(8/10) In a nutshell: With his third try at a science fiction epic, producer George Pal finally ironed out some of the kinks that made his first two attempts fall below the mark. This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic is a stunning tour de force of special effects, aided by a fast-paced script and beautiful design. The breezy plot helps to partly cover up that Pal has stripped Wells’ story of all ideology and satire, and reversed the author’s position on key issues, and Pal’s insistence on drowning his movies in schmarmy religious tirades makes for a cringe-worthy ending. Despite this, The War of the Worlds is a brilliantly entertaining nail-biter and visually a true masterpiece.
The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, William Phipps, Cedric Harwicke, Charles Gemora, Carolyn Jones. Produced by George Pal, Frank Freeman Jr. & Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures. Tomatometer: 85%. IMDb score: 7.2/10
There are a few films that stand towering over science fiction like giants in respect to their influence on the genre. George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927, review), and Woman in the Moon (1929, review), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931, review), Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and the Wachowksi Brothers’ The Matrix (1999) are among these. They are not always the best in their subgenre and some of them are hampered by by serious problems. They are not always first in their field with their ideas, but execute them in ways that make them milestones to which you can pin flags and draw a line: this was science fiction film history before this-and-this film, and this is what it looks like afterwards. George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is one of these films, it is the Magnum Opus of a filmmaker that wasn’t always savvy to what made a good sci-fi script, but without question one of the great visionaries of movie history.
For those who haven’t seen the movie, one could say that it can be roughly divided into segments: a prologue, five chapters and an epilogue.
The prologue opens with a narration, first accompanied with military stock footage, recounting the history of modern warfare, telling us that new wars will be fought with ”new weapons of super-science”. Then we get British Thespian Cedric Hardwicke giving us the opening lines of H.G. Wells’ novel, and a Technicolor sightseeing tour among the planets, explaining how the Martians have decided to come and invade our planet, because theirs is dying and it is too damn hot on Venus and too damn gassy on Jupiter.
Chapter one deals with the falling of a ”meteorite” close to a small rural town in California, causing much rejoicing, because great tourist attraction and plenty of gold in it. The Scientist gets called in from a fishing trip to survey and meets the Chick (librarian), and we get to know the nice life of the nice people in the nice little town who like to square dance, and are soon to be annihilated. Festivities end when the lights, clocks and phones go dead.
In chapter two the ”meteorite” unscrews and the aliens show themselves and attack, proving that they are powerful and not very nice. The military gets called in and we are introduced to the General. The Chick’s uncle, the pacifist Priest, risks his life and tries to reason with the Martians while reciting ”Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death”, and gets evaporated by their heat rays. The Chick screams. Alien ships start tearing up the countryside and no tanks or guns can even tickle them, as they are protected by electronic force fields. As a final solution the General orders a nuclear strike – to no avail. The Chick and the Scientist flee in a plane, but crash in a field full of Martian war machines. The Chick screams.
Chapter three is perhaps the best remembered one, the Scientist and the Chick seek refuge in an abandoned house, eat poached eggs and are impeccably dressed and made-up despite having escaped a war-zone, crashed a plane and slept in a ditch. The Chick says that when she was little and got lost she hid in a church, as she felt safe there, and knew the one who loved her most would find her. It was uncle Priest. Martian war machines start probing the house, first with an electronic eye on a long cable, then one of the little green (actually brown) men even pays a visit, but is scared off by the Scientist who throws an axe at it. The Chick screams.
Chapter four is people in suits, white coats and uniforms talking about how the Martians work, the Chick and the Scientist find their way to Los Angeles, and it is established that in six days the Martians will have conquered the Earth, ”just as many days that it took to create it”. The Chick suppresses a scream.
Chapter five sees full-scale panic and evacuation of Los Angeles, the Chick gets separated from the Scientist, who begins searching the Churches among the death and destruction. He would probably had heard her if she had screamed. At last he finds her in a church, and just as they embrace, the alien war machines start dropping like flies. An alien arm emerges from an open hatch, and goes still. The Scientist concludes that they were killed by Earth bacteria.
The epilogue once again dusts off Cedric Hardwicke’s narration, as he again reads Wells, that states that these invincible enemies were killed by the smallest thing that god in his infinite wisdom put on Earth. We get George Pal’s staple church bells and end the scene with the survivors embracing amidst angel choirs by the church.
I’ve left some parts out, but they are basically just fluff.
The alien invasion theme was born in the late 19th century, when new and improved telescopes allowed scientists to look at our solar system and the Milky Way in better detail. Aliens soon invaded literature, with books by authors like J-H Rosny aine (Les Xipéhus, 1888) and Robert Potter (The Germ Growers, 1892).
Although not the first, the most influential was H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898). The book was written during a flurry of literary productivity between 1895 and 1902, when Wells wrote most of his best remembered and most influential novels. These years saw the birth of The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds and First Men in the Moon, among others. Despite his keen interest in outer space and his love of good fantasy stories, Wells‘ books were first and foremost social commentaries and musings on society and the state and evolution of mankind as a social and biological species. Imbued with dark, sarcastic humour, many of his books were rooted in his semi-socialist leanings and often dealt with the hubris of man, especially the white, western man, the moral limits of science, the folly of organised religion and the dumb idleness of the upper class. Unfortunately, few movie adaptations of his work have bothered with his philosophy, and settled instead for the spectacle that they provided.
