The War of the Worlds (1953)

There are some books that have become such a part of me that I sometimes forget if I have actually read the original or not. Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre: all I began by reading in an abridged form. I encountered them again, over the years, in various cinematic adaptations, on television and otherwise.

It has been the same for HG Wells’s classic tale of alien invasion, The War of the Worlds. I’ve been so familiar with this book for so long that I couldn’t remember whether I’ve ever read the full-length book or whether all my recollections of it were based on the film version I’ve seen and excerpts I’ve read. I decided finally to read the original recently (I liked it)—and then, naturally, I had to check out the cinematic adaptations of the book. One of these I had watched, and more than once: the 2005 Steven Spielberg one. But there was another, considered the most iconic version, which dated back to 1953 and which I figured I had to watch ASAP.

The War of the Worlds starts with a voiceover that talks about how, on Mars, a highly technically advanced civilization realized that its planet was dying and that it was time to look elsewhere for habitation. So it began the search among the other planets of the solar system: considering one and discarding it, one after the other, this one too cold, this too hot. Until its gaze turned on Earth, so serene and beautiful, so conducive to life.

After that introduction, the story gets off to a flying start: on the outskirts of a small town in California, what looks like a meteor is seen coming down in a blaze of light. Much excitement ensues; someone remembers that three scientists from The Pacific Institute of Science and Technology—Pacific Tech—have come fishing in the vicinity, and that they might be interested. So the three scientists are told about the ‘meteor’.

One of them, Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is especially interested, and he comes along to the meteor site immediately. Forrester is surprised; there’s something wrong here. Such a massive meteor, crashing into Earth from such a height, should have caused a huge crater. But this one hasn’t. Is it hollow? Or is it not a meteor, after all? A Geiger counter is fetched, and shows high levels of radiation.

They can’t investigate right now, anyway, since the object is too hot. Three men are left on duty to keep an eye on the object while everybody else goes back home. Or, in the case of Forrester, to a local square dance so that he can spend some more time getting to know the pretty Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson), whom he’d met at the site, and with whom there’s been immediate mutual attraction.

The three men watching over the meteor are busy planning what they can do at the site: there’s loads of potential here. It’s bound to become a big tourist attraction, and if they show enough entrepreneurial spirit—start selling snacks, for example—they can do brisk business.

Even as these men are looking forward to commercial success and fame and wealth, a circular section on the ‘meteor’ begins to move. Before their very eyes, this is revealed as some sort of opening which is unscrewed from the inside.

The three watchers are terribly excited. Aliens! And these three are going to be the first humans ever to come in contact with them! One of them hurriedly goes off to fetch a white sugar sack he’s got in his car; that’ll come in use as a white flag of truce, to let the aliens know that these are friends.

Even as the hatch opens and a long snake-like mechanical thing emerges, with an ‘eye’ on the end, the men step forward, happily and loudly shouting out that they are friends and they mean no harm… they haven’t gone far when the thing blasts them right out of existence.

Simultaneously, away at the dance, the electricity goes out. And then everybody notices that their watches have stopped, all at precisely the same time. Forrester, having done a quick experiment (he borrows a pin from Sylvia and places it within a couple of inches of his own watch, on a table), informs them that their watches have all become magnetized. Why? How? He can only guess that it’s something to do with the ‘meteor’.

Something, Forrester surmises, is going on at the ‘meteor’, so Forrester, the sheriff and a couple of cops drive down to the site—and find that the three men left on guard duty have been pulverized. All that is left of them is dust.

Even as Forrester gives instructions to stop other townspeople from coming, the eye-like thing on the end of that long stalk swivels around and lets fly, burning great swathes of land. In the far distance, another ‘meteor’ lands.

Before they’ve even begun to grasp what’s happening, Forrester & Co. find themselves in the thick of the War of the Worlds. Everywhere, the Martians are coming down in their meteor-like spaceships, from which emerge floating machines, three per ‘meteor’. They use ‘heat rays’ to pulverize everything that comes in their way.

The armed forces swing into action quickly, but no matter what they do, they can’t get the upper hand. All their attacks—even the most drastic, using a nuclear bomb that’s bigger than anything seen before—has no effect: the machines simply put up some sort of invisible shield that protects them. And, as they move about (now not just in this one isolated corner of the US, but all across the globe), they wreak havoc everywhere.

Forrester, now in love with Sylvia (and vice-versa) manages to flee along with her after her uncle, a somewhat sanctimonious and far too gullible priest, is decimated by the Martians. Fortunately for both Forrester and Sylvia, he has a small plane of his own [just how much do these scientists earn?], so they manage to get away—but not far enough. They crash and are forced to take shelter in an abandoned house, where they’re just about making themselves comfortable when the Martians come calling again: a spacecraft ploughs right into the house.

