50’s Sci-Fi Feature #1 – The War of the Worlds (1953)

Film1953-TheWarOfTheWorlds-OriginalPosterThe War of the Worlds (1953)
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Written by: Barre Lyndon (based on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells)
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Sir Cedric Hardwicke

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is one of the most famous science fiction stories of all-time, largely in part to how many times the story has been adapted and improved upon.  The classic novel led to Orson Welles’ infamous panic-inducing radio drama, which would originally lead to a big screen adaptation of the novel, and that film led to countless remakes.  The original film version differs greatly from the novel, mainly by setting it in modern America, rather than the Victorian England setting of the Wells story.  The film instead takes place after the first two World Wars, which saw humans banding together to defeat a common enemy, a theme that becomes important in the film version.  The War of the Worlds was directed by former special effects artist Byron Haskin, and it would go on to be the biggest success of his long career.  Haskin teamed up with his friend and producer George Pal, making it one of the many successful projects the two underwent together.  The special effects experience and knowledge held by the film’s director would lead to an Academy Award win for Best Visual Effects, and would cement the film’s legacy as a special effects marvel.  The film stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, both of whom had successful careers as television actors, and would both later appear in cameo roles in Steven Spielberg’s modern take on the story.  The War of the Worlds was a massive financial success, becoming the highest grossing sci-fi film of 1953, and spawning a great deal of imitators in the years to follow.  The tremendous success and influence of the original film has been mostly overshadowed by Steven Spielberg’s highly successful (and arguably much better) 2005 reimagining of the story.  Today, Byron Haksin’s The War of the Worlds sits in the National Film Registry, and is looked back upon fondly by historians for pushing the boundaries of the genre.

The War of the Worlds begins with a montage of Earth’s first two World Wars, with a narrator remarking how much technology has rapidly advanced throughout these decades.  The narrator then gives us a quick explanation of the harsh conditions on Mars, and explains the motivations for its inhabitants wanting to scout the planet Earth for eventual relocation of the remaining Martians.  We meet a scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), just as a large meteor-like object is touching down on Earth.  Dr. Forrester and his troupe go to investigate the crash site, where he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and others.  Later that evening, after most of the crowd has called it a day, the “meteor” opens up and the inhabitants found within kill all those in the area of impact.  All technology in the town is disabled by the invading Martians after an EMP is set off, causing the United States military to investigate the invaders.  Reports from all around the world are soon received with similar stories, meaning that the invaders are here to conquer.  After an attempted peace offering, the Martians destroy the military’s best with little effort and move on to the next town.  Dr. Forrester and Sylvia take shelter in an old farmhouse, where the two fall in love.  After a close encounter with the invaders, the two manage to steal a sample of alien DNA and escape to the relative safety of Dr. Forrester’s Pacific Tech.  When they are, the doctor, Sylvia, and their fellow survivors and military officials begin to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to take down the seemingly indestructible Martian ships.  Can humankind overcome the impossible odds stacked against them, or will the Martian invaders squash human beings from existence?  Find out in the iconic 1953 film The War of the Worlds!

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Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, stars of The War of the Worlds.

I was thirteen when I saw Steven Spielberg’s epic reimagining of The War of the Worlds, and it instantly became one of my favorite films as an adolescent. While I don’t look back on it with the same fondness I once did, the film inspired me to read H.G. Wells’ terrific novel, and launched my love for all things science fiction.  It took me a decade to finally get around to seeing the original film, and I can definitely see why 1953’s The War of the Worlds was so influential on the genre.  While I can’t say that I’m in love with the film by any means, I also can’t deny the fact that this is a very fun, very fast moving action sci-fi flick.  Its groundbreaking use of special effects haven’t aged well, but they’re still incredibly charming today in all of their faults.  The heat ray weapon used by the Martians is still really effective, even if the actual effect looks completely silly with actors just kind of disappearing.  The effect used in Spielberg’s film where those affected by the weapon “disintegrate” into dust doesn’t look great today either, so it’s clearly a case of the effect being hard to realize visually.  Despite the charming goofiness of the heat rays and the actual snake-like alien ships, the design of the aliens themselves is quite creepy and definitely adds to their presence.  Of course, it helps that we very rarely see the creatures through the film’s last half, adding to the uneasiness felt by their presence.  Aside from some obviously dated effects, The War of the Worlds features consistently flat and unremarkable direction from Byron Haskin.  While the Martians feel like a threat throughout, it has almost nothing to do with Haskin’s steady and lazy direction.  Haskin’s direction doesn’t do much to detract from the overall film, but it does absolutely nothing to add to it.  The direction brings the film down from what could have been incredible heights, making it instead feel like what it is: a pretty good science fiction film that was ahead of its time in terms of visual effects.  On top of unremarkable direction, the lead performances in The War of the Worlds are nothing to write home about.  Both Gene Barry and Ann Robinson do an admirable job of being likeable protagonists, but they never quite go into the territory that Spielberg brought Tom Cruise’s multi-layered loser father character to.  While this isn’t exactly a quiet character study, the lack of any sort of depth or development certainly doesn’t help the film’s case.  Luckily for science fiction fans, The War of the Worlds still feels significant because of its ridiculously fast pacing.  It never pauses for too long, never focuses on insignificant side stories or characters, but instead gives it to us straight.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what everybody wants from a cheesy, fun sci-fi flick?

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The iconic Martian spaceship design from 1953’s The War of the Worlds.

Overall, The War of the Worlds isn’t a great film.  I’m not even completely convinced that it’s a really good film, to be honest.  What we have here though is an incredibly charming and fun (albeit goofy) thrill ride.  While the special effects may seem dated to most today, they do the trick in getting the audience engaged enough to buy into the fantastic story at hand.  The direction and acting may be completely ordinary, but that doesn’t hinder The War of the Worlds the same way it would completely destroy most films.  If you want a fun piece of American history to digest after something with a little more weight like Spielberg’s 2005 film, this might be your ticket.  It may not wow you like it did for audiences in 1953, but it’s a hell of a good time.  The War of the Worlds is cautiously recommended.

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Filed under 50's Sci-Fi, Features, Reviews

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