Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The War of the Worlds (1953)

The 1953 adaptation of The War of the Worlds is one of producer George Pal’s celebrated science fiction opuses and remains the best cinematic version of the story.

Paramount had purchased the film rights in the 1920s, apparently at the instigation of the studio’s co-founder Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille would act as executive producer of the film when it finally when into production.

The original H.G. Wells story was of course the first of the great alien invasion stories. The decision to update the story to a contemporary American setting for the movie works surprisingly well.

A meteor crashes to Earth. Astrophysicist Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) happens to be nearby on a fishing trip and is called in to have a look. He realises immediately that there is something decidedly odd about this meteor. In fact everything about it seems wrong and it’s also highly radioactive. The local sheriff posts men to stand watch over the meteor and that turns out to be a fatal assignment when the meteor opens up and a huge mechanical eye appears and promptly zaps them.

The meteor is of course a spaceship, the first of an invading fleet from Mars. The invaders seem unstoppable. The military are called in but nothing seems to be able to do the slightest damage to the hovering machines of the Martians. Dr Forrester has teamed up with a local school teacher, Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson), and while he’s still keen to try to find some way to combat the Martians it’s all he can do to keep himself and Sylvia alive.

More Martian war machines have been lading all over the world and the same story is repeated everywhere. Nothing can stop them. Only a miracle can save humanity. But will there be a miracle?

It’s a good story but making it a success on the screen obviously depended on getting the special effects right. Fortunately getting the special effects right was one of the things George Pal was good at. Pal hired the right people and he got the results. Much of the success of this particular movie was due to art director Al Nozaki who designed the Martian war machines. Wells had envisaged them as tripod machines but Nozaki gave them a 1950s Space Age look. They looked mightily impressive in 1953 and they still look superb today.

Having Oscar-winning cinematographer George Barnes on board certainly helps as well. He makes full use of the abilities of Technicolor film to give the movie the right kind of brilliantly vibrant up-to-date look while still managing to give plenty of atmosphere to the scenes of destruction. Director Byron Haskin would go on to make several classic movies in the sci-fi and fantasy genres and he handles things here to perfection.

Paramount spent some serious money on this film and it pays dividends. It looks impressive and it looks convincing.

Barré Lyndon’s screenplay makes plenty of changes to the novel but it keeps most of the essential elements.

Gene Barry makes a splendid hero. Dr Forrester is heroic, but not too heroic. He’s not a larger-than-life scientist hero who can overcome all obstacles. He’s really just an ordinary guy doing what he has to do to ensure his own survival and that of the woman he loves. Barry’s easy-going charm makes him a protagonist we can empathise with. Ann Robinson provides good support and they have enough chemistry to carry off the romantic sub-plot without any difficulties.

Paramount’s Region 2 DVD provides a superb transfer. There are no extras apart from some brief liner notes.

The War of the Worlds is one of the great science fiction movies of the 50s, or of any age for that matter. A true classic that stands the test of time with ease. Very highly recommended.

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