This time, it’s a somewhat long and protracted visit, which includes one of the Martians (not one of their machines, but the creature itself) coming along and placing a claw on Sylvia’s shoulder, causing a case of near-hysterics; Forrester manages to get rid of the thing, but in the process, it leaves some of its blood on a scarf Sylvia is wearing.

One of those snake-like mechanical ‘eyes’ which the Martians use to check out their surroundings comes creeping in and Forrester manages to wreak it by chopping off its ‘head’ with an axe. Now, with the mechanical ‘head’ and the bloodied scarf in tow, Sylvia and Forrester go off to Pacific Tech, where Forrester and the rest of his scientist fraternity get down to examining the mechanical ‘head’ and the blood of the Martian—and they make some surprising discoveries, like the fact that everything about the Martians, including their physiognomy and their inventions, is in groups of three.

While all this is happening, armies across the world are uniting against the invaders—and making no headway at all.

How will the war of the worlds play out? Of course Earth will repulse the invading armies, but how?

What I liked about this film, and what I didn’t like:

The special effects (for which, by the way, The War of the Worlds won its sole Oscar). For 1953, these are really pretty good.

What I didn’t like was the sexist tone of some of the film. While one of Forrester’s colleagues at Pacific Tech is a woman, the female lead herself is relegated to a coffee-serving, housewifely role. While the men—scientist, army officers, etc—plan on how to save the Earth, Sylvia serves coffee. This, from a woman who is supposedly well-educated, with a Master’s degree and all.

Another thing that sounded suspiciously awry to me was the exploding of the nuclear bomb. It’s not as if in 1953 the world didn’t know exactly what would be the results of a nuclear explosion; Hiroshima and Nagasaki were already more than a decade in the past, so everybody knew just how horrific it would be. But here, while the bomb is detonated, the scientists and the army brass hide behind sandbags to watch it—and thousands of homeless people sit on hillsides waiting to see what will happen.

Also, why make so much of the possible scientific discoveries—that stuff about the supposed importance of three for the Martians—if one doesn’t follow through on that? True, the downfall of the Martians comes from a completely different angle, but the half-baked ‘scientific theory’ here sounded very much as if it had been bunged in and then forgotten about. If they’d even show part of what exactly Forrester & Co. had in mind by way of using their knowledge of the Martians’ physiognomy against them (or whatever) I’d have felt less peeved.

Comparisons, comparisons:

As happens every time I review a film for which I’ve read the corresponding book, or of which I’ve seen another version, a comparison. Or, in this case, two simultaneous comparisons: with HG Wells’s original sci fi novel, and with the 2005 cinematic adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Let me begin by saying that I enjoyed reading Wells’s book. Okay, perhaps it’s not as gripping and as deeply rooted in scientific theory as many newer novels. It isn’t even as intense as Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids in its exploration of the effect on humanity—not just on mankind, but on mankind’s nature—of an alien invasion. But for the age in which it was written (The War of the Worlds was first published in 1898), it was a pathbreaker. And the clincher—what eventually wins the war for Earth—was sheer genius, as far as I’m concerned.

Neither the 1953 cinematic adaptation nor the 2005 version stays completely true to the novel. Importantly, both deviate significantly when it comes to the main protagonist of the story. In Wells’s novel, the protagonist (who is also the narrator) is a man who lives out in the countryside with his wife. When he realizes that the meteor that’s landed actually harbours hostile alien life, he quickly takes his wife away to safety—and then (somewhat inexplicably, given the danger?) returns, thereby ending up having to flee for his life and nearly losing it more than once. Along the way, his paths cross with others. He sees the chaos, the panic that ensues as a result of people fleeing. The desperation, and the inhumanity which grows out of that, what with people taking advantage of the confusion to loot and plunder. He meets people who are thrown completely off-kilter by this unexpected situation, and people who have cold-bloodedly figured out the way to go, even if that means putting aside their own humanity.

In the 1953 version, the protagonist is a scientist, and except for a brief couple of scenes near the end where chaos prevails in a city and he ends up being thrashed by desperate people eager to hijack the truck he’s driving—there’s little similarity with the protagonist of the novel. Forrester is obviously the Hollywood hero of the 50s, not the bystander of the 1890s.

In the 2005 version, Tom Cruise’s character is a flawed protagonist, as is popular enough in more modern films: a stevedore, divorced and with little connection to his two children, whom he’s obliged to look after for a few days, which is when disaster strikes.

