War of the Worlds (1953) has been one of my favorite Science Fiction films for as long as I can remember. I'm not sure when was the last time that I watched it. But what can one expect when you have literally a few thousand movies at your disposal on DVD/Blu-ray? Sometimes it takes a while to get to all of them. Decisions, decisions.
When Criterion decided to release their Blu-ray Special edition, and after reading some good reviews, I went ahead and made the purchase on Amazon. I made it a point to watch it the day that the disc arrived. Would it hold up after all these years?
I ask that question because I consider Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 rehash one of the great science fiction films of this decade. I don’t think it has gotten the credit it deserved since the scribes were too busy writing about how Tom Cruise jumped over a couch on Oprah upon its release.
So I guess the trick here is remembering that the 1953 version was made in a different era and didn’t have the advantage of the high end digital effects that Spielberg had at his disposal.
War of the Worlds opens with a quick history lesson on World War I and World War II. I guess as a way of letting us know that the worst was yet to come and instead of fighting the Japanese or the Germans, the whole planet was going to be doing battle with slimy green men from Outer Space. Or something like that.
After the credits are dispensed with rather quickly, we then get our 1953 Science Lesson from the narrator (Sir Cedric Hardwicke).
We will give the movie a pass on their very faulty science because 67 years have come and gone, and I don’t think audiences in 1953 really gave a crap if they got it right.
These days, the ignorance is not because the information isn’t there, it’s because we have a whole corral full of right-wing cattle choosing to disbelieve science, or that it doesn’t exist at all and only Jeebus can show us the light. I guess they figure anybody who can manufacture the Universe in 6 days before pooping out on the 7th has all the scientific knowledge they need in their life.
Fight an alien invasion? As Perry Mason used to say, “Hell’s Bells!” You cannot even get many of the people in the United States of Idiots to wear a mask or get vaccinated. I am sure that if they were to see actual flying spaceships, they would pass it off as just another libtard hoax out to get them. Crap, get me a DeLorean and fly me back to 1953 where they weren’t so willfully stupid as people are now.
When War of the Worlds finally finishes our education, we cut to a big fireball cannon-balling down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose.
This Fireball looks suspiciously like the one in the movie It Came from Outer Space that I reviewed recently. And just like in that movie, it crashes into the earth with a lot of sparks, fire, and noise.
Apparently about 90 percent of the towns people happen to be gathered at the movie theater at night. Where else do you have to be in the evening in Hooterville? Taking a ride on the Hooterville Cannonball to visit Kate Bradley and the girls? Speaking of Hooterville, I’m pretty sure that’s Hank Kimball (Alvy Moore) of Green Acres leading the crowd and offering his expertise on flaming spheres of sparklies flying through the atmosphere.
The consensus of opinion is that it’s nothing more than a large meteor and the biggest danger is that it might start a forest fire. After all, this is California where we don’t rake the dirt to Donald Trump Monster’s specifications.
Having put out the fire, a forest ranger decides it might be a good idea to have someone who actually knows the difference between a test tube and a Bunsen burner to investigate the glowing phenomenon because it’s hotter than a pepper sprout.
As major coincidence would have it, three scientists from Pacific Tech are out in the woods being one with nature as they studied the scientific art of fishing.
As Ranger Smith tells them all about the meteor, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) has his doubts.
“Are they sure it’s a meteor? It didn’t come down like one.”
These scientists are so revved up about this possible new discovery that they do the only thing scientists should do. They sleep on it until the next day.
When Forrester finally does arrive on the scene the next morning, it’s hard to decide if he’s more interested in the meteor or in the Preacher’s Niece aka Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson). My money’s on Sylvia.
Ever since Forrester found out about the meteor, he seems to be totally blasé about the whole damn thing. Even when one of the local cluck clucks attacks it with a shovel and a metallic section falls to the ground, he does not seem too excited. They should change his name to Professor Mello Yellow PHD. Who knows? Maybe he has viewed so many meteors do a slide and hide landing that it no longer interests him.
During all this, someone notices that there is a thing in the professor’s car that is ticking like a Timex watch out of control. When Forrester investigates, it turns out that the big whatchamacallit glowing like a charcoal on the backyard barbecue grill, is radioactive. What do you do about that discovery?
