H.G. Wells purists may quibble with George Pal‘s 1953 production of The War of the Worlds. True enough, little remains of the novel’s original plot. However, Pal and director Byron Haskin successfully balance the large-scale scope of the Earth’s desperate struggle for survival with vignettes that capture the humanity of mankind. In doing so, they created one of the most influential science fiction films of the 1950s.
Gene Barry stars as Dr. Clayton Forrester, an astro physicist from the Pacific Institute of Science and Technology, whose fishing trip is interrupted when a meteor lands in a small California town. At the meteor site, Forrester meets Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), an attractive USC library science teacher. In a classic “meet cute,” she starts babbling about the great Clayton Forrester–unaware that she is talking with him.
The meteor, of course, turns out be one of many Martian spacecrafts sent as part of an epic invasion. In no time at all, cities like Paris are crumbling to the ground as the Earth’s weapons prove useless against the invaders’ most advanced technology. Can the Earth be saved?
The combat scenes remain impressive today with the Martians’ triangular black-and-green war machines flitting over the battleground as they fire their incinerating death rays. Not surprisingly, these striking scenes earned The War of the Worlds an Oscar for Best Special Effects. It was nominated for Best Film Editing and Best Sound–and should have won the latter. It did win an award for sound from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA.
Despite its technical achievements, it’s the more intimate scenes that give War of the Worlds its emotional strength. In fact, there are four that stand out for me on each viewing. Two are justly famous: (1) the scene where the priest walks fearlessly toward the aliens–Bible in hand, reciting a prayer–only to be obliterated; (2) the deserted farmhouse sequence with Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, in which she comes face-to-face with one of the Martians.
The other two scenes of note are less widely praised, but equally impressive. The first occurs when, as a last resort, the U.S. military uses an atomic bomb to stop the Martians…only to watch in futility as an alien craft emerges from a cloud of debris (“Guns, tanks, bombs–they’re like toys against them,” says a general). The final scene I’ll mention occurs near the climax when Forrester, who has been separated from Sylvia, finds her in a church as Los Angeles faces imminent destruction. With explosions lighting up the church’s stained glass windows, a loud crashing sound causes everyone in the church to instinctively drop to the ground–except for Forester and Sylvia who remain standing in their embrace.
Playwright Barré Lyndon, who penned the screenplay, incorporates strong religious themes throughout the film. Examples include the scenes with the priest and in the church, the pending Armageddon, and even the narration that describes how the Martians were finally defeated.
The 1950s remains the peak decade for science fiction films with bona fide classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, Forbidden Planet, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The War of the Worlds can’t top any of those four, but making it into the top five is an impressive achievement.
By the way, Ann Robinson reprised her role as Sylvia 36 years later in three episodes of the funky syndicated TV series War of the Worlds.