To date, over 100 films or TV series have been based on Wells’ work, and by 1953 over a dozen feature films and as many shorts had been made from his novels and stories – he also wrote a number of scripts for shorts in the twenties. The first substantial sci-fi film in history, A Trip to the Moon, was an uncredited mishmash of ideas from both him and Jules Verne. A British, sadly lost, movie was made on First Men in the Moon in 1919, and The Island of Dr. Moreau was turned into the German Die Insel der Verschollenen in 1921, also a lost film. Paramount, who produced The War of the Worlds, also held the rights to The Island of Dr. Moreau, which was made into an excellent film in 1932, as Island of Lost Souls (review). Wells didn’t like the film, as he thought it put too much emphasis on the horror elements. He did, however, like Universal’s splendid take on The Invisible Man in 1933 (review), made by British Frankenstein director James Whale. However, one can imagine he was not too fond of the franchise the film launched, that mostly had very little to do with the literary source. Generally, he didn’t like the way his stories were portraid on film, and tried his own hand at screenwriting for the British epic Things to Come (1936, review), based on his own book, produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzies. Although visually marvellous and thematically ambitious, the film suffered badly from Wells’ pompous and preachy script.
The story of how Paramount came to make The War of the Worlds in 1953 with George Pal is long and complicated. The studio bought the rights as early as 1925, and planned it as a project for Cecil B. DeMille. But nothing ever came of it, since the studio either didn’t know how to do the special effects convincingly or thought they would be too expensive. It was pitched to Sergei Eisenstein during his short stay in Los Angeles in the early thirties, but he declined. Renewed interest sprung up after Orson Welles made his legendary live radio drama based on the book in 1938. It turned Welles into an overnight star, and renewed the interest in Wells in the US. Welles was naturally approached to direct a movie version of the story, but he wasn’t interested. Alfred Hitchcock approached Wells about an adaptation, but since Hitchcock was under contract with Warner and Paramount had the rights to the book, this also fell through. Animation master Ray Harryhausen was keen on doing the movie, and even made a short film to show the studio.
Cecil B. DeMille dusted off his old project when science fiction broke into the mainstream in the early fifties, and was so impressed with George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950, review) and When Worlds Collide (1951, review), that he managed to convince the studio brass to attach the Hungarian puppet animator and special effects visionary born as György Pál to the film (see more on Pal in the reviews of the above mentioned movies). The idea had come from Pal himself, as he had stumbled upon the old scripts while doing post-production for When Worlds Collide at Paramount.
Pal signed on as producer for yet another sci-fi epic. He didn’t like any of the numerous scripts that were lying around Paramount, so got Barré Lyndon to write a new one. Lyndon was primarily known as a mystery/horror writer, and had penned the claustrophobic thriller The Lodger (1944) and play that The Man in Halfmoon Street (1945) was based on. Pal had been especially impressed with his work on the thriller The House on 92nd Street (1945) and DeMille’s circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Despite some initial resistance from the studio, with some help from DeMille, Pal was able to convince Paramount to let him do the film, with some changes to the script.
The one thing that almost all reviewers agree on is that the biggest problem with the film is the script. Some have been upset that the filmmakers have changed the setting from Victorian London to (then) modern-day Los Angeles. And this was partly an economic decision. Making a historic set-piece of London would have been expensive, and although made on a decent enough budget, The War of the Worlds still didn’t come close to the real big-budget pictures of the day. Quo Vadis (1951) had a budget of over 7 milllion dollars, and in 1956 DeMille would remake his 1923 silent epic The Ten Commandments in sound for a whopping 13 million dollars. Numbers for The War of the Worlds vary with the source, but the film cost somewhere between 1 million and 2 million dollars to make, and reportedly two thirds of this went into the special effects.
Another reason for the change was that all three people at the reins, Pal, Haskin and Lyndon, thought the film should be identifiable to a modern American audience, ”and that’s who we were making the picture for”, Haskin said years later, according to Melvin E. Matthews’ book 1950s Science Fiction Films and 9/11. And I whole-heartedly agree. Wells wrote the book for his readers, Londoners of 1898, to comment on contemporary issues. In Wells’ days, that contemporary issue was British colonialism. Wells despised the way the British would roll in with their guns and artillery in African and Asian countries and kill off thousands of inhabitants to secure the land and the resources, without thought for the deaths of the indegeneous people, who were seen as a lower form of life than the European man. Wells wanted to hold up a mirror to the Brits and say: ”What if it was the other way around? What if we were suddenly ‘the lower species’?”
Not only was it the prime era of the red-scare, when Americans were trembling in fear over a Soviet invasion with some ”new weapon of super-science”, the H-bomb that was the talk of the town. And, as Haskin pointed out, ”With all the talk of flying saucers, War of the Worlds had become especially timely”.
I would go as far as to say that The War of the Worlds is a film that should be updated with every adaptation. One of the reasons it has been remade so many times, as films, radio plays, TV series, comic books, video games, even a musical, is that it lends itself so well to adaptation and updating. That the filmmakers then went and garbled the social message with religion and failed to understand Wells’ satire is another matter.
The biggest problem with the script is just that – Pal, Lyndon and Haskin take on Wells’ anti-colonialist, pacifist, anti-clerical and self-ironic story and fail to understand the basic premise behind it. I have no problem with a filmmaker changing the stories of books for their adaptations. A filmmaker must find what she or he thinks is the essence of the story and work from that to carve an effective movie. But problems occur when a filmmaker tries to reverse the moral, philosophical or political message of a film. George Pal and H.G. Wells were alike in some senses. They were both (semi-)pacifists, and both techno-optimists. Both believed in an inclusive and open society. But where Wells was a socialist, Pal was a vehement anti-socialist. Pal was also a deeply religious man, who was always adamant about inserting religious messages into his films. It was subtle in Destination Moon, and all-engulfing in When Worlds Collide. But in the latter film this was suitable, since the movie was based on a novel that served as a modern retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark. H.G. Wells is often mistakenly described as an atheist, which he wasn’t. Wells often said that he did adhere to a form of religious conviction of his own, but despised organised religion and held to a very strong secular ideology, a notion he put forth in many of his novels, and he even wrote a non-fiction book on his thoughts on religion in 1917, called God the Invisible King.
