The War of the Worlds (1953) dir. Byron Haskin
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Lewis Martin, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwaite
By Alan Bacchus
Based on the famed H.G. Wells 1898 novel which told the story of a Victorian town overrun by alien ‘tripods’ which advanced weaponry, the 1953 George Pal-produced sprawling epic is a violent, destructive, balls out action picture which holds its ground even today as one of the greatest science-fiction pictures ever made.
It’s been over 50 years since the release of this film and the special effects, tension and suspense render the b-movie material so immersive it’s almost invisible to its age. Sure its low tech by today’s standards, but Pal and director Byron Haskin manage to create as film which such unrelenting force and destruction, it feels even more violent and vicious than any disaster movie made today.
Of course, the story was famously adapted by Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre radio program in 1938 as real (perhaps the first-ever mockumentary), according to legend causing mass panic in many cities and towns across America. With that bar set as high as it was by Welles, Hungarian-born puppeteer-animator turned sci-fi movie producer, George Pal had to reach higher than Hollywood sci-fi had ever gone.
The marvel is in its simplicity – Martians land on Earth and attack, but with a sense of epic scale executed to perfection. The set up is simple: In the peaceful Southern California town of Linda Rosa, physicist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) along with most of its citizens watch a meteorite crash into the ground. Later that day the meteorite uncorks revealing giant alien warship lifepods inside. Attempts at appeasement are deadly as their powerful ray guns make for easy kill and much destruction. When the American government discovers these pods have landed in other place around the world, they know the planet is under attack.
Send in the Marines!
Southern California soon becomes a battle ground for Army vs. Aliens battle with buildings, tanks, and most of the landscape scorched to flames. We watch the movements of Forrester and his girlfriend Sylvia flees the warzone, only to crash their plane behind enemy lines. With the couple split up Forrester has to navigate his way through the warzone back into town to find his beloved.
‘War of the Worlds” is mean, tough, merciless. The aliens are faceless, and go about their mission of mass destruction without any remorse or pause. The mere sounds of the alien’s cannons is so loud and ear-piercing it implies a level of violence equal to that any Roland Emmerich disaster movie. And the violence seem even more destructive than films of today. There’s nothing sanitized, or restricted for audiences.
Not even Steven Spielberg could better the Pal/Haskin version. Spielberg's 2005 version was surprisingly literal to Pal's film. The introduction of the pods in the ground are built up with the same kind of tension. The humanist struggle from Forrester's point of view is attempted, but made too sappy and on-the-nose-preachy lacking the violent nihilistic edge of Pal's penchant for destruction. Spielberg smartly kept the home invasion scene intact from the 53 version. A suspenseful moment when Forrester and Sylvia fight off the prying eye of a pod tentacle while holed up in a vacant home is choreographed and shot almost identically to Haskin's version.
I'm sure Mr. Spielberg is proud of his own film, but I'm sure even he will admit it never even came close to touching the power and resiliance of the original.