You leave the three biggest bozos you can find to look after the rock spewing radioactivity while you run off with the preacher and his niece to a big square dance at the social hall where you can swing the preachers daughter ‘round and ‘round then go Dosey the Doe. Yep, it is gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight.
Meanwhile, way out yonder on Haunted Hill, the three stooges are trying to keep warm because the big old rock in the ground isn’t glowing quite as hot as it was and isn’t going to start any more fires. This is the cue for the meteor to pop its top like a bottle of Budweiser at a rodeo.
If you guessed that these three were dead meat as soon as they were assigned to be the keepers of the flame, you win the rubber duckie. They stare in silent awe, mesmerized, and from the looks on their faces simultaneously crapping their britches, while the spaceship slowly opens. No point in pretending it is a meteorite any longer.
As we wait for the spaceship to finish screwing around, we cut briefly back to the big hoe down taking place in town so Dr. Forrester can tell his one War of the Worlds Science Joke then we quickly cut back to Larry, Curly, and Moe using their knowledge of third grade science, deduce that the space ship came from Mars. And sure enough, out pops a bobbing and weaving Martian thing-a-ma-bob like a giant telescope surveying its surroundings.
Larry, Curly and Moe are about to run back to town when they put their 1/10 of a brain each of them have and come to the conclusion that if they can communicate with the Martian Anal Probe, they’ll become famous. Maybe get their pictures on the National Geographic. They make a white flag and walk hesitantly towards the space craft where they earn their just rewards for being so brave and so bold.
At the same time that the thing from Mars is turning the three friendly white flag waving conquering heroes into Pixie Dust, the power at the Western Hoedown Social Hall goes dark putting a quick end to us having to watch a bunch of hayseeds trotting around in circles as if they’re dressage show horses.
Not only is the power out but the phones are dead as a doornail. Dr. Forrester, finally getting a chance to use his scientific expertise, tells us that the phones are not on the same power circuit as the lights. Good going there, Professor. Don’t get stuck on Gilligan’s Island, Rah rah rah.
Some old fart lets us know that his hearing aid is on the fritz. Should have bought Energizer batteries you old buzzard. And worst news of all, Sylvia’s Uncle Preacher Collins (Lewis Martin) discovers his watch has took a dump on him. This leads to everyone in the room discovering their watches are in the crapper as well. Thus, we now know one important thing: Nobody is wearing a Timex because those watches take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.
Using a handy pin provided by Sylvia, Doc Forrester once again waves his scientific magic wand, figures out that all the watches have been magnetized and that is why the phones quit working as well.
A Compass, that just happens to be handy and provided by the local law enforcement guy, Alonzo Hogue (Paul Birch), tells Professor Dr. Clayton that the magnetic field is coming from where the meteor/spaceship came down. There is also a new raging forest fire in the same location.
Everybody is suddenly anxious and interested, and not a bit compelled to do anymore square-dancing. All it took to start a panic was not being able to tell time.
Rushing out to the crash site, Forrester and the police discover that not only have the power lines been torn down, but also the Stooge Mobile Vehicle has been blown all to shit. Seeing that the three men they left behind are now nothing more than three piles of ashes and soot, Forrester and Company decide now is the time to take decisive action.
When they are accosted by Marvin the Martian and his psychotic death rays, Forrester and Hogue jump for cover while Policeman guy tries to drive off in the squad car and gets blasted to kingdom come for his efforts. Jesus take the wheel.
They finally decide to call in the military and apparently the press as well where they all stand around on the hillside with no clue and no plan. When the beings from outer space let loose with some more rays destroying a reporter’s broadcast vehicle, along with an aircraft dropping flares, the decision is made to call in reinforcements which they should have done from the start. Not that it will make a difference but why not have a party? Plus, it will give Sylvia something to do as she goes about serving donuts and coffee as sort of a last meal in the hopes that the caffeine and sugar rush will give them a burst of energy when they have to run for the hills with their tail between their legs.
With that many soldiers at his disposal, Colonel Hefner (Vernon Rich) sets up his plan of attack.
