The War of the Worlds, 1953. Directed by Byron Haskins. Gene Barry, Ann Robinson.

In the fifty odd years that separate the publication of The War of the Worlds and the movie version, H. G. Wells was filmed on several occasions. When the films were outright horror films, as they were in The Invisible Man and The Island of Lost Souls (which Wells disliked intensely), they were among the best films of their kinds and insured that Wells would have a place in the literary firmament. When Wells himself was involved in things, in Things to Come, he stood revealed as a boring pedant, which doesn't really do his best work justice. His two best novels, The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine remained unfilmed during this period. This is surprising, considering the splash that The War of the Worlds made at the hands of  Orson Welles's Mercury Theater on that infamous Halloween broadcast in 1939. Clearly, Wells's story was a powerful cautionary tale, and most of Wells's best novels had already proved to be surprisingly cinematic. One suspects that science fiction was not yet a genre whose time had come. It needed a determined individual to really bring it into the public's consciousness. That man was arguably producer George Pal, who filmed one of the other founders of science fiction, Robert Heinlein, a few years before turning to Wells (Pal's Destination: Moon loosely adapts Heinlein's Rocketship Gallileo). He would eventually film both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.

George Pal's War of the Worlds holds a special place in my affections. It was the first movie that I ever owned. My parents gave it to me as a birthday gift in 1984 (?). It was the start of an obsession for me. I now own hundreds of movies on videotape and laserdisc (DVD looms large in my future).  But there is always something about the first one of anything, isn't there? As a result, The War of the Worlds is unaccountably among my favorite movies. Does it hold up? Even though I love it to death, I hadn't seen it for years when I set about revisiting the science fiction movies from the 1950s for this web site. It has been my experience that many of the things we like when we are young don't hold up when we move into adulthood (unless one is an arrested adolescent--and I know quite a few arrested adolescents). I was curious to see how well The War of the Worlds played to my adult sensibilities. With this in mind, I sat down with a short stack of tapes one Saturday morning and immersed myself in sci-fi.

The War of the Worlds holds up remarkably well, actually. Better, certainly, than Forbidden Planet, which was the first bill on my triple feature (It Came from Outer Space was in the third spot). It is certainly livelier than Forbidden Planet, in part because it is so fixated on destroying the world...

We are being watched by beings of cool and remote intellect, the film begins, who covet our warm, watery planet. One night, a fireball descends from the sky in rural California. It glows red on the ground, but it has created an unaccountably small crater. A vacationing scientist determines that it is radioactive and a guard is posted. The next night, the meteor unscrews itself and a serpentine device pokes out to have a look around. The guards approach it waving a white flag of friendship, but the thing in the meteor roasts them with a heat ray. Soon the military are called in as graceful war machines from Mars rise from the crater to destroy and conquer. More meteors fall. A full scale invasion ensues. All of mankind's weapons prove to be useless against the Martians. Even the atomic bomb is useless. Cities are leveled and mankind's extinction seems to be assured until, suddenly, the machines begin to falter and the Martians begin to die off, victims of the micro-organisms human beings take for granted. The planet and the species are saved.

One of the things that Pal's The War of the Worlds does well is present an ideal of America as a sort of egalitarian Eden before allowing the dragons through the gates to wreck the place. Its vision of America is, perhaps, naive and corny, but it is surprisingly sincere and is an element that actually prevents the film from seeming dated. What this does for the movie is allow producer George Pal and director Byron Haskins to throw the destruction wrought by The Martians into stark relief. There is a tragic dimension to the mayhem that would elude a more cynical movie (see, for instance, Independence Day). When the first three victims of The Martians approach the machine in friendship, we are looking at a microcosm of America. When the war machine roasts them, it is a commentary on the nature of the invaders. When, later, the war machines roast the minister who approaches them to make peace, that commentary deepens.

The nostalgic tone of The War of the Worlds reveals it as essentially conservative, perhaps even paranoid, in the face of The Cold War. Significantly, we never get reports of the Martian's activities in The Soviet Union or China. This is understandable, I suppose. George Pal, who was a deeply religious man, also infuses his movie with religious overtones. There are two ways to approach this: on its own terms as a sincere expression of faith, or as an unnecessary excressence that is incompatible with the atheistical universe of H. G. Wells. Personally, I think this element works pretty well, although it doesn't necessarily work the way that Pal intended. The scene near the end of the movie where there are hundreds of refugees huddled in a church recalls that old Anglo-Saxon prayer which calls on God to "protect us from the fury of the Northmen." This strikes me as being a particularly naturalistic touch, and more than a bit fatalistic.

It is in the mating of image to archetype that The War of the Worlds really stakes out its territory.  After the breathless pre-credit introduction, there is a languid exposition, narrated by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, featuring marvelous astronomical art by the great pulp illustrator, Chesley Bonestall. The characters, not yet stereotypes, are expertly drawn and well acting. Of course, no one watching the movie is there for the intro or the characters--they want to see cities levelled. Here, The War of the Worlds doesn't disappoint. The Martian war machines are still among the best realized special effects in movies, a marvel of design: they are sleek and lethal, hovering over the movie and advancing with implacable malevolence. The path they carve through the world is an eye-drugging orgy of destruction that conjures up awful memories of The Blitz, of Hiroshima, and of Dresden. The War of the Worlds may be a lot of things, but boring isn't one of them.