When H.G. Wells, the grandfather of science fiction, released his serialized story of War of the Worlds he not only created one of the best examples of the genre but also a template for all the alien invasion books and movies for generations to come, and his book itself has been adapted many times from the Orson Welles radio play that panicked a nation to a Spielberg film starring Tom Cruise and two annoying kids, but the first such adaption would be the one produced by a master of the genre himself, George Pal.
When H.G. Wells penned War of the Worlds back in 1897 he was commenting on British Imperialism, superstition and the theory of evolution and much as his book The Time Machine reflected the author’s socialist political views and the anxiety surrounding the Industrial Revolution, but as in the case of both these books, the filmic adaptations tended to strip much of the deeper meaning and replace it with stalwart heroes punching things. So let’s take a look at how the first adaption of War of the Worlds went down and where the filmmakers went right and where they veered quite a bit from the book.
Updated for contemporary times, and moving the setting from Britain to America – much as Orson Welles did for his radio play – we find a movie that embodies the Cold War paranoia of the 50s, and while the original author’s intent was to show the devastation an invading society – Wells not being a fan of his own country’s tactics around the globe – this 1953 adaptation is set in a world embroiled with the Red Scare and the threat of the atomic bomb. After the movie’s opening introduction, where we learn from the narrator (Cedric Hardwicke) that “Across the gulf of space on the planet Mars, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely joined their plans against us.” This narration is one of the few direct lifts from the book and beautifully sets up the dangers our heroes will be facing.
The plot to 1953’s War of the World is an incredibly economical beast for at mere 85-minutes the story just races along at break-neck speeds. When a supposed meteor lands near a small Southern California town scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), who is one of those movie scientists who are experts in multiple fields, and before he can fully enjoy the local square dance with the beautiful town librarian Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), the meteor is revealed to be a spacecraft that is inhabited by aliens who are more about death rays than diplomacy. Things get really bad when Martian war machines emerge from the crater and decimate the military forces allied against them. These war machines pack weaponry that can either disintegrate their opponents with a “skeleton-beam” or burn them to a crisp with their heat-ray.
Note: The manta ray-looking ship, with its cobra-like periscope, is easily one of the best-designed alien ships in cinema history and with the added brilliant sound effects it is terrifying to behold. Producer George Pal had intended the war machines to walk on the tall tripod legs as illustrated in the book but the studio nixed this idea as being too expensive.
While fleeing the destruction wrought by the Martians Forrester and Sylvia attempt to escape via a small plane but soon are forced down near an abandoned farmhouse, unfortunately, a Martian cylinder “lands” right into the farmhouse and our two heroes are trapped in the rubble. They do manage to escape just before the farmhouse is obliterated but not before meeting a Martian face to face and taking a souvenir in the form of a Martian probe and they head with it to Pacific Tech in the hopes of finding a way to defeat the invaders. A quick study of Martian blood allows them to deduce that the aliens are rather anemic and frail and if they can’t beat their machines may have better luck attacking their biology. Sadly, the scientist never gets a chance to save the day as a mob of looters hijack their trucks and smash all their equipment, in a scene that is rather terrifying in its reality, but just as the end is nigh the war machines suddenly start to power down and crash. Turns out that while Martians were impervious to humanity’s weapons, they had “No resistance to the bacteria in our atmosphere to which we have long since become immune. 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.”
George Pal’s War of the Worlds was a landmark in cinematic science fiction and heralded a boom in the alien invasion saucer movie genre, leading to such classics as It Came From Outer Space and Earth vs the Flying Saucers, but as an adaptation of Wells’ book, it missed the mark by quite a fair margin. In the novel, there was no heroic scientist, a character that would become a staple of the genre, as the unnamed narrator of the book is a 19th-century writer fleeing the invasion while trying to find his wife. As for the Martians themselves, as mentioned, the movie went with a craft that floats on “invisible legs” instead of the massive tripod as depicted in the book, but the Martian themselves look quite different than their literary counterparts. In the book, they were bear-like in size with greyish and oily skin, had lipless V-shaped mouths and sported “Gorgon groups of tentacles” while the creatures in the movie were two parts creepy to one party goofy.
Another key difference in the Martians is their complete invulnerability in the movie, they are seen floating along the ground with blister-like force fields that no weapon can penetrate and when even the atom bomb fails to make a dent we get the military freaking the shit out, “Guns, tanks, bombs – they’re like toys against them!” The Martian tripods are far from invulnerable in the book as a group of them are wiped out by army units positioned around the cylinder and later one of the Martian fighting machines is brought down in a fight with a British battleship. The military having a few victories does not lessen the danger of the Martian invasion as their heat-ray and chemical weapons are devastating – the movie completely leaves out the poisonous “black smoke” from the book and the Martian “Red Weeds” as well as the fact that the aliens seem to be harvesting people for food – and that the overwhelming Martian forces make it clear that despite the military’s best efforts the Martian victory is inevitable, that is until by an onslaught of earthly pathogens, to which they have no immunity, takes them out.
As for the film’s ending, with people praying for a miracle and God stepping in to save the day, things are a lot different in the book, even though Wells does write that the Martians were “Slain after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in His wisdom, has put upon this earth” the depiction of religious people in his novel are far from flattering, there is no heroic Pastor Collins (Lewis Martin) who dies a martyr’s death, instead, there is a cowardly and thoroughly uninspiring parish priest who the narrator regards with disgust, and the film’s final scene in the church, with our heroes reunited while a heavenly choir can be heard, has no parallel in the original book.
Now, if George Pal’s movie is, at best, a rather loose adaptation of the book its impact on cinema and the genre cannot be understated as is the brilliance of director Bryon Haskin and the Paramount crew who all worked towards assembling a truly terrifying invasion tale. Not only was this a tight and well-orchestrated movie but it had Academy Award-winning special effects and sound designs that though iconic were pillaged by dozens of movies to follow, and the Martian war machines, which were designed by Al Nozaki, were the true stars of the picture – no slight to Gene Barry or Ann Robinson – which all went towards making it one of the best of the postwar American science-fiction films. Though some aspects of the film are rather dated, what with the Cold War theme being fairly predominant, there is no denying the greatness and importance of George Pal’s version of War of the Worlds. This is a must-see for fans of cinema history and science fiction in particular.
Note: Many other people tried to get a War of the Worlds movie greenlit, including the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Alexander Korda, but the one man I do wish had been involved was legendary animator Ray Harryhausen, whose preliminary designs looked fantastic.
War of the Worlds (1953)
Movie Rank - 7.5/10
This science-fiction feature is hands down one of the best examples of the genre and George Pal and company should be heralded as true pioneers, that it failed to quite capture the intent of the H.G. Wells books is a little disappointing but the end result was still a marvellous film.