“In the First World War and for the first time in the history of man, nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days.
The Second World War involved every continent on the globe and men turned to science for new devices of warfare, which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction.
And now, fought with the terrible weapons of super science, menacing all mankind and every creature on the Earth comes…The War of the Worlds.”
Oh, it’s on now.
Released on August 26th, 1953, after premieres weeks earlier in Atlantic City and New York, The War of the Worlds was a then-contemporary updating of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 tale of Earth’s invasion by aliens from Mars.
As was done with the infamous 1938 radio play created by Orson Welles, Howard Koch and Anne Froelick and performed by Welles’ Mercury Theater, legendary producer George Pal updated the novel’s Victorian-era trappings. Instead of the story unfolding in upstate New York as was done for the radio play, this time the action was moved from England to “present day” California. The enormous tripod walking machines from the book are replaced by floating “war machines” that emit hellish energy from ray cannons mounted atop curved, metallic necks. Rather than feeding on humans as is shown in the story, the Martians of the film simply annihilate everyone and everything in their path, carving wide swaths of destruction as they proceed with their conquest of Earth.
The film unfolds in fairly straightforward fashion, opening with a narration that subtly updates what has to rank among the greatest opening passages in the history of the written word:
“No one would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than Man’s. Yet, across the gulf of space on the planet Mars, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, slowly and surely drawing their plans against us.”
Once the aliens make their presence known, the story kicks into gear as the Martians begin their terrifying campaign, with war machines spreading out from landing sites around the world and obliterating everything they encounter. We hear frequent updates about losing contact with cities and countries across the globe, and how the Martian machines are unstoppable. In the finest tradition of 1950s science fiction films, the specter of nuclear war even rears its ugly head as American military forces attempt to destroy a trio of war machines with an atomic bomb.
Missed it by —> <— that much.
Gene Barry, a popular actor of the time, portrays Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist who’s among the first to realize the truth of the Martians and their deadly potential. Ann Robinson plays Sylvia van Buren, whom Forrester meets while on a fishing trip near the small town where she lives. As is typical of the films of this period, Robinson is given little to do except scream and be frightened by the Martians. Les Tremayne, already a veteran of film and radio, is the no-nonsense General Mann, the military officer responsible for devising a defense against the invading aliens.
All seems lost and the Martians are poised to wipe out humanity, until….
“The Martians had no resistance to the bacteria in our atmosphere to which we have long since become immune. Once they had breathed our air, germs, which no longer affect us, began to kill them. The end came swiftly. All over the world, their machines began to stop and fall. After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.”
Yep. The Martians succumb to our planet’s bacteria and other nasty little housewarming gifts. With the aliens and their machines now inert, survivors emerge from shelter into the sunlight, faced with rebuilding the world which nearly had been taken from them.
The War of the Worlds is and remains one of the best of 1950s cinematic science fiction films, sticking with the relevant plot points of H.G. Wells’ original novel while successfully updating it for a “modern” audience. It’s an approach which continues to serve the material, with several adaptations (and even a few continuations) of the original book being published as recently as last year. Alien invasion stories in every medium owe something to the novel.
The film even spawned a sequel of sorts. After an aborted attempt in the 1970s to adapt the story to television, a syndicated War of the Worlds series was produced beginning in 1988. Using the 1953 film as a springboard, the series puts forth the notion that the invading aliens weren’t killed but instead forced into a state of deep hibernation that resembled death. Thirty-five years after the “1953 invasion,” all evidence of the aliens (no longer called “Martians”) and their technology has been scattered and buried by the world’s government and military powers. When a group of the aliens are accidentally revived, they begin a campaign to rescue the other surviving members of the original invasion armada and to make contact with their home world so that a renewed attack might one day commence. The series lasted for two seasons, a constant victim of thin plots, thinner budgets and mediocre production values.
And yet…I still kind of dig it. Even as it attempted to convince viewers that the entire planet somehow managed to forget an alien invasion, and the first season showed us no overt evidence of the attack, the show still managed to find ways to weave in bits of continuity and homage not just from the film but also the original novel as well as the 1938 radio broadcast. It was an interesting experiment, and I actually like the first season a bit more than the second year.
Other film versions of The War of the Worlds have been created in various media over the years, including Steven Spielberg’s big-budget 2005 take on the story. While that’s a serviceable film, I tend to enjoy the 1953 version more. Even as I write this, the BBC is developing an all-new adaptation of the original novel, set to air later in 2018, and October 30th will mark the 80th anniversary of the Mercury Theater broadcast. I have no doubts that there will be other attempts to re-imagine the material at some point…assuming they don’t just go with another Independence Day sequel or something, but for now? I can watch this one any day.
Happy 65th Anniversary, The War of the Worlds. You don’t look a day over 50.