Either Pal didn’t grasp Wells’ religious satire (which is quite possible, since he often seemed to miss very central points in works he adapted), which is bad enough, or he deliberately set out to reverse Wells’ stance, which is even worse. In the book Wells had a curator in the house that was probed by Martians with the Scientist, not a girlfriend, and portrayed the man of the cloth as a trembling, hysterical and defeatist coward. Pal instead makes the priest an altruistic hero. The lines in Wells‘ book about god ”in his infinite wisdom” placing the bacteria on Earth to kill off the Martians was ironic, which Pal & Co completely fail to see, instead they take it literal. Pal further adds the whole sub-plot with the Chick hiding in a church and the people of Los Angeles taking refuge in churches in the end, and that whole tacky ending where the war-machines LITERALLY fall dead at the church gates, and church bells and angel choirs and … woah.
The film follows the book very loosely. Some of the key scenes are incorporated, such as the basic premise with the falling ”meteorites”, the first encounters with the aliens and the ending. But apart from that, the filmmakers spin a story of their own. Some of the changes were not even of Pal’s or Lyndon’s making. The original script had no Chick, instead Lyndon had followed the novel, in which the narrator gets separated from his wife early on. But Paramount insisted there had to be a romantic interest, so the character of the Chick was inserted, more or less superimposed on the story, which shines through as she has very little function. Haskin and Pal also agreed early on that they were not going to show the aliens’ point of view. But again, the studio was adamant that they wanted a scene where the audience would see what humans looked like through the eyes of the Martians, as Jack Arnold did in It Came from Outer Space (1953, review). To Pal and Haskin, however, it was important to always see the Martians as an external threat. That’s why they came up with the bizarre scene where a scientist hooks up a severed electronic eye to a projector – a scene that has no purpose whatsoever, other than to please the studio brass.
But despite its flaws, the script isn’t bad, compared to many of the actual B movies of the era. Lyndon is a competent screenwriter, and knows how to move a plot along. The movie never stalls too long on any one scene or location, but moves swiftly from one point to the next, and doesn’t just cram the film full of unnecessary action, but gives the audience time to breathe in between. Lyndon masterfully builds the tension, starting off on a very light note with a good dose of humour when introducing the townsfolk and the scientists. He slowly builds up the suspense by giving the army chance to fire off one weapon after the other, hoping to take down the war machines, and the final attack with the atom bomb midway through the film becomes an emotional turning-point, when the hunter becomes the hunted, and the mighty US army finally realises, in the General’s words, ”guns, tanks, bombs – they are like toys to them!” The scenes of the Scientist running through the chaos of Los Angeles looking for the Chick is perhaps a bit drawn out, but adds a nice deal of human drama and emotion, which is a bit lacking in the rest of the film.
You may notice that I haven’t mentioned much about the actors or the characters, and that’s because they are all quite inconsequential. Gene Barry as the Scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester, is mainly in the movie to look like a hunk – but he occasionally dons glasses, so we know he is intelligent. Barry is utterly charming in a fifties macho sort of way throughout the film, even if Haskin reportedly wasn’t very happy with his performance. And it is true that he is quite wooden. But he has a sort of Brad Pitt cool about him, that makes him the draw in every scene he is in.
Barry (born Eugene Klass, he took his moniker from actor John Barrymore) was a ”song and dance man” from the New York stage who drew up to Hollywood with his family after ending a tour in the South, and managed to secure a contract with Paramount on a whim in 1951, just three days after arriving in Los Angeles. According to an obit in The Telegraph, the news came as such a shock to his wife that she fainted and fell into a pool. After a few TV guest spots, he secured his first lead in The Atomic City, and was then shoved directly into The War of the Worlds, with a salary of 1 000 dollars a week, or between 9 000 and 13 000 dollars today, depending on how you count. In comparison, lead actress Ann Robinson made 125 dollars a week.
Barry appeared in five more Paramount films, and some low-budget indie features like the sci-fi movie The 27th Day (1957), where he again played the lead, and headed down a successful TV career in the late fifties, which lasted all the way into the 21st century. In 1955 he appeared on a couple of episodes of Science Fiction Theatre, and had a role in a episode of the revamped The Twilight Zone on 1985. He also played one of the three rotating leads in the TV show The Name of the Game, which featured the occasional sci-fi episode. However, he shot to TV stardom in the title role of his first big TV series Bat Masterson (1958-1961), continued by Burke’s Law (1963-1966), he further had the lead in The Adventurer (1972-1973), but after that he mainly appeared as a guest star, although Burke’s Law was revived for one season in 1994. He more or less retired after this. In an interview with my favourite film historian Tom Weaver, he claims that although he had a very successful TV career, he had some regrets about accepting the role as Bat Masterson, since it, in his opinion, killed his movie career. In the book Earth vs. the Sci-fi Filmmakers: 20 Interviews Barry says: ”I had a fine television carer – but I had a lousy movie career [laughs]! It’s the truth. In those days, it was a negative stamp, making the move into TV.”
On the other hand, the films he played in after The War of the Worlds weren’t exactly stellar, and he often got pushed down to fourth or fifth billing, so in all honesty TV probably saved his career. Barry also did a number of stage performances and toured the world as a singer, and even released a crooner album. His performance in La Cage aux Folles on Broadway in 1983 was a smash hit and earned him a Tony nomination. Barry often played wealthy, debonair characters, and the roles were mirrored in real life, where he would always dress in an impeccable suit and drive around town in a Rolls-Royce. Barry won a Golden Globe for his work on Burke’s Law, a Golden Boot for his work in westerns and has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his stage work.
