In the Movie Archaeologists bonus feature on Criterion’s beautiful new Blu-ray edition of The War of the Worlds (1953), Craig Barron and Ben Burtt mention an original Variety review in which the critic called the movie, “socko entertainment.” I had to find and read this review. Sure enough:
War of the Worlds is a socko science-fiction feature, as fearsome as a film as was the Orson Welles 1938 radio interpretation of the H.G. Wells novel.
The review is short, only four paragraphs. Barron and Burtt discuss how The War of the Worlds was a big hit for Paramount, and I wondered if other outlets reviewed it as kindly as Variety. The New York Times certainly did:
Make no mistake about it, science-fiction, like comic books, is a part of our culture, and George Pal, who produced this latest amalgam of fact and fantasy, is no tyro in this field. Like his previous sorties into interplanetary space—Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide—The War of the Worlds is, for all of its improbabilities, an imaginatively conceived, professionally turned adventure, which makes excellent use of Technicolor, special effects by a crew of experts and impressively drawn backgrounds.
There’s not much, if anything, I can share about the history of the novel, the radio play, or the movie that hasn’t been written already… or that isn’t recounted in the Criterion commentary and bonus features. As always, I can only share the impression it made on me following my first viewing in many, many years. It was a very good impression.
I immediately wonder about the era in which it was released. Barron and Burtt remind us of the 1950s “cultural factors” that made it successful: fear and paranoia about atomic war, interest in UFOs, and interest in space travel. But I get the impression The War of the Worlds was what we’d today call a “prestige picture,” unusual for the genre.
Two other movies about alien invasions had been released a few months earlier: Invaders from Mars (April 22) and It Came from Outer Space (June 5.) Both are entertaining enough, but can hardly be considered to be in the same class as The War of the Worlds. Obvious reasons aside (big studio budget, special effects, George Pal, etc.), why is that?
Independently produced by Edward L. Alperson Productions, Invaders from Mars, told a more fantastic story of a young boy discovering aliens are taking over the minds of adults. Produced by Universal International, It Came from Outer Space features aliens that aren’t visiting to cause harm; they’re simply having spaceship trouble.
Compared to the other two, The War of the Worlds is more realistic. In the wonderful narration by Cedric Hardwicke, the story is framed as the next big war following WWI and WWI. The aliens pilot gliding warships that shoot death rays; the red from its “cobra head” creates fire and explosions and the green from its “wings” disintegrates its targets in an eerie glow.
Perhaps more importantly, the relationships are realistic. The obligatory love story is subtle and comes organically as Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) meet cute, then are forced to remain together by circumstance. His final act search for her amid the ruins of downtown Los Angeles adds genuine emotion to the story.
Lest you think The War of the Worlds is entirely a product of its times and the military could actually conduct a peaceful evacuation of L.A., there comes a point when desperate mobs, thinking only of themselves, create as much havoc as the aliens. It’s human nature, I suppose, but it kind of makes you want these people to be hit directly by a death ray.
Due to the magnificent Martians in their flying machines, I always forget that, in a couple scenes, we see the actual creatures. They are the only cheesy aspect of the film. However, when one sneaks up behind Sylvia in a crumbling farmhouse and we see its skinny arm with three suction cup-fingers, science fiction blends into horror. It’s a great scene.
Big studio productions of genre fare can sometimes feel bloated and overdone. The War of the Worlds does not. If anything, its 85 minutes may be too few. Even though the plot efficiently depicts the world wide scope of the threat, its focus on one city and its abrupt ending indicate there could be more to the story..
Written by Barre Lyndon
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells
Directed by Byron Haskin
Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
RT 85 min.
Released on August 26, 1953
Home Video The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)
Variety Staff, The War of the Worlds
Variety, December 31, 1952
A.W., THE SCREEN IN REVIEW; New Martian Invasion Is Seen in 'War of the Worlds,' Which Bows at Mayfair
The New York Times, August 14, 1953