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’ with advanced weaponry, the 1953 George Pal-produced sprawling epic is a violent, destructive, balls-out action picture that 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, it’s low tech by today’s standards, but Pal and director Byron Haskin manage to create a film with 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’ Mercury Theatre radio program in 1938 as a real event (perhaps the first-ever mockumentary), and based on legend it caused mass panic in many cities and towns across America. With the 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 before.
The marvel is in its simplicity – Martians land on Earth and attack. But it has a sense of epic scale that’s executed to perfection. The setup is simple: in the peaceful Southern California town of Linda Rosa, physicist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), along with most of the town’s citizens, watch a meteorite crash to the ground. Later that day the meteorite uncorks and reveals giant alien warship lifepods inside. Attempts at appeasement are deadly, as the powerful ray guns make for an easy kill and much destruction. When the American government discovers that these pods have landed in another area on Earth, they know the planet is under attack.
Send in the Marines!
Southern California soon becomes a battle ground for an Army vs. Aliens battle with buildings, tanks and most of the landscape scorched to flames. We watch the movements of Forrester as his girlfriend, Sylvia, flees the warzone only to have her plane crash 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 and merciless. The aliens are faceless, and they go about their mission of mass destruction without any remorse or pause. The mere sounds of the alien’s cannons are so loud and ear-piercing they imply a level of violence equal to that in any Roland Emmerich disaster movie. And the violence seems even more destructive than in the films of today. There’s nothing sanitized or restricted for the audience.
Steven Spielberg's 2005 version was surprisingly literal to Pal's film. The introduction of the pods in the ground is 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 that it doesn’t come close to the power and resilience of the original.