War of the Worlds (1953): Everything You Need to Know

Before you see Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” there are some basic facts you need to know about the original version.

Produced by George Pal, Byron Haskin’s film, despite many flaws (conventional plot, tacky romance), is a key sci-fi of the 1950s in its text and subtext.

The picture’s running time is only 85 minutes. The film’s budget was modest, about $2 million, but larger than that of most the era’s sci-fi movies. Most of the money went to the special effects, which were impressive by standards of the time.

Most of the film was shot between December 1951 and February 1952, in Florence, Arizona, Simi Valley, California, and Paramount’s backlot in L.A.

H.G. Wells’ famous novel was updated from nineteenth century London (circa 1890) to contemporary Los Angeles. The plot is rather simple: After the Martians invade L.A. a group of scientists, military and religious leaders realize that even the Atomic Bomb can’t stop them.

Barre London’s rudimentary script is based more on the Orson Welles’ seminal 1938 radio broadcast than on the Wells novel (See Commentary). Portentous narration, in the beginning and end, by classy actor Cedric Hardwick, is meant to give the film an ominous, grave tone.

This is a quintessential genre film with all the archetype characters: A scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), General Mann (Les Tremayne), Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin), and one frightened woman, Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), who serves as the love interest.

Director Byron Haskin (1899-1984) began his career as a director of photography and special effects artist, before embarking on a directing career. In 1929, he went to England, where he spent three years as a production exec and technical advisor to Herbert Wilcox. Back in Hollywood, he joined the special effects department of Warner Bros. In 1937, he succeeded Fred Jackman as department’s head, a position he held until 1945. In 1938, Haskin and his group were awarded a Special Oscar for the development of the first application of the triple head background projector. He was subsequently nominated for four Oscars. In 1945, he followed Hal Wallis to Paramount, where he resumed his career as a director, working in a variety of genres, from film noir to Westerns, but he was most admired for his lively sci-fi and adventure yarns.

Though overall appealing and engaging, the film is bogged down by a stiff cast, headed by Barry Gordon and Ann Robinson, and by a sappy and boring romance. Haskin disliked his two lead players, describing their performances in public as “terribly wooden.”

Ann Robinson shrieks a lot, but her shrieking can’t match Fay Wray’s in “King Kong.” Let’s see how Naomi Watts fares in this department in Peter Jackson’s upcoming remake of the classic.

A bit part, billed as “Bird-Brained Blonde,” was played by Carolyn Jones at the dawn of her career, before receiving a Supporting Actress nomination for “The Bachelor Party,” and before donning a black wig for her role as Morticia in the popular TV series, “The Adams Family.”

Arizona’s National Guardsmen functioned as army troops. Stuntman “Mushy” Callahan, playing a soldier struck by a heat ray, was badly burned in one sequence. Charles Producer George Pal was cast as a bum, and Gemora, who played the Martian creature while standing on his knees, also designed the papier-mache and rubber-tubbing outfit he wore.

The work behind the cameras was done by A-talent, including ace cinematographer George Barnes (in his last film) and famous costumer Edith Head.

The film was nominated for three Oscars: Editing (Everett Douglas), Sound Recording
(Loren L. Ryder), and Special Effects. The team of the special effects, which won an Oscar, was headed by Gordon Jennings, though there was no individual citation at Oscar time.

The novel’s lumbersome tripods were jettisoned in favor of cool, green, slickly contoured flying saucers that fire death rays, accompanied by one of the most fondly remembered sound effects in history.

The last line of the film, solemnly narrated by Cedric Hardwicke, entered into movie lore. He says: “After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity saved by the littlest things which God in his wisdom put upon the Earth.”

Mass destructions sequences displayed intricate combinations of glass paintings, miniatures, and matte work. The Martian spacecraft, their shapes reputedly inspired by manta rays, were copper bowls traveling on wires over a scale model of L.A. If you look closely, youll see occasional wires that didn’t get hidden and manipulating the Martian ships. Even so, the wholesale destruction of (miniature) cities is convincing and the stingray design is graceful. The one-eyed humanoid/octopoid alien with its sucker fingers is an engaging creature.

The Flying Wing bomber that drops an A-bomb on the Martians remains the only such aircraft in existence, housed today at the Smithsonian Institution.

The film’s most frequent locale is the church, particularly in the last reel. In one church, during the hymn of the terrified masses, the priest says: “O Lord, we pray theegrant us the miracle of Thy Divine Intervention.” And the protagonist declares as the church bells toll: “We were all praying for a miracle.” Indeed, when an alien comes crashing through the door of the church, he’s dead.

The film’s politics are right-wing conservatism, reflecting the mentality of the Cold War years, when it was made. It’s suffused with what the late essayist, Susan Sontag, described as the “imagination of disaster,” a paranoid fear of the cataclysmic destruction of civilization.

Science succumbs to a draggy religious message: The salvation comes from the common germ, when the A-bomb proves to be ineffectual in defeating the Martians. In the end, the defeated scientist wanders from church to church, searching for his lost lover, Sylvia.

As in most Hollywood movies, religion gets a secular reworking. The film makes sure that religious miracle is framed by a more rational and cognitive explanation: The Martians are not immune to bacteria. Once infected, they curl up and die. God’s miracles may be potent, but they are delivered though human messengers