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Director: Byron Haskin
Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson
With a World War a recent memory and a Cold War a current issue, the stakes for the moviegoing audience of 1953 could only be raised by a war coming from another world.
HG Welles’ 1898 novel set the bar for alien invasions in literature, but barring Orson Welles’ infamous radio play in 1938, it wouldn’t get the big screen treatment until 1953. Moving the original’s then-contemporary Victorian England setting to a still-contemporary American one, Byron Haskin’s film still captures the very real and bleak horror of Welles’ concept – that we are not alone in the universe and we are completely powerless to defend ourselves.
When a large object crashes near the Californian town of Linda Rosa, atomic scientist Dr Clayton Forrester rushes to the scene where he meets Pastor Matthew Collins and his niece Sylvia Van Buren. There’s no evidence of life coming from the object, but later that night it opens up and three guards at the site are killed by an unknown weapon and an EMP shuts down all the technology in the area.
The object turns out to be the spearhead of a Martian invasion of Earth and similar crafts are reported as landing in cities all over the world. The US Army surround the spaceship, but are annihilated when the aliens emerge from the crafts in floating, ray-shaped machines armed with an unstoppable heat ray, as well as a “skeleton beam” that is devastating in its power.
When Pastor Collins is killed when trying to make peace with the invaders, Forrester and Sylvia escape to a farmhouse where they have a close encounter with an actual Martian allowing them to gain a precious blood sample, but across the world, entire cities are being laid to waste by the invading aliens.
The US government makes a last resort decision to drop the atomic bomb on the Martians, but it has no effect. With mass evacuations from the cities, society begins to crumble and it appears to be only a matter of time before humanity is wiped out…
Obviously it had an advantage of being able to draw on its source material, but if you were to say this was the greatest sci-fi horror film of the 1950s, I’m not sure I could say with any conviction you were wrong.
It’s powerfully bleak and intense right from the off. The news reports of previous real-life wars give it a documentary feel, establishing in your brain the horror of conflict and it’s repercussions, meaning when it all kicks in, it feels all the more vivid and visceral.
The intro tour of the solar system is smartly done too. On the surface it’s a scene-setter, a glossy visual explanation to why the Martians chose our own planet to conquer, but subconsciously it’s reminding us of how small we are and how oblivious man is to what’s out there.
It’s only then that the film starts.
Haskin is patient at first, allowing the first contact to happen slowly, drawing us into a state of tension, waiting for the inevitable in a picturesque countryside that’s about to birth an unimaginable horror.
That first glimpse of the heat ray, wiping out men under a white flag is brutal. The slow, cold examination of the trio, the unsettling, pulsing alien noise that precedes it is possibly more unsettling than the outcome.
These things have no interest in parley or peace, they see us as vermin and we’ve got to be exterminated. And there’s nothing we can do about it. From there on in, War Of The Worlds is relentless in showing the power of these alien colonialists. The gliding machines are brilliantly menacing, almost oblivious to any attempt to fight back against them, calmly moving around each city, casually wiping out anyone and everyone they come across.
The knowledge that it’s happening all over the world really helps reinforce the gravity of the situation, backed up my more real-world documentary footage. It all just feels so huge, it’s not like your average invasion film where the threat of it going global is there, in this film the world is brought to its knees in a matter of days.
Particularly affecting is how the supposed last resort of the atom bomb does absolutely nothing. Coming less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this must have hit particularly hard. Then to follow it with the mass evacuations, refugees spilling out of the cities and into the countryside? It’s so, so grim.
Money means nothing, humanity is reduced to its basic levels, there’s looting, there’s rioting and it’s every man for himself. It’s the final days for mankind and it’s brilliantly done and all to the backdrop of the Martians upping their campaign of death and destruction. Awesome.
Well, it’s awesome right up until nearly the end. It’s a small thing, but the only time Haskin mis-steps is the clumsy shoehorning the power of religion into what was a story that was about anything but. The final scene in the church where the gathered refugees pray for a miracle and seem to get one is trite and pointless, tarnishing what up until then was a film that hadn’t put a foot wrong.
Okay, the actual Martian in the farmhouse isn’t the best, looking like someone smooshed a Simon game into ET’s face, but it’s weird enough that it just about works, but on the whole there’s very, very little wrong with this film. And yes, it plays fast and loose with Welles’ original plot, but as a very contemporary updating of the story, it pretty much nails it.
There would be many more adaptations of War Of The Worlds over the years in various mediums, but there’s few that capture the essential horror at its heart as well as this one.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy