The War of the Worlds, 1953

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I feel that I should preface this post with the fact that this was my first ever foray into The War of the Worlds – I’ve not read the book (though I’ve recently read the plot outline on Wikipedia to compare it to this adaptation) nor have I seen/heard any of the many other adaptations…but now I’m intrigued! And I’d like more. First, though, my thoughts on the 1953 version…it might be nice to note that this was the first onscreen adaptation of The War of the Worlds and was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

{NOTE: this review will probably contain spoilers. I figure both the film and story itself are old enough that they may not come as a shock but thought I’d mention it anyway.}

Released in 1953 the film transplants the action of the story from England to southern California. The opening sequence (I didn’t upload any screencaps) shows art by space artist Chesley Bonestell whilst Sir Cedric Hardwicke tells us why martians find that earth is the only planet in our solar system worth their invasion. We are then taken to earth where a meteor crash causes a stir in a small town…

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I was struck right away by the gorgeous colours of my beloved Technicolor and by the stylish cinematography and I wasn’t disappointed by either as the film progressed.
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Gene Barry (swoon!) plays Dr Clayton Forrester a bespectacled (though only for long distance, he assures as he takes his glasses off to get a good look at Ann Robinson) and deliciously stubbled scientist on a fishing trip with some colleagues when the meteor crash occurs. He meets Sylvia Van Buren, played by Ann Robinson, at the site of impact and the two hit it off rather well (Sylvia seems to be quite the fan of Dr Forrester’s work.)

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The scene where three men are keeping watch over the meteor and slowly realise that there is something inside is very well done – I found there was the right amount of tension and loved how their uncertainty and fear morphed into faux-confidence as they approached the Martian meteor waving a white flag before being incinerated by the heat-ray of the Martian war machine.
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The Martians somehow blow out the power of the town (clearly I wasn’t paying attention to every detail…oops) which leads to the discovery of the death of the aforementioned three men and the realisation that the creatures in the meteor are not at all friendly.
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I absolutely loved the use of coloured lighting in this film. From the more subtle use in the top two stills to the saturation of the still of Ann Robinson screaming. As well as being visually beautiful it highlights the unease and er other-worldliness of the events.

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Look, ma, no strings! Well…almost.

The strings on the war machines were quite obvious, as were the scale model sets toward the end of the film but I always feel that that lends to the charm of a film like this, rather than subtracting from it. You’ll have to click through to see the strings properly but they are visible. Other than that, I felt the effects were rather good (they won an Oscar) and liked that there was a conscious effort to avoid the ‘stereotypical’ UFO look. The war machines used by the Martians (which were designed by Al Nozaki) float slowly sending their heat-rays in every direction leaving mayhem, destruction and death in their wake – the wikipedia article on the film describes them as looking like Manta Rays and I think this is an apt description.

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More gorgeous coloured lighting. It reminds me an awful lot of the work of a photographer whose name I currently can’t recall.

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The bar of light across their eyes reminded me of the famous lighting of Bela Lugosi as Dracula. It also seems to highlight the way Ann Robinson’s character constantly deferred to Gene Barry’s as is so typical of most films of this era and other eras, too (the woman deferring to the man’s lead, that is). It’s still a lovely visual effect.

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There is an awful lot of overacting in this film (one IMDB review accused Gene Barry of this alone but I feel Ann Robinson and others were ‘guilty’ of it, too) but just as the visible strings lend to the enjoyment of the film for me, so does the overacting and melodrama. It is also clear that these actors are entirely committed to the film and I feel that when an actor resents being in this type of movie is when overacting, etc., goes from endearing and fitting with the film to being a detraction from its greatness. And that just isn’t the case here. I was a little bothered by the stereotypical hysterical woman vs logical slightly more calm man as it’s almost always the woman who loses her cool whilst the man will just push through it. Of course, I would probably be a complete nervous wreck myself but I don’t feel like that’s the point here. Despite this, she does get through it and I think the events are shown to play on everyone’s nerves. I feel like this area of discussion requires a re-watch on my part.

