War of the Worlds (1953) *****
Director: Byron Haskin
Runtime: 1h 25m
When the original War of the Worlds was published around the turn of the century the British Empire was at its zenith. Their empire spanned a quarter of the globe, and occupied more landmass than the Mongol Empire did at its height. In terms of commerce, science, technology and warfare, Britain led the world, with very few credible rivals. Yet, much of the wealth and power that the empire had amassed was the byproduct of conquering and colonizing the benighted, backwards peoples of the world. Naturally, there is nothing mankind fears so much as being made to suffer the same indignities we readily inflict on others. So, mining this primal terror Wells wrote a story about invaders from another world who were as far ahead of the English as the English were of their recently added colonies. This fear was startling and evocative in its day, but by 1953 when the film adaptation was released, the world was considerably different. The sun had set on the English Empire, and the Americans that had since claimed the mantle had subdued their own stone-age primitives far enough in the past that it did not weigh heavily on their consciences. Yet, the same core fear at work in 1897 was still present in 1953: The more you have the more terrified you are to lose it. Moreover the Americans had some reason to fear open war with their enemies; the combined might of the Western powers had just been ground into a bloody stalemate in Korea. Whose to say that the American army would fair any better if they were fighting in their homeland instead of some desolate peninsula half a world away? Moreover, a symmetrical war would mean using atomic weapons, bombs whose power posed a threat not just to the United Sates but also to the continued habitability of the planet.
The film begins with a voice-over monologue, because even the biggest budget sci-fi film of the 1950s can’t do without one. The narrator explains that Mars is inhabited by an advanced race of aliens, who have completely exhausted the planet’s resources. The Martians face a choice, either die out like the Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) or conquer a new home. For a variety of reasons, which the narrator explains at length, Earth is the only viable option, and the Martians begin plans to invade their nearest celestial neighbor at once. At first, the invasion fleet is mistaken for meteorites, though the queer angle at which they fall and the minimal impact that they make draw the attention of scientists and local authorities. Still, nobody is aware of the doom that is about to befall them, heck when one spaceship lands in rural California the townsfolk are delighted because the giant space rock will make a great tourist trap “better than a lion farm or a snake pit, we won’t have to feed it!” one man remarks. Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist from Pacific Tech who happened to be the in the area on a fishing trip is a bit more serious about the whole matter, but even he doesn’t see anything to be particularly concerned about. Indeed, while the meteorite is a fascinating mystery, particularly after it is discovered to be 1) Hollow and 2) Radioactive, he’s still more interested in spending his time square dancing with Sylvia Van Buren, the pretty Library Science professor at the local college, than watching the rock.
While most of the town is off partaking in the above-mentioned square dancing, a trio of sentries is posted presumably to make sure local children don’t climb over the radioactive space-rock. It’s this threesome of clueless local-yokels that make first contact with the aliens. They notice that the meteorite is beginning to open up, and a large hatch is starting to unscrew. Immediately two of the three men panic, thinking that the meteorite is some kind of Soviet sneak-attack (as is normal for a film of this vintage, the Russians are not mentioned by name). Fortunately one of them has a couple of brain cells to rub together, and remembers, “Bombs don’t unscrew.” Only problem is that there is something rather worse than Russian bombs in the alien meteorite: it contains three warships armed with atomic weapons and protected by impenetrable force fields. The yokels, while naturally terrified by the alien warships are still nonetheless conscious of the historical importance of their role. It’s up to them, unsuited as they might be, to act as emissaries on behalf of all mankind. The yokels even stress the common brotherhood of all intelligent life, noting "everything human doesn't have to look like you or me.” It’s a shame this isn’t It Came From Outer Space (1953) or The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), then these guys would be heroes. Instead they are just the first human causalities in the one-sided war against Mars. At this point, War of the Worlds’ undeniable craft shows through as well. So much is invested in these three nameless characters, so many small fears and heroisms, that their deaths have real meaning for the viewers, even though they are little more than cinematic cannon fodder.
The magnetic discharge of the alien weapons knock out power and communications for miles around, not to mention stopping everybody’s watch in town. Clayton Forester and Sylvia Van Buren put two and two together and call in the army to contain the aliens until people higher up in the chain of command can figure out what to do. However, trying to contain the alien invaders inside a conventional cordon is a recipe for disaster. The alien ships are impervious to all terrestrial armaments, and their weapons (which spew out bright red and green atomic fire, like hellish Christmas decorations) easily reduce the American soldiers and armor arrayed against them to ashes. Any person unfortunate enough to be hit by one of the Martian rays becomes nothing more than a blackened shadow on the ground; a horror so reminiscent of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that I doubt it is coincidental. Watching the action sequences is simultaneously extremely disheartening and thrilling. Disheartening because the violence is so one-sided, the human forces are essentially steam rolled by superior alien technology; whenever aliens fight soldiers it is not really a battle so much as an out-and-out slaughter. However, the scenes remain thrilling nonetheless because of the incredible production values, the alien’s neon weapons are stunning, the warships elegantly dreadful, even the noises of the atomic rays are perfectly composed. Sure, you can see the strings holding the spaceships aloft, but personally I think that only adds to the charm. Even more impressive though are the number of extras and military equipment that the filmmakers have marshaled to do battle with the alien invaders. The spectacle does not diminish the inherent tragedy though, if anything it increases it, for in no other film in the decade do we see so much destroyed so convincingly, save perhaps Gojira (1954).
