Looking Back At THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)

Tony has invisible force-legs this time around.
HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds is a piece of work that has proven itself to be one of science-fiction’s ‘master stories’ – the quintessential alien invasion story, which can be tailored to meet the needs of any era, and the fears of any age.

The 1953 Hollywood interpretation, with a screenplay by Barre Lyndon, directed by Byron Haskin, and produced by the now-legendary George Pal, takes Wells’ fable of the might of the British Empire being crushed by a more powerful enemy from Mars and updates it for a Cold War America with remarkable ease and success.

It’s very much tailored to 1950s American mainstream belief – there’s a lot more contrast between America as a nation rooted in its churches as a source of comfort than Wells gave to his characters. In fact, the main religious figure encountered by Wells’ protagonist in the book becomes an enormous pain in the butt – to the extent that the protagonist takes to clouting him round the head to get him to shut up for periods at a time.

None of that makes its way into the 1953 version, where a priest takes on the role of Ogilvy the astronomer and attempts to communicate with the Martians before the conflict degenerates into a full-scale war, and is incinerated for his trouble. What’s more, doing what adaptations have always seen fit to do, the 1953 version changes the relationships of the central protagonist, so that here, he’s neither nameless nor idle nor married, but a scientist, Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), whose growing interest in Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) provides a driving force for his journey in the movie. And tellingly, Van Buren is the niece of the incinerated priest, and always runs to churches for protection when she feels scared.
“In God we trust” is a key theme of the 1953 War Of The Worlds, especially as the film goes out of its way to show that nothing else humanity has is any match for the Martians – not its military, not its technology, and not even the nuclear capability that had played such an enormous part in stopping the Second World War, and that was the backbone of the developing Cold War. When all else fails, and when it seems the Martians can take over the world in 6 days – “The same time as it took to make it,” observes Van Buren, deadpan as only the 1950s could be – people run to their churches. You can expand that to synagogues, mosques, etc in your head if you like, but the 1953 version very pointedly doesn’t, because white America has only one God worth speaking of in that era.

The structural changes from Wells’ book are actually, from a pure storytelling point of view, small strokes of genius from Barre Lyndon. If the novel of The War Of The Worlds has one significant flaw, it is that the narrator spends two weeks of the telling time trapped under rubble with a raving curate, and so, as it were, misses the best part of the spectacle that the war between the powers of Earth and Mars could bring. By separating Dr Forrester and Miss Van Buren early on, Barre gives the piece a vital personal love quest element to the story, running parallel to the “trying everything in our power to stop the Martians” storyline. It allows Forrester to be present for a lot more of the Martian action, and in a sense, to give 1950s audiences the science-fiction epic they paid their entrance fee for.

And let’s not beat about that bush. If you’re looking for a sonically perfect Martian invasion, you can do a lot worse than Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War Of The Worlds. If you’re looking for a version that gives you a VISUAL alien extravaganza, you probably can’t do better than the 1953 version. Once the first cylinder has unscrewed itself on the American equivalent of Horsell Common, you pretty much know you’re in trouble when a solid-looking tentacle emerges, with a hissing, pinging sound, somewhere between a submarine’s radar and a steampunk rattlesnake. And when the heat ray lets loose, it’s a gorgeously alien shriek of a thing.
Likewise, the emergence of the first Martian ‘Tripods’ is a thing from which you can’t take your eyes. Entirely more alien and spaceship-looking than anything Wells wrote down, it’s a distinction mentioned in the film – they look like spaceships floating in the air. But there’s some gorgeously plausible technobabble laid down to explain that the legs are there – but that they’re legs of anti-gravitation force, rather than anything as primitive as metal. The result is a series of tripods that look entirely unlike any other representations of the Martian fighting machines, but somehow work rather more effectively than most.

And, quite apart from anything else, once these Martian fighting machines get going, there’s absolutely no stopping them, and the screen is filled with ACTUAL hardcore warfare. The scene with the Thunder Child in the book – Mankind’s last hope and most powerful weapon against the fighting machines – is transposed to the 1950s with air attacks and nuclear weapons, and the point of Wells’ book comes shining through. This is what happens when we as a warlike species encounter a foe that is simply BETTER at terror than we are.

