The War of the Worlds (1953)

D: Byron Haskin
S: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson

Relatively straightforward filmization of H.G. Welles' classic novel, updated to the mid twentieth century and slightly softened from the original text, but containing most of its key elements. A crash landing meteorite turns out to be an alien spaceship which precedes a full-scale invasion from the red planet, causing civil, military and religious forces to respond without success. Stolid scientists, sincere soldiers and passive women fill out the character list, but Haskin effectively creates and sustains an atmosphere of dread and terror, aided by excellent, Oscar-winning effects which have become symbols of the period (animator and effects guru George Pal was the film's producer).

Much of the essential despair of the novel is captured, though the ironic resolution is replaced by a happy romance (in the novel, the narrator walks up to the aliens to surrender because nothing is left to live for, only to find they have all died from earth diseases. Here Barry and Robinson are reunited in a church.) But plot questions are moot in the face of the film's triumphant production design and sleek special effects. These have dated only insofar as the actual technology is now apparent, but the film still works remarkably well even though it is dependent on them.

It is popular now to read the film as part of the mid-1950s communist hysteria which gripped the United States (the Martians representing a relentless, unreasoning force which overwhelms ordinary, decent individuals), and this is true to the extent that the context of its original reception and its historical placement support that reading. But it is only as central to the text as it is specific to the reading, and the fear of invasion can be taken as a universal constant. This makes the film watchable today, even though the circumstances under which it was produced no longer exist. It is perhaps less engaging, and certainly less shocking, than it once was, but it helps to view the film within its original context insofar as it allows the rather upright and stuffy characters to elicit some sympathy.

Worth seeing though, especially when its progeny are enjoying such a high profile (Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, etc)

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.