War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds - 1953
War of the Worlds – 1953

War of the Worlds (1953)

The War of the Worlds was released in 1953, being the first on-screen depiction of the H. G. Wells classic novel of the same name. Produced by George Pál and directed by Byron Haskin from a script by Barre Lyndon, it was a box office hit, mainly for its (then) innovative special effects. And it’s those effects that stay with you more than the script or acting

SFX master Gordon Jennings created alien craft which are streamlined, yet functional, packed with death-dealing heat-rays and an air of real and implacable menace. The spindly looking creatures which pilot them are also impressive, even though they’re barely seen (as always it’s not what you see that scares you, it’s what you don’t see; if only movie-makers would learn!). In combination with the weird and unsettling sound effects the alien menace becomes vividly real.

On the other hand the dialogue is pure 1950s sci-fi, heavy on the tech-talk, short on the characterization. The female characters are there to bite their knuckles, scream hysterically – and wait for a manly man to rescue them. The acting by and large is either OTT (and then some) or from the IKEA school of wooden acting.

The Martians are presented as an opponent that is both invincible and implacable, resistant to human ingenuity, bravery or mercy. As a metaphor for Cold War America’s view of its mortal enemy, the USSR (to which our younger readers might cry, “Who…?”), the film works ok.

As a representation of Humankind’s insignificance in the bigger cosmic picture, where all our traditional attributes, ingenuity, determination and sheer viciousness, count for little the film works better. After all it’s basically dirt and disease that does for the would-be invader – a message in a bottle to our more environmentally conscious times and perhaps all the more resonant for that.

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