The visuals and particular alien sounds in this version of the story are superb and ground-breaking, and while you might be able to eat popcorn to this movie, it gives you more than your dollarsworth of visual spectacle – in a precursor of films like Independence Day, there are even still photos of the fall of the Eiffel Tower to the Martians.
And by making the fighting machines so vividly visual and unique (thank you hugely, designer Al Nozaki for the manta ray-style fighting machines), Pal and his crew gave us a version of The War Of The Worlds that stuck in the mind long after the film ended. While there’s no use for the black smoke projector of the book, and no mention whatever of the red weed (arguably a missed opportunity for symbolism in the Cold War version of The War Of The Worlds!), the Fifties fighting machines add a green ‘skeleton ray’ to the power of their standard heat ray, dissolving chemical bonds and making people’s skeletons briefly visible in the moment of death (a trick that would later be adopted on British TV by Doctor Who’s Daleks). And unlike Wells’ Martians in the Victorian era, by 1953, the audience was sufficiently science-fiction literate to accept that the Martians would have force fields around their machines (which deliciously appear as a kind of force ‘bell jar’ when the military try to fire at them).

While Gene Barry, seen from the 21st century, makes for a somewhat bloodless stereotype in the hero role of Dr Forrester – both handsome, square-jawed, and a genius scientist – the 1953 version of The War Of The Worlds is pretty much a picture perfect version of the story for its age. Wells’ secularist approach to life gives way to the ‘In God we trust’ message of 1950s America, in particular since science is seen to utterly let them down in persecution of the war. A red-blooded American love story allows dating teens at drive-ins to watch it, get scared, snuggle closer and have something to celebrate at the end. And the modernizing of the story to express Cold War fears and sentiments, and to advance the technology Man has at his disposal and STILL have it rendered ineffective by the Martians, is a salutary lesson that may well have hit home at the time.
Narration at the start and finish was provided by Cedric Hardwicke (famous for lots of things, but best known to Americans as Pharoah Sethi in The Ten Commandments), and it’s rather less portentous than, for example, Richard Burton’s narration in the Jeff Wayne version. In fact, at the start it’s almost chatty, as Hardwicke explains (quoting from the book) how only the Earth was right for the Martians to invade within our solar system. It’s a slightly unusual element of justification, but in the Cold War climate, it reinforces the idea of American audiences at the time that different people (and particularly Communists) would want to hurt America out of “jealousy” at all its freedoms. In a similar way, the Martians look to the Earth “with envious eyes.”

And the ending stays true to Wells’ original, but shows the impact of bacteria hitting the Martians right in the middle of some heat ray mayhem, making it a much more sudden demise than the book envisages. And again, the departure from Wells’ secularism to satisfy pious 1950s American audiences is in full view at the end, when Dr Forrester heavily underlines the ‘difference’ about America, attributing the sudden morbidity of the Martians to an act of God, saying his countrymen “all prayed for a miracle.”

That it won an Academy award for best visual effects in 1953 is no surprise, because even today, it still looks (and sounds) incredibly impressive as a rendering of the ultimate invasion story. That’s partially because it looks and sounds like NO OTHER VERSION of that story. But it’s also because, while the film’s 1950s militarism and religiosity has aged somewhat poorly, and while you might not necessarily be able to pick Gene Barry and Anne Robinson out of a line up of other Fifties heroes, you remember this version of The War Of The Worlds.

You remember it for its staggering visuals, its jaw-dropping fighting machine designs, and the use of both visuals and signature sound effects to bring the shudder down your spine. For all the 1953 version co-opted and then discarded Wells’ motif of the aliens as a lesson on our own behaviour, you still remember this version to this day for the visual and audio power of its invaders, because it’s their design, along with the visual and audio effects, that turns the 1953 version of The War Of The Worlds into an always rewatchable science fiction classic.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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