Weaver interviewed Barry just before the Steven Spielberg remake of War of the Worlds (2005) went into production, and asked him if he would be interested in a cameo if approached. Barry responded: ”Of course I would take it. It would be thrilling.” Well waddayaknow? Along with co-star Ann Robinson, Barry had a cameo in the movie, where the pair played the mother and father of Tom Cruise’s on-screen wife, showing up in the final scene of the movie. Barry passed away in 2009.
Ann Robinson plays the romantic interest in the movie, and I’m sure she is a wonderful actress, but to be frank, she doesn’t really shine in this film. But that’s simply because all her character really does is scream, cry and act hysterical. Credit where credit’s due, though – Robinson has one of the most impressive screams of any of the scream queens of cinema. Haskin reportedly commented only ”Oh, my goodness” after he had heard it for the first time. Steven Spielberg called it the best scream in the business, save for the original scream queen Fay Wray’s. When Robinson does have some dramatic scenes, she is pretty OK, considering she really only had a few minor stage roles and uncredited bit-parts under her belt.
In a really funny interview in Double Feature Creature Attack – again by Tom Weaver – Robinson explains how she cheated her way into showbiz by pretending she was a stunt woman – which meant she actually became a stunt woman, at least for a year or so. Robinson was part of the so-called Golden Circle of Paramount, who were paid peanuts, but had weekly wages, and basically sat around and did little scenes in a room called ”The Fishbowl” once a week for directors and producers who would then decide whether to use them in a particular film or not. After a particularly impressive double performance in The Fishbowl, Pal hired her as the female lead. Robinson is very open about the fact that she didn’t know anything about film acting at the time, and praises Byron Haskin for helping her with the performance. She also reveals that she wore a hair peace, which explains why her feathers are never ruffled even when on a day-long escape from a war zone.
Robinson had another major role in Maxwell Shane’s refugee thriller The Glass Wall (1953) by Warner, but was released from Paramount just after the The War of the Worlds had premiered, and was actually re-hired to do the promotion on the Eastern seaboard. She then moved almost straight into TV, and is best remembered for her role as Queen Juliandra on the kiddie show Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954). She was quite busy with TV in the mid-fifties, but then tied the knot with a matador and moved to Mexico in 1957. When she returned, not long after, Hollywood had passed her by: ”I just ruined it, I blew it. I should have stayed around and paid more attention. Now I know why they call it ‘the business’, because it is a business. I thought it was all fun and games and glamour, and I didn’t take care of it as a business”, she tells Weaver. She dropped out of acting in 1963 to focus on her family.
However, she put together a big gala night for Paramount for the 25th anniversary of The War of the Worlds, which to the studio’s surprise became extremely popular. This gala helped her back into the business, and she did a few roles on TV, when in the late eighties she heard on the grapevine that Paramount was putting together a TV series based on The War of the Worlds, and was able convince the studio to let her reprise her role, which she did on three episodes. Robinson enjoyed herself, and recalls she was treated like royalty on the production. Along with Robert Clarke of The Man from Planet X (1951, review) fame, she again reprised her role in the strange patchwork movie called Midnight Movie Massacre (1988), about a monster that eats everybody in a movie theatre showing a remake of Space Patrol. She did another, even stranger, patchwork spoof in The Naked Monster (2005) – which was actually an updated version of a fan-film called Attack of the B Movie Monster, originally made in 1984, and was cram-packed with old fifties sci-fi stars, like Kenneth Tobey, Robert Clarke (again), and Robinson’s The War of the Worlds co-star Les Tremayne, reprising his role as General Mann. It is unclear whether Robinson was in the original film or did additional footage in 1992 or 2002. And as mentioned above, she also had a cameo in the 2005 version of War of the Worlds. That was her last film role, but she is still around and kicking in January 2016, at 86 years of age. Here’s a really nice video interview with her from 2009,
Another interesting actor in the film was Les Tremayne, primarily known from his radio work in the thirties and forties, when he appeared in some of the most popular radio dramas in the country. At one time he was voted one of the three most distinctive voices on American radio, alongside Bing Crosby and Franklin D. Roosevelt. At one time he appeared on 45 different shows in a single week. Tremayne plays the no-nonsense general Mann in The War of the Worlds, and it is actually one of the best portrayals of one of these army brass types in the fifties sci-fi films I have seen.
Tremayne kept working in radio, TV and film up until the nineties, although in his later years he mostly did voice work. He appeared in numerous science fiction films: he narrated Forbidden Planet (1956), played one of the leads in The Monolith Monsters (1957) and did the rocket launch countdown for From the Earth to the Moon (1959). He played the lead in The Monster from Piedras Blancas (1959), and starred as one of the astronauts who land on Mars in Ib Melchior’s psychedelic cult film The Angry Red Planet (1959). He did numerous voices for the English dub of King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and had another starring role in The Slime People (1963). He guested an number of sci-fi TV series in the sixties and dubbed a role in the English version of Antonio Margheriti’s War Between the Planets (1966). One of Tremayne’s longest streaks in a single TV series was his role as Captain Marvel’s mentor in Shazam! (1974-1977). He did voice work on the 1985 animated movie Starchaser: The Legend of Orin, and, as mentioned, appeared in The Naked Monster.
In her interview with Weaver, Robinson recalled how thrilled she was to work with two of her childhood heroes, George Pal, who was the creator of the Puppetoons animations, and Les Tremayne, who she had grown up listening to on the radio.
