H. G. Wells’ novel, The War of the Worlds, was first published in 1898. Forty years later, it was adapted into a radio show with the help of Orson Welles. The show was so effectual and realistic in its depiction that it created hysteria as listeners thought the world was really being attacked by extraterrestrial adversaries. In 1953, Wells’ story was brought to the silver screen under Byron Haskin’s direction. The film focuses heavily on a small southern California town during the Martian invasion. It is surprisingly well executed and will likely leave an impression on viewers.
The War of the Worlds’ story centers on a Martian invasion of Earth. Those living in a small California town initially believe the first alien spacecraft to be some kind of meteor or space particle, but it quickly becomes clear that it is an aggressive, extraterrestrial vehicle. Science and military philosophy collide as Earth’s inhabitants scramble to devise an actionable strategy to defeat the invaders. Time is of the essence as the aliens begin razing cities throughout the world.
The film’s overall pace is typical for this type of film. A nice opening sequence, complete with narration, sets the stage. The first act is a bit slow as the mystery builds, though once the Martians become violent and the military responds, the pace accelerates. The third act is the best, however.
Not surprisingly, the situation becomes desperate. Just when you think it cannot get worse, it does and in an effective, stressful manner. It would have been nice if the pace could have hastened sooner, especially since the film has a relatively short runtime. But, considering the story and its context, the pacing framework itself is natural and the final package is tight.
The movie does notable job utilizing radio broadcasts and military updates to show the global impact and scale of the invasion while maintaining its micro-level focus of a small town outside Los Angeles. The film’s use of short interstitials terrifically bridge the story and create cohesion so the narrative does, in fact, feel like a global event is unfolding, not simply a small, isolated incident in California. I found it to be heavy-handed when it became clear that Washington, D.C. was the only site to be unscathed.
There are several key aspects regarding The War of the Worlds’ tone. Broadly, the movie does a great job showing the hysteria and dire situation, particularly in the second and third acts. More specifically, there is a theme of communication versus confrontation. This element is complete with ethical and theological aspects. At a brief moment, the characters discuss whether or not the Martians are “living beings” due to them not being human. A reverend even contends that the Martians may be closer to the Creator, since they are not human. Although that notion may or may not be sound, I was not expecting the film to have such serious undertones. I initially thought the film would be more campy and light, but was pleasantly surprised to see its serious motifs.
The War of the Worlds also features a juxtaposition between science and military might. Although scientists work with the military, it becomes clear that Earth’s inhabitants may come to rely on science to discover a way to save civilization. As the film was released in the early 1950s, it is great that one of the scientists is a female.
Another more minor tonal premise is the mere problem of communication. People think terrestrial communication conventions, such as waving a white flag, are universal. It is clear that such a mindset is flawed and making such assumptions can yield deadly results.
Gene Barry and Ann Robinson serve as The War of the Worlds’ principals. Barry’s Dr. Clayton Forrester has a calm demeanor. It is nice to see it shift rather dramatically in the third act. It is interesting to watch Forrester have an advisory role with the military and then work with the team at the Pacific Institute of Science and Technology.
Robinson’s Sylvia Van Buren is also well acted. Robinson and Barry have great on-screen chemistry. The two also share excellent sequences of tension and terror. Robinson’s depiction of Van Buren’s panic is memorable, as are the last ten minutes of the film.
The cinematography and editing are additional strengths of the film. Some of the sequences and shots are surprisingly impactful. Library shots are also used well during the scenes showing other locations and military technology. The editing in these sequences is smooth in terms of creating continuity.
The War of the Worlds has good production design. The heat ray and vaporization effects are good and ominous. In some scenes, the rays appear as sparks, while in others they look more like hand drawn beams. By comparison, I thought the former was stronger than the latter.
The set design, particularly the structures that get destroyed, is impressive. The effects of the Martians’ weapons is haunting, too. This is evidenced, in part, by the fact that the film received the Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects. I felt that the use of ash was actually more efficacious than the scenes showing subjects getting “beamed out,” or erased from various camera shots.
The design of the Martians themselves is good and correlates to the cinematography with there being a powerful camera composition near the film’s conclusion. The depiction of the Martians’ spacecraft was likely more intimidating during the time of the film’s original release. Today, it definitely reflects the film’s inherent Space Age aesthetic. Luckily, the advance weapons systems offset the Happy Meal toy appearance. Perhaps the seemingly innocent appearance of the craft was intended to be contrasted with their genocidal capability. If that was the case, it should have been better communicated. Nonetheless, this is more of a note than a critique. Such design style was popular in the 1950s and 1960s and the film’s original context needs to be considered.
Byron Haskin’s direction of The War of the Worlds is quite good. The sense of hopelessness that Haskin’s conveys, joined by the use of interstitials, strong performances, and memorable scenes shows the well-rounded nature of his direction. As mentioned above, it would have been nice to have the pace quicken sooner, but the third act makes it all worthwhile. The way in which Haskin weaves the various tonal elements together is something for which he should be commended. The aforementioned Academy Award win and nominations for Best Sound, Recording and Best Film Editing also buttress his direction.
In conclusion, The War of the Worlds is a great film that exceeded my expectations. The nuanced manner in which the film breaks the stereotypical sci-fi, especially alien invasion, paradigm is laudable. The more serious tonal motifs succeed in making it a remarkable film. If you enjoy 1950s-styled sci-fi or if you are looking for a classic alien film that is filled with important subtexts and topics of debate, then you will not want to miss The War of the Worlds.
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Production: Paramount Pictures
Director: Byron Haskin
Producer: George Pal
Screenwriter: H. G. Wells (book); Barré Lyndon (screenplay)
Director of Photography: George Barnes
Editor: Everett Douglas
Art Direction: Albert Nozaki; Hal Pereira
Set Decoration: Sam Comer; Emile Kuri
Music: Leith Stevens
Budget: ca. $2,000,000
Release Date: August 26, 1953 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
Copyright Holder: Paramount Pictures Corporation
Cast: Gene Barry; Ann Robinson; Les Tremayne; Robert Cornthwaite; Sandro Giglio; Lewis Martin; Paul Frees; William Phipps; Vernon Rich; Jack Kruschen; Ann Codee; Russ Conway; Russ Bender; Cedric Hardwicke
- - - - - - -
Rating: N/A; Descriptors: N/A
Running Time: 1 hours and 25 minutes (85 mins.)
 Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, s.v. “The War of the Worlds (novel by Wells),” accessed June 1, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-War-of-the-Worlds-novel-by-Wells.