While he’s busy doing that, the Padre decides that if these creatures are from Mars, then they have to be even closer to Jeebus than we are here on lowly planet earth. Yeah, that kind of thinking.
He decides to communicate and demonstrate how friendly we are by taking matters into his own hands. Bye, bye Reverend American Pie.
When the real battle begins, we find out too late that they have protective shields surrounding their roving spacecraft just like the Enterprise. They must have been watching Star Trek.
Colonel Hefner orders all to retreat after having lost a few hundred men and tons of equipment. But even that order comes too late to save his own ass. Bye, bye Colonel American Pie.
Sylvia and love interest Doc Clayton escape in the Doc’s plane which miraculously was not taken out by the Space Jockeys. Unfortunately, their flight path takes them right into an area swarming with aliens causing Doc to crash land. Apparently, he is a better scientist than he is a pilot.
They manage to make it to a nearby gully where they can hide from the invaders once again. This is about the third or fourth time some earthlings save themselves by jumping into a ditch. So the moral here is: When Under attack by alien beings, just ditch it.
Sylvia and Doc find their way to a farm house which has miraculously been left untouched by the aliens so she fires up some eggs then tells the Doc her story which will come in handy for him near the end of the movie. It seems she got lost once as a child so she found a church, holed up in it, then began to pray someone would find her. Apparently, they did or she wouldn’t be here to make whoopee with the Doc. But then she remembers it was Uncle Preacher who found her so Sylvia is sad again. A real Debbie Downer.
Having dispensed with that, one of the space craft comes sliding in like a bat out of hell taking half of the farm cottage with it and injuring Doc Clayton. Doc wakes up in time to save Sylvia from another alien vaginal probe and this is when we also get our first glimpse of the Martian, who looks nothing like the guy that harassed Bugs Bunny for years.
When they are found by another probe, Clayton manages to cut the head off the snake. They are then accosted by another alien (Ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille) wandering around without any protection for no reason in particular other than the fact that Clayton throws a piece of wood at it whereas it squeals like Donald Trump having his balls squeezed too tight by Stormy Daniel’s fingernails. Our heroes manage to head for the hills once again, and only then do the aliens destroy the farmhouse. Go figure.
At least in Spielberg’s remake and in H.G. Wells novel there was a reason for the aliens to go sneaking around the farmhouse looking for humans. They needed them to make fertilizer. But here? The goal of the aliens from the start is to blow us all to Kingdom Come so this was just a long roundabout excuse for Clayton to get a piece of alien technology to find a way to defeat them. In the end, the effort is wasted and inconsequential to the ending.
As the future Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Forrester make their way back to civilization, we get another long montage where the alien vehicles are shown blasting away interposed over top of stock footage so that we know we’re getting our asses kicked without blowing up the movie’s budget ($2 Million in case you’re wondering) any further than it has to. Originally, Producer George Pal wanted to do the final third of the film in 3d but that idea was nixed before the cameras rolled.
After studying all the data, such as it is, the joint armed services decide there is only one option left. It is time to break out the atomic weapons and as one General puts it, “Blast them all over the world.” Uh huh.
With his Martian optical telescope and his Martian sample of blood, Forrester finally makes it back to his lab. What they find out is that physically, spacemen suck. They are inferior to us in every way. Their blood shows them to be very anemic. Does this new bit of information help us to defeat the Martians? No, it does not, but it goes a long way to help understand the ending. And as one scientist says, “After they drop the A-Bomb, we’ll have all the alien blood we’ll need to study.” Now there's a man with a lot of confidence.
Another scientist predicts that if the Atomic Drop does not work the Martians will conquer the world in six days. Bye, bye Earth Pie.
Sylvia throws her two cents in, “Six days? The same time that it took to create the planet.” At which point she everyone looks at her wisdom in either awe or thinking, “Is she kidding with that shit?”
The bomb is dropped and I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news but it’s time to put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.
The only hope is if the scientists can come up with something pretty damn quick. They decide to take their equipment and head for the hills since Los Angeles is about to become Alien doo-doo.