Higher billed than his role required, Robert Cornthwaite can be seen as one of the three scientists who are on a fishing trip when the meteorite falls in the beginning of the movie. Cornthwaite was already a sci-fi star by this time, after his chilling performance as Dr. Carrington in The Thing from Another World (1951, review). For more on him, please see that review. We’ll just mention that he also appeared in The Naked Monster. The third scientist is played by Sandro Giglio, who had a small role in When Worlds Collide.
A nice addition is the radio reporter who acts as a sort of narrator, played by Paul Frees, a renowned voice actor (who also has face for film), composer and sound editor who not only acted in or provided voices for over 300 films or TV series, but also worked as one of those well-kept secret actors in Hollywood who would do overdubs in post-production whenever extras needed voicing or a film star’s lines needed changing and the star couldn’t make it to the sound studio. So adept was Frees at doing voices and accents, that in some instances on dubbed films or animations, he wound up having a four-way conversation with himself. The War of the Worlds is his best known role where he’s actually seen. He or his voice also appeared in The Thing from Another World, When Worlds Collide, a number of Godzilla dubs, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Cyclops (1957), The Mysterians (1957) dub, Beginning of the End (1957), The 27th Day, The Monolith Monsters, The H-Man (1958) dub, Space Master X-7 (1958), The Time Machine (1960), The Last War (1961) dub, Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), Gorath (1962) dub, Dimension 5 (1966), King Kong Escapes (1967) dub, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), The Milpitas Monster (1976) and Nothing Lasts Forever (1984).
In the beginning of the movie there’s a scene with the three stooges of the little town, who keep a nightwatch over the meteorite as the rest of town are square dancing. They represent the old, stupid and greedy redneck geezer, the young, reckless kid and the quota Hispanic (the only minority character in the film). These are the first victims of the Martians, as they approach with a white flag, figuring even aliens would know the meaning of the white flag. The kid is the best of the lot, and is played by none other than William Phipps, a lot more juvenile and clean-shaven than he was when he did such an impressive job as the lead in Arch Oboler’s nuclear holocaust film Five (1951, review). It’s a shame his career never took off, since I think he had a lot of potential. As of 2016, William Phipps, born 1922, has the distinction of being the oldest living actor to be primarily associated with science fiction, according to this list, and when writing this, he is the 22nd oldest movie star alive.
Jack Kruschen was the Hispanic man. Apparently the movie was so white-washed that they couldn’t even get a Hispanic actor, but had to go with a Canadian. Kruschen was a prolific character actor in radio, TV and film, best known for his role in the romcom The Apartment, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor. Kruschen also appeared as an astronaut alongside Les Tremayne in The Angry Red Planet, and might be remembered as the magician Eivol Ekdal on the Batman series (1966), and appeared in a number of other sci-fi shows.
In a small role as a cop at the crash site we see noted German-American character actor Henry Brandon (real name Heinrich von Kleinbach), who specialised in playing villains and characters of non-American ethnicity, often European, but also Asian, Arab, African, Native American and South American. He is remembered for his role as Silas Barnaby in the Laurel and Hardy film Babes in Toyland (1934), Fu Manchu in Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), Major Ruck in Edge of Darkness (1943), Giles de Rais in Joan of Arc (1948), M’Tara in Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953), as well as ”Indian” chieftan in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). He regularly appeared on stage and on TV and had a career that spanned all the way to his death in 1990. Although a popular character actor on TV, his movie career seems to have come to a sudden halt in the sixtes, perhaps because word was getting out about his homosexuality. And it saddens me so much that even in 1990 his long-time companion Mark Herron was not named as one of those he was ”remembered by” in his obituary in the New York Times.
Among the extras we spot Emmy-nominee Ned Glass, silent film charmer Ivan Lebedeff, Golden Globe winner, Oscar nominee and most of all: Morticia Addams; Carolyn Jones, also known as Teddy Belicec in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Golden Boot winner Bob Morgan, stunt legend David Sharpe and Japanese character actor Teru Shimada.
Of course, it isn’t the acting that has made the film the classic it is today, but the special effects and the story. Despite the script’s obvious flaws and thin characterisations, the combination of Wells’ story and Lyndon’s knack for suspenseful writing makes this great nail-biter. Even today it has audiences sitting on the egde of their seats, even if they know how it all ends.
The film is the first to actually portray a mass-invasion by aliens, and in a spectacular manner that wouldn’t really be outdone on film for decades. Better alien invasion films were made with subtler methods, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1956 and its remake in 1978. Spielberg did the ultimate UFO movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977, there was E.T. and other aliens on Earth, not to speak of the great special effects leaps in the sci-fi movies of the late seventies and eighties. But to actually see an alien invasion on Earth on the same scale and done with the same level of style as The War of the Worlds, we had to wait for Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Opinions may differ on whether it was worth the wait. But when people point out that the effects of The War of the Worlds are outdated by today’s standard, they might want to keep in mind that no-one dared do what George Pal did for over 40 years. And adjusted for inflation, Emmerich had between four and seven times Pal’s budget.
Best remembered, of course, are the iconic war machines of the Martians, designed by legendary art director Albert Nozaki. As a puppeteer, George Pal had initially intended to recreate the walking tripods of Wells’ story, but decided it would be too costly and time-consuming. The script goes out of its way to make clear that Nozaki’s flying war machines aren’t actually ”flying”, but are supported by some sort of ”magnetic” beams, and one scene even shows three flickering beams descending from one of the machines, in effect making them tripods with invisible legs. The large miniatures were made out of copper and were supported by 15 wires, some of which provided the electricity for the gadgets inside, such as the retractable ”neck” with the electronic eye and the lights on the wing-tips. Working on the miniatures of the movie was Marcel Delgado, the constant companion of stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien, who of course worked on films like The Lost World (1925, review) and King Kong (1931, review).
