Byron Haskin's adaptation of The War of the Worlds claims to be based on the novel by H.G. Wells, but if we're being honest, it's really a movie based on American fear circa 1953. The film strays from its source material in many different ways, and transforms Wells' tale of an alien invasion into a Cold War parable. It was made during an era in which many people were convinced that a nuclear apocalypse was just around the corner, that godless Communists were preparing to overtake the nation and that pacifism was the mentality of traitors, fools and cowards. As a result, the film has aged rather poorly, but nonetheless serves as a fascinating snapshot of the era in which it was made. The story has been told in various formats over the course of the past century, and it's fascinating to observe the manner in which it has evolved to reflect the public's mindset.
Our hero is Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry, Burke's Law), who we know is smart because he wears glasses. Clayton was fishing with a couple of his colleagues when they witnessed something incredibly strange: a meteor crashing in their hometown of Linda Rosa, California. The townsfolk quickly begin to investigate, and excitedly speculate about what the meteor's presence could do for Linda Rosa. It'll be the town's signature landmark! Tourists will travel from all over! Businesses will set up shop nearby! It's the start of a new era! Little do they know that the meteor contains a Martian war machine preparing to unleash mass destruction.
The machines are not the mysterious tripods of Wells' novel, but flying saucers with bright neon lights that look ripped straight from the pages of an adventure magazine. They look more like toys than world-destroying monsters, but the threat they pose is grave, indeed. Early on, several characters attempt to communicate with them, to understand them and to offer a white flag of truce. All of these characters are pitilessly killed. These martians cannot be reasoned with, they cannot be understood and they cannot be stopped. They are the Great Red Threat. They are the atomic bomb. They are the apocalypse. The only correct response is to throw the full might of the American military at these machines, and if that fails, the only remaining option is to pray for mercy.
The film's emphasis on religion is one of the most significant changes from the Wells story, which treated clergymen as useless fools (Wells wasn't an atheist, but he was a secularist who had little regard for traditional religion). In the film, a minister prominently featured in the tale's first half is treated as a selfless saint, and the movie's climax (which takes place within the confines of a church) is so overtly pro-religion that it feels like something ripped from a sermon. The film alters the science-fiction elements of Wells' novel a great deal, but alters his philosophical elements until they're unrecognizable. Though War of the Worlds is hardly Wells' most politically-charged work, the movie goes out of its way to avoid anything even partially resembling his socialist worldview (again, hardly a surprising move in McCarthy-era America).
However, my problems with the film have little to do with such alterations. I'm an admirer of both the 1939 Orson Welles radio adaptation (which famously terrified listeners across the nation) and Steven Spielberg's underrated 2005 film (which draws as much from post-9/11 America as this film does from the Cold War), both of which alter much of the novel. No, the problem is that this version of The War of the Worlds has no sense of poetry, which is such a crucial element of most of Wells' sci-fi stories. It's a “man vs. aliens” B-movie made with an A-movie budget, filled to the brim with forgettable characters (Barry's only distinguishing trait is that he removes his glasses during action scenes, and female lead Ann Robinson spends most of the movie screaming), rudimentary dialogue and surface-level ideas. Lyrical narration from Sir Cedric Hardwicke (The Ten Commandments) attempts to elevate the tone (indeed, Spielberg liked this element so much that he borrowed it for his remake), but the narration feels out of sync with the rest of the movie. Like too many Wells adaptations, the film strips all but the basic concept from the novel, casting aside most of the things that made the novel worth reading in the first place.
At the very least, it's an attractive-looking flick, and a reasonably exciting one in an old pulp magazine sort of way. I found it thrilling as a kid, when I wasn't old enough to be bothered by subtext or a lack of nuance. If you can re-connect with that inner child in some way, you may well have a grand time, but I now find myself unable to watch it without contemplating the many ways in which it falls short. Like so many films which were once described as “a triumph of groundbreaking special effects,” The War of the Worlds has aged poorly. Storytelling matters, which is why the Spielberg version of the tale will retain its relevance and power far longer than this one has.
The War of the Worlds
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Year: 1953