This one’s from waaaay back in October 2001, less than a month after the events of September 11, 2001. That tragic day was still fresh in my mind when I wrote this column on WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Incidentally, WAR OF THE WORLDS was on my mind this week because I saw a neat collectible of the Martian ship at the ROCK AND SHOCK convention in Worcester, Mass., this past weekend. I thought about buying it, but when I went back for a second look, it was gone. Maybe it flew off!
—Michael Arruda, 10/19/20
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)
by Michael Arruda
Perhaps it’s the association with Orson Welles’ famous Halloween broadcast of 1938. Or maybe it’s simply because it’s a damn fine scary movie! Whatever the reason, the 1953 version of H.G. Wells’ THE WAR OF THE WORLDS is perfect Halloween viewing.
Not in the creaky, spooky, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night way. But in the “in your face,” “there’s-nowhere-to-hide” way!
Martians invade earth. Their machines pulverize humankind and our assortment of modern-day weapons (the film updates Wells’ story to the 1950s), while withstanding everything we throw at them, including the atom bomb. Up until the final seconds of the film, and there ain’t nothin stopping these babies!
And it all starts so innocently, in small town America. A spaceship crashes. Townsfolk excitedly investigate. Three deputies keep an eye on the fallen object which the locals believe to be a meteor. When the deputies realize it is a spaceship, they attempt to show these extraterrestrial visitors that they are friendly. They are quickly murdered.
Ships begin to fall all over the earth. It is quickly realized that the Martian intentions are hostile, and that invasion is imminent. Countries around the world scramble to defend themselves. Nation after nation succumb to the alien attackers. The last country left standing is the United States, and after they drop the atom bomb to no avail—the targeted Martian spaceships aren’t even touched!— the fight appears to be over.
In light of the events of September 11 and the subsequent war against terrorism, it is somewhat jarring to watch this film now, while a real war is being waged. The scenes of buildings being blown up, of Los Angeles being attacked, of mass hysteria, are all the more poignant and disturbing due to current tragic events.
Yet, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS is still a classic among genre films, one that is not to be missed. In vivid Technicolor, it’s a beautiful production. The Martian ships, with their bright greens and reds, and distinctive sounds, are among the most memorable visuals in the history of horror/sci-fi cinema. No wonder this film took the Oscar for Best Special Effects that year.
The screenplay by Barre Lyndon gives us three-dimensional characters who we care for, and offers many nice touches. When leading lady (Ann Robinson) first meets the resident hero scientist (Gene Barry) she doesn’t recognize him because he’s wearing glasses. He replies that he only uses them for distances. “When I want to look at something up close, I take them off.” He promptly removes the glasses and looks right into her eyes. A nice sexy moment.
Director Byron Haskin handles all the action scenes with ease and provides plenty of chills. After the atom bomb is dropped, the Martian machines emerge from the dust cloud completely unscathed and unhindered, and they’ve never looked scarier. And the first time we see an actual Martian— it’s absolutely gruesome!
The final sequence, where Gene Barry and Ann Robinson struggle to reach each other, fighting through the horde of panicked people inside a crowded church, while outside the Martian machines are closing in, destroying everything in their path, is classic cinema. Amidst the screaming crowd, the two leads finally embrace, just as the church walls begin to crumble around them. Powerful, emotional stuff.
But the true star of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS isn’t the cast, or the direction or the script, or even the Martians themselves, but those magnificent Martian machines. They are as much an indelible image in horror cinema as Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. Once seen, they are not forgotten.
© Copyright 2001 by Michael Arruda