Another famous feature is the heat ray cannon/electronic eye, also made out of copper and modelled on a cobra snake with something that looks like a headlight for an ”eye”. Absolutely beautiful design and that also goes for the probing electronic eyes, with the red-green-blue tri-irises – which was also incorporated in the Martian.
Both special and visual effects are absolutely stunning, and the large effects team was led by Gordon Jennings, winner of two Oscars and nominated eight times. It is true that some of them were borrowed from The Day the Earth Stood Still, such as updating the black smoke used in Wells’ novel to a disintegration ray, and the disintegration effects look very similar to the ones in the 1951 movie. These were all cel-animated, but the most memorable martian weapon, the burning ray, or rather spray, from the cobra head, was a practical effect done against blue screen. In fact, it was as simple as it was genius. The sparks seen on screen were the sparks from a melting welding-wire blown past or towards the camera with a blow-torch. The draw-back to this effect is that it looks like the range of the weapon is limited to a few metres. But it must have been quite something to see it blown-up all over the screen, added over the live-action in the movie theatre.
Another very cool, but super-simple effect was the ”electronic shields” of the war machines, that show up very quickly in a couple of scenes. These were ordinary bell jars used for displays, that were filmed against blue screen, and superimposed over the Martian vehicles. The wonderful matte paintings of space and the planets, as well as a glimpse of Mars, were made by astronomer and artist Chesley Bonestell, ”the father of space art”, a frequent George Pal collaborator. The other matte painter on the film was the brilliant Jan Domela, who won an ”honorary Oscar” along with Gordon Jennings for the effects on Spawn of the North in 1938, before there was a category for special effects. Splendid are also the miniatures of the destruction of Los Angeles. Pal’s choice of Byron Haskin as director was obviously inspired by the fact that Haskin had worked as a cinematographer and a special effects creator before he became a director, as Pal knew how important the effects were going to be for the film. Also on the effects team was people like double Oscar winner and process photographer Farciot Edouart and miniature photographer Cliff Shirpser.
Of course a modern viewer will feel that many of the effects are dated and crude, and there are problems. At least on the new, remastered copies of the film, the wires that support the war machines are clearly visible in some scenes. There’s also the fact that the machines have a very ”miniaturey” feel to them and look like toys in a certain light. The light is a constant problem, as there are very visible blue matte lines in some shots, and the blue light from the blue-screen reflects in the copper coating of the vehicles – on the other hand this does give them a sort of alien glow, which adds to their menace. Gordon Jennings won two actual Oscars for non-sci-fi films in 1942 and 1943, and a bunch of technical awards. He also worked on two of my favourite sci-fi films: Island of Lost Souls and Dr. Cyclops (1940, review), as well as When Worlds Collide. Jan Domela was his constant companion. Bonestell worked on Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review), Conquest of Space (1955, review) and the TV series Men Into Space (1959-1960).
Second art director Hal Pereira won one Oscar and was nominated for a whopping 21 other films. Pereira also worked on When Worlds Collide and Conquest of Space, as well as The Space Children (1958), The Colossus of New York (1958), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), The Nutty Professor (1963), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), The President’s Analyst (1967), and Project X (1968).
Cinematographer George Barnes was a Hollywood veteran who had worked with a slew of the great directors, including Cecil B. DeMille, and won a Golden Globe for his work of The Greatest Show on Earth. This was his only sci-fi, and it was made in lush Technicolor, as all of Pal’s science fiction movies. The colour of the film is beautiful, and much emphasis is laid on it, from the orange skies, glowing with alien activity to the way the red-green-blue lights from the Martian eye wash over Robinson and Barry in the house they are trapped in, the multi-coloured powders mixed in the explosion to recreate the nuclear bomb and the poisonous green of the Martian disintegration rays. In Haskin’s colour work and scenes of destruction Fernanco Croche of of Cinepassion sees the influences of Hieronymus Bosch’s hellish visions and Edvard Munch’s flaming skies and green hills. Mark Bourne of the DVD Journal writes that ”The richly saturated three-strip Technicolor /…/ probably caused the entire nation to stop dreaming in black-and-white.”
Another of the most memorable aspects of the film is the actual Martians, wet and slimy, with that big giant head with the headlight eye and pulsating veins, and the long, spindly arms and fingers with suction-cup tips. The design is iconic, although the alien only shows up for a very brief period of time. First in the house, where the Martian first lays a hand on Robinson’s shoulder, and is then chased off by Barry, and the second time in the end where we just se an arm ”crawling” out of the opening of one of the war machines.
The Martian was designed by Nozaki, and built by Paramount’s makeup artist and creative genius, Filipino immigrant Charles Gemora, best known as one of the legendary gorilla actors of Hollywood’s golden age. Head of Paramount’s makeup department was Wally Westmore, but he only did the makeup for the actors, or at least planned it, probably. The makeup heads were often the only credited makeup artists on the film, even though they sometimes had very little to do with the actual work on the movies. Gemora received no official credit for building (and actually redesigning) the Martian.
His daughter Diana Gemora, 12 years old at the time, tells – Tom Weaver, who else – about the creation of the alien in the book A Sci-fi Swarm and Horror Horde. She recounts how her father stormed in after a day at work, ate his dinner, and swooped her away, as he sometimes did, to his studio at Paramount, explaining he had done six months work on the alien, only to be told that it was too big to fit in the set of the house where the protagonists were trapped. He had now torn it apart and had to redo the whole thing – in one night. The whole story is lovingly and very humorously told, I strongly recommend that you buy the book, but too long for me to repeat in any detail. The long of the short of it was that Diana and Charles worked frantically through the night with a wooden frame, chicken wire, plaster bandages, foam latex, tape, electronics, paint and glycerine and had the thing done by eight in the morning. However, the the latex hadn’t cured properly yet, and as they wheeled the thing out of the studio bits and pieces were falling off and the whole Martian was barely holding together, ”a big mound of taped-up Jell-O”.
