The War of the Worlds (1953) - Sci-Fi Classic Film Review
George Pal always gets more credit than the actual directors of his films
During his lifetime, H.G. Wells declared that his own works could never properly translate to film. He died in the mid-forties, so he never got the chance to see arguably the most famous adaptation of his work, George Pal's The War of the Worlds. No one can really know how Wells would have reacted to the film, but if you ask me, he probably would have felt the same way he did about all the rest. Even though modern review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes rate it slightly under the 1930s' Island of Lost Souls and The Invisible Man (and even this years' The Invisible Man), there can be little doubt that the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds is one of the most well-regarded films based on Wells' fiction.
As an adaptation, it does a few things that are incredibly smart. First, it moves it into the post-war era, so that instead of foreseeing the World Wars to come, it is reflecting the World Wars that have just passed. In those days, the world had seen bloodshed and devastation on an incomprehensible scale, but it felt, for the most part, like the good guys had won and that mankind was capable of defeating evil, even if it required the use of horrible new weapons of war. There was still the strong, lingering paranoia of the Cold War and the fear that these new weapons might destroy everything. 1953's The War of the Worlds taps into all of these conflicting emotions, demonstrates that all of our military might could still be woefully outmatched by other forces both natural and extraterrestrial, and argues that a virtual blink of an eye is all it would take to bring civilization to ruin.
Another smart thing the film does is turn the protagonist into a scientist. In Wells' novel, he is a philosopher, which is appropriate given the book's more philosophical bent, but for the movie, having him be a scientist highlights the possibility that science and reason might stand a chance against the Martians if the mob doesn't thwart our hero's efforts to come up with a scientific solution. Golden age sci-fi movies, like The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still, are downright obsessed with the interplay between scientists and the military--which makes sense as the world was still trying to come to grips with the existence of the nuclear bomb--and The War of the Worlds exploits that as best it can, taking the side of science without villifying the military (though military force is as impotent as the plot necessitates).
Do I dare say this is better than Independence Day?
The hero is also given a more direct romantic story. It's true that the protagonist in Wells' novel was intermittently motivated by a desire to get back to his wife, but in the movie, our hero, Dr. Forrester, spends most of the movie either protecting or trying to rescue the woman he just met, Sylvia. For the part of the story in which the hero is trapped in a broken house while an alien searches for him within, Sylvia takes the place of the cowardly and insane curate, which changes the dynamic of the story and gives it a clearer sense of personal momentum. Normally, I decry putting a romantic subplot into a story just for the sake of the Hollywood formula, but here (as in Pal's adaptation of The Time Machine), it works for the story being told on screen. Even the suddenness of their affection doesn't bother me, as it makes sense they would cling to the closest person when death appears imminent.
The film does pull back occasionally to show the global scale of the Martian attack, which is another good move. Wells' novel is centered entirely on southern England, and you get the sense that the Martians never quite make it to the rest of the planet. This doesn't live up to the book's title, but it works for a time period in which the world wasn't quite as globally connected as it would become by the middle of the following century. For the movie, which takes place after both World Wars, such a narrow focus would have seemed disingenuous at best, so catching glimpses of a broken Eiffel Tower or hearing that Great Britain is being dessimated is important, even though the main story takes place in California and it does seem at least a little coincidental that Dr. Forrester is involved at every step.
I don't mind this
The biggest change I take issue with is the religious angle. This isn't because I have any kind of problem with religion, but because it is antithetical to Wells' spirit. Wells was a pretty rigid agnostic who lampooned organized religion on a regular basis, even in The War of the Worlds, in which the only religious figure--the curate--is perhaps the most dislikable character in the whole story. That's one of the main reasons I think he wouldn't have liked this adaptation, because it makes heroes of clergymen and very heavily implies that the bacteriological death of the aliens is a literal deus ex machina brought about because the people cowering in the churches are praying for a miracle after all else fails.
That said, this is a remarkable film for the time period, a disaster film that far surpasses the handful of disaster films that preceded it (including Pal's own When Worlds Collide from just two years earlier). It does away with some of the more visually disturbing aspects of the novel and manages to be PG even by today's ridiculously rigid standards, but it's still surprisingly harrowing, giving us an apocalyptic glimpse of end times and showing us a vision of humanity that is powerless to stop it. As a film, it's also really well shot, with some clever cinematography and amazing special effects for its day.
This is one of those pictures you can hear
I know you can see the wires holding up the saucers (digression: they originally planned to use tripods, but they looked bad in motion, so the atypical saucer shape was chosen, though they are shown hovering by virtue of three mostly invisible tripod-shaped magnetic beams), but that's an artifact of the original prints being replaced by a different color stock in the late sixties; before then, the wires were totally invisible on the big screen. Even with the now-visible wires, though, this movie beats the pants off of all other sci-fi movies from 1953, including such heavies as Invaders from Mars and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It's also ridiculously iconic. Even some people born in the Twenty-First Century recognize the sound of the heat ray or the look of the roaming red eye that fires it.
There are plenty of other changes I could discuss--the aliens themselves, the fact that the scientific explanations given in the film are somehow less believable than those given in the novel, the elimination of the brother and artilleryman subplots, the use of an atom bomb, etc.--but at the end of the day, I feel this is an incredibly smart adaptation that proves that, sometimes, you don't have to be a slave to the source material. The religious angle aside, it's remarkably true to Wells' story, even if it only retains a mere skeleton of its plot. Next week, I'll discuss Steven Spielberg's adaptation, which is, in some ways, a little truer to the original novel, and yet it isn't quite as well-regarded as George Pal's. Check back then to find out why.
-e. magill 5/7/2020
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