It's at this point that the movie gets something right by showing that even in 1953, we were the United States of Stupid as people riot and go berserk, stealing the trucks with the scientific equipment, smashing it all to hell and that is how the world ends. Not with a bang but a riot of jackasses. It’s the same type of jackasses who in 2020 refuse to wear a mask to stop our own Corona Calamity. They really should take a hint from this movie.
I don’t think I’m giving much away here since the story has been around since H.G. Well’s penned it in the 1800’s. After his truck is looted, Forrester goes looking for Sylvia inside every church he can find thanks to the story she told earlier in the movie. He does eventually catch up with her right about the time the alien vehicles start crashing to the ground.
These supposedly superior intellectual creatures hadn’t thought about the fact that they would not have the immunity to earth viruses, germs, and microbes that humans have built up over millions of years of evolution. I mean as we find out from time to time, there are always new viruses out there that seem ready to do us in. Yet, for all our own scientific knowledge, there are still millions of people out there that go for the hocus pocus type nonsense found in this movie. And while I may have overlooked it or not understood it as a kid, I really take exception the closing narration 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.” Give me a break.
In HG Well’s novel, there is no mention of this silliness. Wells was a well-known agnostic and would be rolling over in his grave if he knew of this tacked on mumbo jumbo.
The Martians were done in by an evolutionary process that had not taken place on their planet. As Well’s novel stated, “But there are no bacteria in Mars, and directly these invaders arrived, directly they drank and fed, our microscopic allies began to work their overthrow. Already when I watched them, they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable. By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth”.
Let us look at this God in all his wisdom stuff if you really insist. In all his wisdom, God made the same aliens that created us. In all his wisdom, God had Mars dying out, so the Martians felt it necessary to invade another planet to survive. In all his wisdom, God let literally millions of innocents die in the attack before saving just a few. In all his wisdom, I guess God was bored and decided to play around for a few days because it had been a gazillion years since he wiped out every man, woman, child, and infant in a genocidal flood. You can now head to Kentucky to buy a ticket to a commemoration of that biblical event, courtesy of the taxpayers.
Since it is 1953, I will give the movie a pass. But in 2005 Stephen Spielberg, who should have known better, used the same bullshit narration at the end of his film. Give me a break.
Other than that, the movie is well done for the time it was made although the special effects seem quaint by today’s standards. And despite the continuous religious hammering, it is still a terrifying scenario and one that has been done quite a few times since this version was made.
There are only two cast members that are of any consequence. Everybody else here are the usual stock characters you would find in any science fiction film.
Gene Barry shines in several brief moments. But most of the time I felt like I was watching Gene Barry the Scientist. It is the same feeling I had when I was watching Gene Barry as Bat Masterson, Gene Barry as Amos Burke or Gene Barry as Glenn Howard in The Name of the Game. Gene Barry had his own shtick going on and there was really no escaping it no matter how many pairs of glasses he put on.
When I was a teenager or adolescent as the case may be, I found Ann Robinson as the Sylvia character to be annoying and whining. As a long-ago grown-up adult, I find her not so much annoying but a bit clueless. She is mostly here to scream on cue and be a love interest for Dr. Forrester. When he is not looking at her, Sylvia has this dreamy eyed look. It clearly is saying, “I don’t give a damn if my uncle was a preacher. Take me to a motel and rip my clothes off".
There are times when Gene Barry has the same look when she is not looking. And sometimes they manage for their eyes to meet with the look of lust. Or maybe they were constipated. Hard to say. But before I forget, keep in mind that Sylvia serves a damn fine cup of coffee from what I can see.
Actress Ann Robinson says there was really not intended to be a love interest between Sylvia and Clayton. Uh huh. I give you exhibit A.
In answer to my question posed at the beginning of this retrospective, “Does it hold up after all these years?” I would have to say yes, no, and maybe. It is still entertaining to watch. The science is garbled. You still get the sense of gloom and doom but not nearly as much as Spielberg’s 2005 film. At less than an hour and a half, the film moves along quickly.
50 years ago I was not nearly as cynical as I am now. It is probably decades of built up cynicism that comes through when I am writing. Taking that into account and everything else, I’ll still give War of the Worlds a B+ because I had fun watching it and just as much fun writing this.