if not overblown). So it seems no surprise that the 1953 film adaptation, the first one for this story (but not the last), produced by George Pal, would be a grand epic, that would continue to inspire generations of filmmakers.
Interestingly each of the releases of this story brackets the real-life World Wars held on the planet Earth. When Wells wrote his original story he might have imagined, but could not have predicted, the start of a global war such as World War I (1914-1918). However, the terror created by Orson Welles in his adaptation, may have capitalized on the growing issues surrounding the start of World War II (1939-1945). Pal’s version definitely stems from anxiety and stress brought on by the conclusion of the second World War, which includes the encroach of unstoppable foreign powers and the use of the atomic bomb.
George Pal, along with director Byron Haskin, created a visual and cultural event with The War of the Worlds that enthralled the audiences of 1953. It was even recognized for excellence at the 1953 Oscars. Like Pal’s previous film Destination Moon, this film received an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. However it was presented as a Special Achievement Award this year, since no other film was nominated.
The War of the Worlds also marks an important turning point for the stories of HG Wells. While not the first of his books to be adapted into film (there was The Island of Lost Souls in 1932, adapted from The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man in 1933), it was certainly the most popular. This 1953 film would spur the alien invasion sub-genre to new heights with remakes, re-imaginings and homages. The success of The War of the Worlds would also allow George Pal to bring Wells’ other great sci-fi story, The Time Machine, to life in 1960.
While the basic premise of The War of the Worlds stems from the writings of HG Wells, this version updates much of the book and creates new elements for the genre that exist even into the 21st century. Changing the setting from turn of the century England, or Grover’s Mill New Jersey, to California in the 50s proved that a quality sci-fi story can be updated and still retain what makes it science fiction, and in some cases, become something more that what it was.
The stylistic elements from George Pal’s earlier work is evident here, both thematically and visually. The use of technicolor leads to a much more engrossing film, drawing the audience in with the vibrant imagery. Shooting this film in color also provides key design elements when presenting the Martians. From their tri-colored “robot eyes” to the green flashes from their flying machines, it definitely enhances the depiction of these aliens.
Some of the new elements this film introduced into the lexicon of the science fiction genre include aliens as invaders, the global invasion archetype and the mystery around the presentation of the aliens. To date, aliens had invaded the planet, but on a small scale and, as with Invaders From Mars, only to sabotage our industries. Likewise, while Invaders From Mars depicted humanoid aliens (i.e., men in suits) The War of the Worlds goes to great lengths to make the Martians completely different from humans. There was also a bit more horror injected into this film than previous ones reviewed for Sci-Fi Saturdays. Whether it’s with the fear of the planet being overrun, or the shadows of unknown Martians skulking around the farmhouse, the tension is definitely heightened.
One thing hasn’t changed is the portrayal of women. Sylvia, while a smart woman (having a masters degree and teaching at the University of Southern California), she is still depicted as coquettish and needing to be saved. She screams a lot in this film, whether it’s in anguish for the sacrifice he uncle is making, or because a Martian puts its hand on her shoulder, she stays squarely in the 1950s role-model of the female in media. And while films in the sci-fi genre (or even films from George Pal) put women in more prominently stated roles (i.e., professor or scientist) they are not actually given any more duties in the film outside from being eye-candy, or the damsel in distress. It will take several decades for women in sci-fi films to break from this mold on a regular basis.
The film shares several themes with earlier Pal films, such as showing the resilience of the American spirit (in continuing to fight back and research around finding a way to stop the Martians), as well as the mostly positive nature of humanity to survive. As with When Worlds Collide, which has the majority of the people in the film working towards altruistic methods of keeping the human race alive, so does War of the Worlds, but to a slightly lesser extent. There’s only so much the cast of this film can do, and mostly it’s just to stay alive. But as a evolution from When Worlds Collide, which showed that there was a small contingent of individuals that would hurt their fellow man in order to survive, War of the Worlds ups those stakes, showing an extended riot sequence in Los Angeles. Pal has now increased his scope in many ways. This film is more global, the themes are broader, and have more depth.
