FILM REVIEW: The War of the Worlds (1953)

The War of the Worlds (USA, 1953)
Directed by Byron Haskin
Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson,
Les Tremayne, Cedric Hardwicke

It's a common complaint that American adaptations of British novels lose the quintessential nature of their source in favour of something more glossy and marketable. That's certainly true of The War of the Worlds, the first attempt to put H. G. Wells' iconic novel up on screen, and the first to come in the shadow of Orson Welles' ground-breaking radio play. It's not as tense as Welles' version, or as enjoyable as Steven Spielberg's take, but it is a perfectly passable adaptation with a number of strong points.The film starts off with our narrator (played by English character actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke) guiding us on a whistle-stop tour through the solar system. He explains the hostile nature of other planets' atmospheres, concluding that if the Martians should invade anywhere, it would have to be Earth. The Martians are presented as an intelligent race, and we are to some extent shown the build-up to the invasion from their point of view.

Having started promisingly, it isn't long before some of the film's budgetary constraints become apparent. Like a lot of B-movies, the film is heavily reliant on stock footage during its bigger, more action-packed moments. Its re-use of the same shots of cannons firing and tanks rolling into battle make it seem like an ad campaign for the American army. In the middle of the film there is also a montage of destruction and chaos intercut with footage of the actors, a technique which would later be used to perfection in the opening sequence of Mad Max 2.On the other hand, we have the special effects of the aliens. This is the element which Byron Haskin and his team had to get right, and generally speaking, they did. The swan-shaped copper aliens were specifically designed not to resemble flying saucers, and in the wide shots especially they are pretty threatening. They are not, however, tripods as detailed in the book; rather than walking (which is difficult to replicate mechanically), the war machines float via beams of blue light, which at the very least distract us from the wire work.But while the war machine designs are truly out of this world, the Martians themselves are disappointing human. The faces of the Martians, which are replicated in their periscopes, are made up of red, blue and green panels, which are arranged to vaguely resemble the outline of a human face - the red panel is at the bottom to denote a mouth, and the blue and green panels above it could easily be eyes. As is so often the case, the aliens in The War of the Worlds look most sinister from a distance - when a Martian touches our heroine on the shoulder, it's a bit pathetic.This version of The War of the Worlds deviates sharply from the novel in a number of ways, some interesting and successful, others less so. Most obviously, the action is relocated from 1890s Woking to 1950s California, and in doing so a lot of the substance of Wells' novel is lost. So much of the original story is about turning the accepted British political and social attitudes on their heads by portraying a war in which the British are the victims of an invasion rather than the conquerors. British imperialism, Herbert Spencer's natural selection and the 'English way of life' are all held under the microscope and shown to be ruthless and unjust.By transferring the story to America, as Welles had done, The War of the Worlds becomes more about the Cold War and American fears of 'Reds under the beds'. Some of this substance fits quite nicely around the original plot: the Martians, who come from 'the Red planet', are demonstrated to be highly organised and efficient, and working collectively towards a single goal. But even as bald allegory goes, it's not as satisfying an examination of Communist threat as Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (which itself is trumped by the 1970s version by Philip Kaufman).

More frustratingly, the film makes big concessions to melodrama. We are required, for instance, to believe that Gene Barry is a famous and highly intelligent scientist, despite the fact that he looks every bit as chisel-jawed and rugged as Charlton Heston. When Ann Robinson's character questions him about this, he says that he shaved his beard off before coming to town and so no longer resembles his photo on the cover of Time. As laughable excuses go, it's up there with the line in The Hunt for Red October in which Sean Connery's unique accent is explained away by saying he is Lithuanian.Being an old Hollywood film, the role of women is, shall we say, restricted. Robinson is required to scream and be hysterical on cue, while all the men around here can be noble, restrained and carry out a plan of action. While the male leads dash around the bunker, planning their attack on the Martians, she is left to hand up cups of coffee; and after the couple have sheltered in a tumbledown house, she makes Barry his breakfast first thing in the morning. The film may not be as sexist as The Snows of Kilimanjaro, but it's hardly pushing the envelope when it comes to female roles.

Despite these contrivances, however, we find ourselves bonding to these characters and staying with them for the course of the film. Although their introduction might be slightly silly, they are generally well-drawn and sympathetic. We certainly care about them enough to worry that they might get separated and never see each other again, as happens in the last twenty minutes when the film really girds its loins and shows human society on the verge of collapse. Critics of The War of the Worlds have written the story off as people running away for 90 minutes, but these scenes are both visually spectacular and emotionally engrossing.The film is at its most interesting when it taps into the characters trying to cope with the invasion and depicting the surrounding chaos. Aside from the street scenes in which men are turning on men and money has become worthless, there are a number of moments of genuine panic or alarm which stick in one's mind. The scene of the vicar wandering out to meet the Martians while reciting Psalm 23 will have you on edge, as will the feeling of desperation after the aliens survive an atomic bomb.

As with all productions of The War of the Worlds, we eventually have to face one of the anticlimactic endings in literature. Having the aliens being killed by bacteria is a classic deus ex machina, drawing the action to a convenient close through a plot device which is deeply unsatisfying. But rather than go the way of The Blob or Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and leave us on a daring cliff-hanger, this adaptation takes the original ending and manages to fudge it further.Wells was a scientific socialist who believed in rational progress towards a better society. In the book, our narrator takes shelter with a priest who loses his mind and meets a sticky end: the rational survive, the irrational do not. But Haskin and his screenwriter Barré Lyndon (an obvious but witty pseudonym) fudge this by inserting religious themes. Just before the Martians start falling out of the sky, the survivors are gathered in a church praying for a miracle. The narrator explains that "humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this earth.". Suggesting after such carnage that God was involved all the time simply doesn't cut the mustard in this context.The War of the Worlds is perfectly passable tosh. It doesn't have the political balls or ambition of Orson Welles' version, and it deviates from its source so wildly that purists will be annoyed. But there is enough schlocky B-movie charm in it to entertain for its short running time, and those who are not fans of Spielberg's version will probably enjoy this more. It's nothing to write home about, but as 1950s B-movies go it has lasted and dated surprisingly well.

Rating: 3/5
Verdict: Perfectly passable B-movie tosh


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