War of the Worlds (1953)

I have to concede that I am one of the few heathens out there who hasn’t actually read H.G. Wells’ now legendary tale on alien invasion, or even the infamous Orson Welles radio broadcast which sent many people into a wild baseless panic. No, my first encounter with the Martian invaders was in movie format as a child and while it may not adhere faithfully to it’s source material, War of the Worlds still stands as one of the greatest sci-fi movies of the fifties. When a small Californian town is seemingly the site of a bizarre meteor strike, Dr Clayton Forrester - who is handily partaking in a fishing trip in the area - comes to investigate. But what seems at first to be nothing more than a little space-oddity for the local community to exploit as a tourist attraction, soon takes a darker twist when several more crash down around the world and their dark apocalyptic nature is revealed. Ominous, seemingly indestructible alien craft rise from the ground at the crash sites and start laying waste to everything and anyone around them. When the best efforts of the armed forces fail to stop the cold calculated slaughter, it turns to Dr Forrester and his fellow scientists to find an alternate solution, but with time running out and the world going into a panic, the chances of the survival of the human race fade quickly.

Much like Spielberg’s take on Wells’ novel, the George Pal version also updates the setting to the contemporary settings of that time, in this case the mid-fifties. It’s perhaps more understandable that this version chose to bring the content up to date with the shadow of two World Wars still looming heavily over the world, the idea of an even greater threat looming is more fitting than a movie set just before those wars. Unlike many of it’s contemporaries, War of the Worlds never reduces itself to one of the most common underlying sci-fi themes of the day – that of Cold War allegory and propaganda. While Wells’ novel itself was a scathing attack on British colonialism, here the movie avoids that but instead takes a slightly more condescending slant at times, with trite religious overtones thrown in about God and his mysterious ways. While it’s not overly intrusive, sometimes it can be a little silly, like the rousing chorus of “Amen” in the final shot.

The biggest problem the movie suffers from is it’s acting. While the main cast isn’t really a big problem, occasionally the dialogue they have to deliver is a little silly and the supporting cast are a mish-mash of wooden acting and bad caricatures of local-yokels and “Ay carama” Mexicans. Gene Barry copes well with his role as the square-jawed scientist hero of the piece while Ann Robinson’s role as Sylvia Van Buren is little more than a fifties stereotype – only in the movie to provide a love interest and to scream uncontrollably whenever required.

If there is one thing War of the Worlds can’t be faulted on, however, it’s the effects work. Anyone who has grown up having watched the movie as a child can’t fail to remember the ominous swan-life alien craft hovering through the city destroying everything with their signature heat rays. Even today in their slightly garish Technicolor glory, the effects hold up surprisingly well. Only later in the movie do the effects suffer with some poor blue-screen work, but no worse than the best technology of the time could provide. Even the alien creatures themselves, though only briefly seen, are a clear influence on later movie-makers, with the basic size and shape of the creature being not too unlike a certain, much friendlier alien which came to earth in the early eighties.

While the ending comes all to abruptly and conveniently timed there is no doubt that War of the Worlds still stands as one of the best and strongest of the science-fiction movies of it’s day. While it might lack punch when sitting next to it’s visually impressive successors like Independence Day and the Spielberg version, there is no doubt that without this version to influence them, they would have turned out very different. Not all movies hold up well for public viewing fifty years later, but if those movie still influences the directors of today then there can be no doubt over the power the movie possesses. For a movie that has no remastering work done, the print is surprisingly clean with minimal scratch and dust specks and a clear audio track. Colors are as strong and overstated as you’d expect for a Technicolor movie of the fifties. Those of you looking for a widescreen disc will come away disappointed, to the best of my knowledge War of the Worlds was filmed in full screen and this is how it is presented here.

The disc is depressingly barebones. This is a real disappointment as with Spielberg’s version looming on the horizon the opportunity was ripe to create a great special edition set of this classic movie. Surprisingly for a movie over 50 years old, many of the main cast are still alive today and themselves have cameo appearances in this year’s version, so rounding them up for some fascinating interview material or a commentary track on the original could have been easily arranged and is a sadly missed opportunity. Maybe this will be rectified to coincide with the DVD release of the new movie. Let’s hope so.

Other extras that would make for interesting stuff would be some featurettes on the great effects work, or perhaps even including something like the Welles radio broadcast from 1938 with some accompanying artwork during the recital. With modern movies nobody cares about getting unwanted triple-dip special editions, it’s depressing to see older movies regarded as classics getting the cold shoulder on DVD just to make way for that xXx: State of the Union - Ultra Hardcore Extreme Sports With Extra Ice Cube Scowling Edition.