I do love that Ann Robinson has been in a couple of other things as (Dr) Sylvia Van Duren and that both she and Gene Barry were in the 2005 adaptation (which I’ve not seen) credited as ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’.

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The scientists used a camera part of the Martian’s war machine to see how the Martians could see. I read that George Pal wanted the final third of the film to be shot in 3D to enhance the effects of the Martian’s attack but the plan was scrapped (the visuals in these two shots reminded me of that fact).

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One of the many things I loved about this film (& other similar films) is the descent into panic as the realisation that the Martian war-machines can’t be destroyed by anything humans have to fight them (not even an atomic bomb) – this is shown particularly well in a scene where people are clawing and fighting each other for positions in any vehicle leaving the city that they can find and leave Gene Barry for all but dead as they eject him from his truck. There is little (well, no) camaraderie in this scene and even his shouts telling them that the truck has supplies the scientists need to try to find a way to defeat the invaders go unheard. Funnily enough, when I was screencapping that particular scene this song popped up on my iTunes…rather ironic, I suppose?

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My favourite scene, though, was possibly when Gene Barry, realising that all hope of defeat was lost, frantically searches the city for Ann Robinson knowing she would be in a church somewhere – their reunion, after they’ve pushed their way through the crowds of people, actually brought a tear to my eye. There was something very real and poignant about the way they clung to each other that I feel is not often seen in a film like this.

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However, all hope was not lost as the Martians eventually perished due to their immune systems not being able to handle the bacteria in earth’s atmosphere that humans have built up immunity to over the millennia. I did like that both the initial invasion and eventual demise of the aliens was out of human control (which seems to be true to the original story) as it’s quite different from other sci-fi films I’ve seen from this era and I think it sets it apart (with others such as The Day The Earth Stood Still) from other films that are truly trashy (in the most wonderful way) B-movies and probably why this film and others on a similar level are remembered more than others. I do have a lot of other thoughts about alien invasion films, especially from the cold war era, but I will leave them for another day.

The religious subtext (described as not-too-subtle) added into the film did irk me a little (the Martians begin to die after attacking a church and the bacteria is implied to be an act of god by the narrator) as I personally felt it was unnecessary but it didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the film and the architecture of the churches did make for some fairly nice scenery so I suppose it was just a minor issue for me.

Has anyone else seen it? What did you think? If you haven’t, have I made you want to see this film?

Oh, and I found this review on the NY Times website that was written when the film was first released – I always love to read movie reviews contemporary to the film in question as a different perspective.

9 thoughts on “The War of the Worlds, 1953

  1. This 1953 one is still the best version, hands down. I don’t even think I’d recommend the 2005 Spielberg one. (Although apparently, two other adaptations came out that same year.)
    The book’s alright. The best bit about it is just how dated it all is. They really are evacuating London via horse & buggy. Shame that no one has decided to make a steam-punk-esque version actually set when the novel was made. Also, no adaptation has ever really dealt with with the ‘Black Smoke’ weapon described so vividly in the book.

    Great screencaps; you really nailed the most vividly colourful bits of the film, which work really well against the gritty browns/blacks of the ensuing scenes of destruction. if you’re looking for your next fix of similarly colourful sci-fi, you can’t go past FORBIDDEN PLANET. Plus, it has Liam nesson in a non-comedic role. And a girl who is psychically connected to her pet tiger. And a friendly robot.

  2. Pingback: April Roundup | The Sofa Cinephile

  3. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Disaster Movie Tuesday at

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Pingback: Disaster Movie Tuesday – Watch: ‘The War of the Worlds’ (Byron Haskin, 1953) | Seminal Cinema Outfit

  5. Among the first three killed, one of the guys reminds me a lot of Stellan Skarsgard. I can’t find his name anywhere.

    Mister metaphor: Shirley you jest! that’s Leslie Neelson.

  6. Cannot count how many times I have seen this classic. Still awesome to this day although not really following the book very closely. Who cares! Best film version ever.

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