But it got on set, and Charles got into the suit, as he also played the Martian. He worked on his knees on a wooden dolly that was being dragged around on wires by the stage-hands, and he was completely blind in the suit. Diana, 12 years and with no sleep, still with the curlers she had put in her hair the evening before, was called in by her father to operate the compressor that made the veins in the Martian’s head and arms pulsate. She crawled under the stage floor with her compressor and pumped whenever Charles shouted ”Pump, pump!” She thought the whole thing was absolutely hilarious – her dad hidden behind the suit on the trolley, the Martian a heap of uncured foam latex ready to fall to pieces at any moment, and the stage hands yanking Charles around, so that at one point the whole thing almost tipped over. And that would have been the end of it.
According to Diana, Charlie Gemora was one of the great innovators of Hollywood makeup, and worked as an apprentice to the great god of horror makeup, Lon Chaney. Diana says Charlie came up with the first studio blood that didn’t stain, the first whipped foam latex, lipstick in tubes, falsies and the first Kleenex box. But being the generous and unassuming guy that he was, he never patented or took credit for things, but freely shared his inventions with his colleagues, some of whom later took credit for his work. Unfortunately this streak of bad businessmanship also spilled over to the rest of his life, as he was a heavy gambler ans is said to have won and lost a million dollars seven times over.
Gemora started as a sculptor, and for example did much of the sets on The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Noah’s Ark (1928). He also created and started performing in his first gorilla suit in the early twenties. His suit was first used on The Lost World, although not with him in it. He first acted on film in the suit (as far as we know) 1927, and had at least 40 gorilla roles, although the number is probably much higher, as the gorilla and creature performers were almost never credited. He also designed the suits for The Colossus of New York (1958) and Curse of the Faceless Man (1958). He played a bear in Road to Utopia (1945) and another alien in I Married a Monster from Outer Space. He worked as makeup artist on films like Island of Lost Souls, The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Dr. Cyclops, Double Indemnity (1944), A Place in the Sun (1951), The Ten Commandments, Around the World in Eight Days (1956), I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Hands of a Stranger (1962) and Jack the Giant Killer (1962). He passed away in 1961, just 58 years old. Diana Gemora helped Charlie on many of his films, but was naturally never credited. There is a documentary called Charlie Gemora – Uncredited in post-production as of January 2016, so keep a look out for that!
Now, the alien does look a bit flimsy when you know the story behind it – but one is even more impressed by the look of it when one knows it was a one-night rush job. It is such a testament to Charles Gemora’s genius that he was able to make such an elaborate being in one single night. Granted, the electronics were made earlier, as were the wire-controlled arms and fingers. But still – the unique look of the alien and the pulsating veins and everything. Haskin also wisely hides it in shadows most of the time, and only shows it in quick flashes. But it was so convincing that Diana writes that she was genuinely frightened by it when she saw the film, even though she had built it.
The special effects received an Oscar – awarded to the film as a whole, not Jennings and the team, for some reason. This continued George Pal’s winning streak – Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide both won the same award. But The War of the Worlds was also nominated for best editing and best sound recording, although the term ”sound recording” was something of an archaism even in 1953, when much of a film’s sound was done with effects and overdubs. The soundscapes of The War of the Worlds should rightly have taken home the Oscar, if not for anything else, then for the eerie sound of the Martian heat ray. That strange, otherworldly subdued ”chirping” laid with a ghostly echo has since been reused infinitely in sci-fi films (and others). The one effect I can think of off the top of my head is the sound of the bleeping motion detectors that the crew use to spot aliens in Aliens (1986), which is almost exactly copied from The War of the Worlds. (I am now listening to Leith Stevens’ soundtrack album, and Martian Heat Ray is actually credited as one of his compositions). There are a lot of brilliant sound effects in the film. According to John Johnson’s book Cheap Tricks and Class Acts the scream of the Martian when he escapes from the axe-flinging Barry was produced by scraping dry ice across a contact microphone and mixing it with a woman’s high-pitched scream played in reverse. Effects for war machines and death rays were made with multiple electric guitars played in reverse. The humming of the war machines were fabricated by using a tape recorder echo machine feeding output to input, resulting in a strange, oscillating echo.
The success of The War of the Worlds at the Oscars meant that George Pal’s films had by 1953 won 75 percent of all Oscars awarded to science fiction films. The only other win was Fredric March’s best actor win for his role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, review). To date – I’m writing this just days away from the 2016 Oscars – only one single other acting Oscar has gone to a science fiction film, and Heath Ledger wasn’t even alive to receive it. Well, I could go on about the science fiction Oscar bias, but this post is long enough without it. Instead I will mention Leith Stevens, the composer of the music for The War of the Worlds, who should in all right have been Oscar nominated, if so just for The Martian Heat Ray and the bombastic opening title. The music perfectly accompanies the picture, and helps tremendously to sell the miniature sequences of war and destruction, overpowering the fact that the war machines sometimes do look a bit like toys. But with Stevens’ bass-heavy orchestral arrangements drowning out all doubt of fire and brimstone, you just go along for the ride.