Clayton and Sylvia are able to escape the slaughter, but with the failure of the military cordon the aliens are free to rampage across the countryside unchecked. The two take shelter in a farmhouse that has been evacuated, only to be beset by an alien warship that is looking to capture a few humans alive for experimentation. The following cat and mouse sequence where Sylvia and Clayton dodge the alien’s spy tentacles, is as thrilling a piece of suspense as you’re likely to find in mid-century cinema. It also has echoes of later work, particularly in the use of garish neon lights, which makes me suspect the film had a significant influence on Mario Bava’s Technicolor horror films. It’s here that we get our first look at the aliens themselves, which is a rather convincing, if unfortunately rigid rubber-suited monster. The creature is suitably horrific though, a good deal more so than many of its goofier looking kin. After a close call, Clayton and Sylvia escape from the farmhouse and make for the cities on the coast, where the army is trying to hold the line long enough to allow for civilian evacuation.
Though the ostensible heroes have returned to the scene of action there isn’t much hope left for humanity. Across the globe alien war machines have crushed all opposition, leveling cities and reducing whole population to ash. In a fit of desperation the United States government has authorized the use of the atom bomb against the aliens. Of course, even the mightiest weapon in the human arsenal fails to penetrate the alien’s force shields. It’s at this point where you could forgive mankind for losing all hope. The aliens have proven to be so far ahead of us technologically that all resistance is completely futile. Yet, showing the classic 1950s optimism and dogged perseverance, mankind continues to fight back. Even in the darkest, most tragic moments of this film the audience only sees professionals calmly and capably doing their jobs. There are no panicked routs, no moments of cowardice or selfishness from the doomed soldiers sent to fight enemies that might as well be gods. Is this realistic? Probably not, though history abounds with moments where men fought bravely against impossible odds. A movie that was totally honest about the horrors of alien invasion would probably be too bleak to turn much of a profit, let alone make back the massive amount of funding that Paramount had sunk into this film.
Following the H.G. Wells novel on which this is based, when all is lost mankind is saved as the Martian invaders succumb to Terrestrial pathogens. However, the film adaptations adds in a religious interpretation that would have doubtlessly caused the heretical Wells a great deal of annoyance. The narrator, back from his long break, tells us that “After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.” Not that such explicit mentioning is necessary, the film makes all this obvious from its final sequence where a despairing Clayton Forester walks slowly towards a church, which is the only building still standing in the midst of a ruined city. When he is about to be destroyed by a Martian warship, the device suddenly falters and collapses. The effect is hardly subtle even without the narrator’s commentary. Some critics have decried this sequence as an unwarranted (not to mention amusingly literal) Deus Ex Machina.
For my part, I don’t really see it that way. Religion is constantly lurking in the background of War of the World, from Sylvia’s monologue about running away to a church when she was a child because it was the only place she felt safe, to the pastor’s belief that “If they're [the aliens] more advanced than us, they should be nearer the creator for that reason.” At its core, War of the Worlds is a story about mankind’s salvation from the horrors of war. Only the smallest children in 1953 would be without some memory of WWII and its multitude of horrors, and almost everyone was convinced that another such apocalyptic slaughter must be prevented at all costs. Yet, despite that mankind found itself on the brink of another war, this one even more terrible than its predecessor. The idea that nuclear weapons could be used solely as defensive weapons had not even occurred to Eisenhower at this point, and when it did the president would have to spend the remainder of the decade arguing the idea with the rest of the Military-Industrial Complex. Not that anyone outside the highest echelons of power had any idea that was what was going on; indeed for most people in the early 1950s the only thing keeping mankind from whipping itself out was the active benevolence of the creator. The pastor who reasoned that the alien’s advanced technology made them closer to God had it more wrong than he knew. Advanced technology does not grant its inventors advanced morality. Indeed, the terror of nuclear annihilation, which hangs over War of the Worlds like a guillotine, is proof enough that mankind’s technological progress had outpaced his moral development. In such a world, the aliens would not be defeated some whiz-bang gizmo cooked up by Forester and his pals at Pacific Tech, like nearly every other monster from the decade’s sci-fi films. Nor could a hitherto unmentioned natural process fell the aliens, which was Wells’ choice of Deus Ex Machina. For such people that had never conceived the notion of mutually assured destruction or the logic of deterrence, the only chance for peace was the blessing of God. After all, not every great film can also manage to be as far sighted as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).