Perhaps the biggest theme presented in The War of The Worlds is the question about whether mankind is alone in the universe. Pal & Haskin present the Earthlings as relatively naive when presented with alien lifeforms. This naïveté and thought process appears to come from the American complacency and thought process of the time. Unlike other films, such as The Day The Earth Stood Still where alien cultures are reaching out to the planet in order to better mankind, the Martians in War of the Worlds have come to steal the planet and its resources for their survival. And the only way to ensure that is to wipe our species off the Earth. Specifically it’s about the disruption of the American way of life by foreign invaders; something that seems prevalent on the minds of 1950s America with the conclusion of WW2 and the Korean War, the rise of Communism, and the mounting fear of atomic energy falling into the wrong hands.
Americans were very much used to being in control, and more importantly “in the right,” moralistically speaking, that when presented with an unreasonable foe or one that could not be fought by conventional means they became helpless. The film taps into the impotence of the American expectation of the world without any proper resolution. American might cannot stop the Martians, but the Martians end up being stopped nevertheless, thereby answering the fear of the invasion with the fallible certainty that they were right all along. It’s like the child that has not completed his chores, and fearing retribution from his elders, worries about his punishment, only to find that someone else has completed the tasks for them; exonerating them from harm. The lesson taught is that it’s OK be afraid because a higher power will always answer the call and protect you.
In the asking of the age old question ‘why are we here?’, the answer from the film, is unanimously, God. While When Worlds Collide had biblical themes, and allusions to the story of Noah from the Bible, War of the Worlds takes a more theological route. The majority of the film involves scientists attempting to learn about the invaders and finding a way to stop them, while the military are doing their part in fighting back against the aliens. All very secular tasks. There is literally one lone pastor, Sylvia’s uncle, that chooses to turn the other cheek and attempt to communicate with the Martians. He tests his faith and pays the ultimate price by getting disintegrated by a heat ray. In the midst of scientists making important discoveries and the military evacuating civilians, the film takes a turn and has Dr. Forrester is wandering from church to church in order to find the woman he cares about. The film depicts a fourth group of individuals (after the heroes, scientists and military) that have taken to prayer and sanctuary in what they believe to be the last moments of their life. When suddenly, all attacks stop. The narrator explains that the aliens were defeated by bacteria, the smallest things that “God, in his wisdom, had put upon this Earth.” It seems to say that the film values faith above science, having indicated that man was never capable of stopping these aliens. Unfortunately it’s only the last 15 minutes or so that invoke this dogma.
The Science in The Fiction
The film opens with a three minute tour of the solar system. The narrator tells the audience about the (current theories of) life on Mars, beautiful matte paintings of that planet and 7 others are shown. Starting with Pluto, which was still a planet in 1953, and working inwards, the composition of each planet was mentioned with as much proper information as the filmmakers had at the time. This seems to indicate a very science-based approach to the events in the film which is made confusing by the final reveal of God’s hand in the process.
Science is also important for the majority of the film. The hero is a scientist. Dr. Forrester is a well enough known that he has made the cover of Time magazine, according to Sylvia. He along with his fellow scientists at Pacific Tech work through a number of plans with the military to stop the Martians. There’s even one brief moment, as they’re evacuating their offices, that the audience gets a glimpse of what the scientists are working on. Having exhausted their work on technological solution Forrester and Gratzman are working with bacteria. “Did you get the biotics?” Forrester asks. But neither man was able to retrieve them prior to the evacuation.
It then seems weird that the film depicts scientists were on their way to discovering that bacteria and microbes were harmful to the aliens, but that thread got dropped. Instead, the final act becomes a chance for Forrester to find an emotional reason to survive, in his search for Sylvia, concluding with the heavy handed narration that God intervenes. Maybe this was a moment when George Pal decided that the film needed to alter its original message, and changed the screenplay to reflect a more personal belief.
The Final Frontier
The War of the Worlds continues to resonate today with many films and television episodes using an alien invasion as a key plot element. In 1988 a TV series of the same name resurrected the plot threads from this film, having the Martians revive from a dormant state. Ann Robinson and Gene Barry even had cameos as their original characters in that series. The two would also return for cameos in the 2005 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise remake. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai even had a plot device that the War of the Worlds actually happened (in this case the 1938 Orson Welles version, and not this film), as a way to explain the aliens that show up.
Numerous other films that utilize similar plots include the much lauded, yet very similar film Independence Day, by which the aliens are defeated by a computer-virus, Signs (aliens defeated by water), Mars Attacks, and to a lesser degree, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is more of alien takeover horror film than straightforward alien invasion film.
As long as there are sci-fi films being made, the creation of an invading species threatening to wipe out human existence will be a plot device. It’s a great way to continually remind humanity that sometimes we really need to work together.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.