George Pal's WAR OF THE WORLDS
A movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
George Pal’s 1953 WAR OF THE WORLDS is now available on a special edition DVD. How does this 50 year old movie hold up? Let’s get the obvious out of the way:
- Yes, in some of the scenes you can see the wires holding up the Martian fighting machines as they travel over the countryside spreading death and destruction.
- The shrieking panic of the heroine does become tiresome at times.
- The heavy religious overtones at the end are, well, pretty heavy.
That said, I enjoyed every minute of this loud, exciting, violent, imaginative, and beautifully produced example of 1950’s science fiction, made before producers discovered they could drastically reduce budgets and still make money by using the right mix of giant bugs, small town teenagers, and bad special effects.
The story retains the outline of H.G. Wells’ original novel as updated for radio in the 1930’s by Orson Welles: Martian war machines land on earth and proceed to reduce earth’s futile defenses to slag through a fusillade of advanced technology and weapons. After wreaking death and destruction on much of the populated earth, the Martians are finally brought down by their lack of immunity to Earth’s naturally occurring micro-organisms.
Producer George Pal updates the movie to mid-20th Century California. Our Hero is a scientist brought in by townsfolk to examine the first “cylinder” as it cools outside of town in preparation for the emergence of the Martians and their gloriously sleek and sinister manta-shaped fighting machine that propels itself about on invisible magnetic legs. He is joined by a beautiful librarian with whom he falls in love and with whom he spends the rest of the movie trying to avoid capture by the Martians.
There are many memorable episodes in the movie:
- The emergence of the first Martian machine as its giant ray gun loudly and explosively turns the approaching humans — and their white flag — to ashes.
- The first futile attack of the military on the machine and their realization that they haven’t even scratched ‘em.
- The resort to delivery of an atomic bomb by a jet powered Flying Wing, ancestor of today’s giant stealth bomber —- and the emergence of the Martians unscathed from the swirling nuclear mushroom cloud.
- The escape by the hero and heroine in a small airplane — and their crash as they swerve to avoid approaching Martian machines.
- A giant cylinder crashes into the earth — and into the farmhouse where they have taken refuge.
- The snakelike Martian remote control device searches through the destroyed farmhouse while hero and heroine hide.
- Our first glimpse of the hideous squealing Martian — in the flesh.
- A panic stricken mob shows how civilization has been brought to its knees.
- The Martian machines cruise down the streets of Los Angeles torching everything in their path.
- The final scenes as we watch, horrified and fascinated, the death throes of a Martian, brought low by the common cold.
The extras on this DVD are superb. The commentary by film experts is chock-full of interesting observation, including innumerable name references to the many character actors who populate this film and who will be familiar to anyone who saw movies and TV during this era. The “making-of” documentary is extremely informative and even includes a little scene film clip made by Ray Harryhausen at a time when he was seeking the rights to make the film. There’s even a recording of the Orson Welles radio broadcast.
I readily admit this film will not be to everyone’s taste. Viewed in comparison to today’s super-sophisticated films, the special effects and histrionics may seem almost laughable. The obvious use of sets and miniatures will turn others off. But looking past all that, what you have is an extremely well produced piece of theater, crisply directed, nicely scored by Leith Stevens (who also scored Pal’s DESTINATION MOON), and relentlessly explosive in its depiction of how earth is simply no match for the Martians. Add to these extraordinary sound effects and arguably the most beautifully designed piece of alien hardware ever created for a movie — the Martian fighting machine itself — and you have the undeniable ingredients for a Movie Classic.
Thank you, Paramount, for a fine DVD!
Review copyright © 2005 by Dennis D. McDonald