Thematically the film is – in usual George Pal fashion – all over the place. Naturally, the theme of the piece is clear – it’s those damn commies again, this time invading USA in spaceships. Just like the sad excuse for a movie Red Planet Mars (1952, review), The War of the World is taking the notion that the one thing that stood between the world and Soviet Communism was religion – preferably Christianity, and that god almighty will strike down even the most invincible foe with the ”smallest thing” he put on Earth. Of course, while this notion is nowhere to be found in Wells’ book, and Pal rejects almost all other notions that are in the book, the film ends up being a rather pointless exercise, and what Pal really wants to say – apart from ”put your faith in the lord above” – is a bit unclear. But in a way this is also a boon, since so many of the fifties science fiction films were so obviously very thinly disguised ideological pieces, either conservative or liberal, pro-science or anti-science. Here it does seem as if Pal’s main focus really has been to create a thrilling motion picture, which is refreshing.
If you’re new to this blog, you will not know that I watch all sci-fi films I can find in chronological order, to better be able to see them as the audience at the time would have seen them. And escaping the abysmal forties with its endless mad scientist copies and running into really good movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World in the fifties was such a rewarding experience. And while The War of the Worlds fails to live up to those to those brilliant black-and-white films in many respects, I must admit that I was absolutely overjoyed and grateful when I watched it for the first time (on this run). Finally! An impeccably made, well-scripted, sort of decently acted science fiction action movie that didn’t constantly try to cram social messages down my throat, didn’t make awkward pitched battles between science and religion or science and the military. I didn’t have to sigh through long, stilted dialogue scenes in anonymous white rooms with a desk and a flag, listen to endless garbled techno-babble or see filmmakers trying desperately to create special effects out of rubber bands and chewing gum. There were spaceships, heat rays, explosions, Martians, actual sets, actual actors, a breezy plot, lots of action, not very much intelligent conversation, good-looking leads, and it was all superbly edited and brilliantly shot in vibrant beautiful colour. And, boy, do I understand why this was a smash hit with the audience in 1953.
The movie received mainly good reviews. Even The New York Times, notoriously un-friendly to sci-fi in the past, praised the film for its sense of adventure and special effects. A.H. Weiler wrote: ”The War of the Worlds is, for all of its improbabilities, an imaginatively conceived, professionally turned adventure, which makes excellent use of Technicolor, special effects by a crew of experts and impressively drawn backgrounds”, and called the film ”suspenseful, fast and, on occasion, properly chilling”. Variety also writes about the ”socko special effects”, praises the cast and the ”logical love-story”, and gives the film 3 out of 4 stars.
Later reviewers haven’t all been as kind. The movie has an 85 percent ”fresh” rating at Rotten Tomatoes, by 28 reviewers, which is surprisingly low for a film often considered one of the great classics. And that’s not because of the dated special effects. The most common complaint is the same as mine – the tacky religious message slapped on a film that has no need for it, and has no basis in the source material. Others complain about wooden acting, the lack of any character development, and the lukewarm and forced romance. These problems are noted by most contemporary reviewers, but like me, many feel that the pros outweigh the cons on the film. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader praises the film’s ”dark, burnished apocalyptic beauty”, and Douglas Pratt of the Hollywood Reporter writes: ”A half-century after its creation, the film’s best moments are still so enjoyably unnerving that they easily carry a viewer through the necessary but inevitably dated exposition”. TV Guide neatly sums up the overall sentiment: ”Though it’s bogged down by a stiff cast, a yawn-inspiring conventional romance, and a sappy religiosity, it remains a landmark in the history of special effects”.
To finish this long post off, here are some stats on the head honchos of the movie. George Pal was actually nominated for Oscars for best short cartoon seven times for his Puppetoon films, and received an honorary Academy Award for his work in animation. Both his films The Time Machine (1960) and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao were nominated for Hugo Awards. The War of the Worlds was entered into the Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Hall of Fame in 1978, and Pal received a Special Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films in 1975. After The War of the Worlds, he produced another four sci-fi movies, the ambitious but problem-ridden Conquest of Space (1955), The Time Machine (1960), which he also directed and is regarded by many to be his finest work, Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), which he also directed, and The Power (1968), again with Byron Haskin.
Pal was loved by all who worked with him, and Ann Robinson heaped praise on him in her interview with Weaver, calling him ”the most wonderful man in the world”, ”a kind, sweet gentleman”. Legend has it that he was so sweet and probably naive, that he was constantly being ripped off by studios stealing his ideas. It got to the point that Pal in his later years moved his office to his home so that people wouldn’t come looking over his shoulder at what he was up to, and making their own movies about it. For more on Pal, please check out the review of Destination Moon.
Byron Haskin was four times Oscar nominated, and later directed Conquest of Space, From the Earth to the Moon (1958), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), The Power, and produced the very first, rejected Star Trek pilot The Cage in 1965.
The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by Byron Haskin. Written by Barré Lyndon. Based on the novel The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinsin, Les Tremayne, Robert Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Lewis Martin, Houseley Stevenson Jr., Paul Frees, William Phipps, Vernon Rich, Henry Brandon, Jack Kruschen, Cedric Harwicke, Ned Glass, Joe Gray, Charles Gemora, Carolyn Jones, Ivan Lebedeff, David McMahon, James Seay, David Sharpe, Bobby Somers, Wilhelm von Hohenzollern, Anthony Warde. Music: Leith Stevens. Cinematography: George Barnes. Editing: Everett Douglas. Art direction: Albert Nozaki, Hal Pereira. Set decoration: Sam Comer, Emile Kuri. Costume design: Edith Head. Makeup supervisor: Wally Westmore. Astronomical art: Chesley Bonestell. Sound recordists: Gene Garvin, Harry Lindgren. Sound director: Loren L. Ryder. Special effects: Edward A. Sutherland, Barney Wolff. Visual effects: Gordon Jennings, Jan Domela (mattes), Marcel Delgado (miniatures), Farciot Edouart, Cliff Shirpser. Martian costumes: Charles Gemora, Diana Gemora. Produced by George Pal, Frank Freeman Jr. & Cecil B. DeMille for Paramount Pictures.