Loosely adapted from H.G. Wells’ classic novel of the same name, this 1953 doomsday sci-fi was billed as a “mighty panorama of Earth-shaking fury as an army from Mars invades”.
Relocating the action of the book from Victorian England to 1950s southern California, and recycling stock World War II footage to depict scenes of mass global destruction, The War of the Worlds hit movie screens smack in the middle of the Cold War, preying insidiously upon America’s fear of anything foreign and red, be it Russian or Martian.
An ominous monologue describes the Martians as a civilisation on the brink of demise.
Stranded on a withering planet, they have no choice but to look for colonisation on the lush, ready-to-stake-your-claim canvas we call Earth. And as decades of sci-fi have taught us, there’s nothing scarier than desperate, homeless aliens.
Like Orson Welles did in his infamous 1938 radio adaptation of H.G’s book, producer (and former animator) George Pal sets the stage in contemporary America, specifically a small Southern California town called Linda Rosa.
A meteor crash-lands in the hills, and the kindly townspeople are curious. Scientist Clayton Forrester, however, is much more interested in square dancing the night away with the local minister’s niece, the lovely Sylvia.
Three deputies are sent to watch the glowing rock that night, and unfortunately for them, a hatch unscrews and venal Martians pop out.
The deputy triptych is evaporated, and soon the Martians are wreaking havoc in their mushroom-shaped spaceships. Sylvia’s minister uncle is also vaporised, so she and Barry run away together in an attempt to get help.
The two take off in a sputtering aeroplane, which crashes and forces them into hiding at an abandoned farmhouse. Three alien ships surround them and a creepy Martian puts his arm on Sylvia’s shoulder, only to be clubbed by Dr. Forrester for his advances.
Meanwhile, the military and all its fancy WWII weaponry (even a detonated atom bomb) is unable to make a dent in the Martian attack. And the worst thing is, these skinny bad guys don’t have an ounce of sympathy or remorse.
For a good part of the movie, ruthless world destruction – the likes of which only a Martian can properly inflict – is the order of the day.
There is a little something, thank goodness – a very little something – that can stave off the extraterrestrials, but everyone knows it’s poor form to reveal those kinds of Martian secrets. We don’t want them coming back around.
The War of the Worlds was the anti-The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).
The aliens had no message for humanity, no noble purpose. They just wanted the world, and they wanted it now.
Making the creepy invaders even more ominous was the fact that the movie never showed too much of them – a technique later used to great effect in Jaws (1975).
What audiences did see were the aliens’ hovering war machines, the scariest on the silver screen yet – definitely not the bobbing saucers of old-school sci-fi.
Special effects maestro Gordon Jennings won a posthumous Academy Award for his artistry, and the film went on to influence countless “alien invasion” films of the ensuing years, from Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) to Independence Day (1996). It remains one of the defining Hollywood sci-fi films.
Sylvia Van Buren
Pastor Matthew Collins
Colonel Ralph Heffner