War of the Worlds (1953) *

The first screen version of H G Wells’s pioneering novel of Martian invasion, this may on the face of it seem a quintessential Hollywood travesty, with its drive-in characterisation and casting, the one-man viewpoint and meticulous detail of the novel abandoned in favour of large-scale mayhem, and its setting updated from Victorian London to fifties California. But it is for the most part surprisingly successful on its own terms.
The driving force of the film is its enterprising producer George Pal (later both producer and director of the 1960 adaptation of Wells’s The Time Machine), who commissioned a screenplay by the distinguished Barré Lyndon, fresh from DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth, the big Oscar winner for 1952. Taking care to begin slowly and suspensefully before giving way to well-staged action sequences, the film stages a few key moments of the novel well, notably when the Martian cylinder slowly unscrews to reveal its lethal contents to the dumbstruck onlookers. (What first emerges, however, is disappointingly metallic compared to the repulsively organic creatures that, says Wells, “glistened like wet leather”, while the aliens themselves, when finally glimpsed, are sadly unimpressive, ET-like creatures with electric-light eyes.)
By some miracle Lyndon has also been permitted to retain the superbly ironic ending, in which, after all the guns and bombs have failed, the invaders are destroyed by what Wells calls “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth” – common airborne germs against which the Martian immune system has no defence.
This has the effect of rendering the film perhaps the most cynical and anti-science of all fifties sci-fi movies: not only is scientific advance, as usual, the threat (though this time not man-made but in the form of the technologically superior alien hardware) it also proves impotent as a solution. Whether it is the designs of “God in his wisdom” that save the earth, as Cedric Hardwicke’s narration would like to have it, or sheer luck, it’s certainly not the atom bomb.
What most impresses about the film is its documentary-like vividness and pace, with real footage of bombed towns, displaced citizens and military action effectively intercut with impressively choreographed scenes of alien attacks, public pandemonium, and good model shots of the burning and destroyed cities. Impressive, too, are the looming Martian fighting machines, designed in conscious avoidance of the traditional ‘flying saucer’ image, and the doom-laden finale in a disintegrating church, all very efficiently handled by director Byron Haskin, a distinguished graduate of the Warner Brothers special effects department.