WAR OF THE WORLDS

(1953)
With Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite
Directed by Byron Haskin
Produced by George Pal
Reviewed by JB

"Hey, need a light?  Ha, I kill me... and you too!"     Animator and special effects artist George Pal produced and/or directed several classic science fiction movies, and WAR OF THE WORLDS, which he produced, is certainly only of the most popular. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells, which had previously and famously been adapted in 1938 for radio by Orson Welles, WAR OF THE WORLDS stands as one of the more imaginative and intelligent sci-fi films of the 1950s.

    Directed by frequent Pal-collaborator Byron Haskin, WAR OF THE WORLDS follows the premise of Wells's novel if not the exact plot.  Martians, looking for a new world to replace their depleted Mars, crash land their vessels all over the world and then systematically destroy the major cities of the world.  No human weapons, including atom bombs, have any effect on them, and the only recourse for people is to keep running and hiding.  Gene Barry and Ann Robinson are the stand-ins for humanity, and their story is the story of what it would be like for all of us in such a situation.

    Compared to the effects Steven Spielberg had at his disposal for his 2005 adaptation of the novel, some of the effects of the 1953 are dated.  The most famous  - the Martian flying machines - remain iconic.  They may not be the tripod-shaped walkers of the novel, but smartly, the designers did not simply create yet another flying saucer as seen in other sci-fi films of the time, but came up with a new, believable and, yes, awesome-looking creation.  Of course, in truth, the flying machines were held up with wires, which were originally invisible due to the film process used to make the film, but which later became visible to film viewers when the film was restruck using a more advanced process. The digital age of DVDs and Blu-ray do the film no favors, as apparently the wires can now clearly be seen in all their hi-def digital glory.  I watched this film on a streaming service with a picture equivalent to a decent VHS tape, so I did not see any wires, but I have experienced something similar when watching THE WIZARD OF OZ on DVD and seeing, for the first time, the wire that supported up Ray Bolger's Scarecrow before Dorothy gets him down from his pole.  In our quest for constantly-improving clarity and detail, we are destroying some of the magic of old movies.  

    The effects of George Pal and Byron Haskin's WAR OF THE WORLDS may not be up to par with those found in Steven Spielberg's more-recent version, but the 1953 film still stands head and shoulders above that bloated and tedious movie because of its imagination and its cast.  (One great exchange on the IMDB boards I found: "I'll see your ten Tom Cruises and see you one Gene Barry!"/"I fold!").  It still doesn't solve the problem many versions of the story have - the Martians are taken down by forces other than human, so there is no "Yay! We defeated them!" moment - but at least this WAR OF THE WORLDS doesn't overstay its welcome halfway through its running time.  Right at the point where you may start to think "How are they gonna defeat the Martians?", the Martians are defeated and the film is over. - JB

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