Surprisingly enough (for me, at least, having already seen cinematic adaptations like Ben Hur, and knowing full well what to expect), the 2005 version of The War of the Worlds is closer in spirit and detail to the original novel than is the 1953 version. Yes, the protagonists of both, as well as their individual stories, are nothing like those of their literary counterpart, but when it comes to the event itself, there’s plenty.

For instance, the tripod-like machines that the Martians use to move around in are very visible and very obvious in the 2005 version; in the 1953 film, they’ve been replaced by floating machines (which, though, are triangular).

The red weed which proliferates in the wake of the Martian landing (or, in the case of the 2005 film, the landing of the aliens—it doesn’t label them as Martians) is missing completely from the 1953 film. This, I think, is one of those seemingly little details which actually mean a lot: the whitening and dying away of the red weed is one of the first signs that something is changing…

Tom Cruise’s Ray Ferrier, though different in family circumstances from Wells’ protagonist-narrator, is still close enough to the original to be somewhat identifiable: a man who’s not sure what is going on, but realizes the danger he’s in, and tries somehow to get through it with life and humanity intact. Gene Barry’s Dr Forrester, on the other hand, is a scientist, and his (pseudo?)-scientific attempts to counter the Martians are far from Wells’ book. I wouldn’t have minded that, provided the scientist did do something that made his being a scientist worthwhile: but Forrester, Pacific Tech, et al, finally don’t really get around to doing much (though that could be the point of the film).

And then there is the question of the effect of a disaster on the humanity of people. The 1953 film has, right at the end, a few scenes showing how people behave in the face of impending doom: some with courage, some with piteous pleading to God, some by trying to take advantage of the chaos caused by the disaster.

The 2005 film, in contrast, has rather more of the human (and increasingly inhuman) side of people coming through, most particularly in a character who befriends Ray for a while (he, in fact, is pretty much a composite of a couple of different characters—a curate and an artilleryman—who appear in the novel).

Ultimately (and this I’m writing as someone who’s pretty much biased towards old cinema), the 2005 War of the Worlds worked better for me than did the 1953 version. While the 2005 film obviously pays homage to the 1953 one (for example, in details like the hero axing the ‘mechanical eye’ used by the aliens to check out a building; also in that Gene Barry and Ann Robinson appear in cameos), it is also truer to the novel in ways that makes sense. Yes, the lead character’s children (played by Justin Chatwin and Dakota Fanning) irritated me and there’s a good bit of the Michael Bayesque saved-at-the-last-moment stuff happening, but it’s still a more engaging film as far as I’m concerned.

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17 thoughts on “The War of the Worlds (1953)

  1. This is such a vivid review that I can imagine- how both the films panned out scene-by-scene. Now I am tempted to read the book and binge-watch the movies.

  2. Not being a fan of science-fiction, I still did read HG Wells at a time when I read anything and everything. (I think I’ve become more closed now. :( )

    Haven’t watched the movies, old or new, but your review is tempting me to do so. Which, considering my dislike for the genre, is testimony to the power of your review.

    Pet peeve: please, please do not say ‘exact same thing’? :(

    • Oddly enough, with me it’s been just the opposite: I started off reading a relatively limited number of authors and genres – it’s only rather more lately that I’ve made a concerted effort to expand my horizons.

      “Pet peeve: please, please do not say ‘exact same thing’? :(

      I’m so sorry about that. Didn’t even realize I’d written it. Deepest apologies. Please forgive this poor mortal whose English is so dodgy.

  3. Thanks Madhu for the review. Brought back a lot of memories. I have not seen either film but I remember very clearly, when I was in school, listening to a (recorded) radio broadcast by Orson Welles adapted from the book. It was brilliantly done and apparently caused a bit of a panic when it was broadcast, since people thought it was a news bulletin.

  4. This is the sort of the post that gives this blog its character and the pressing reason for its continued existence. Since majority of users visiting here appear to be middle-aged (35+) – I do not intend this as any sort of slur, just an observation – this blog is a good introduction to them about such foreign titles which might have escaped them entirely otherwise. And these days it is much easier to acquire these titles in physical or digital format for viewing than it were in the previous century and it’s only going to get easier as time passes.

  5. The Orson Welles radio version, in a more innocent time, with world war approaching, caused the panic because it was done in the form of news broadcasts, people believed they were listening to an actual report,(despite periodic announcements that it was a dramatization), sort of a predecessor to “fake news”. I have not read the book or seen the later film. Its been years since I saw the 1953 one, it was ok. my one lingering memory is that I thought Ann Rbinson looked more attractive in the one scene where she looked slightly disheveled, than with her ” perfect” hair-do! Also I’m afraid that then, and now, may people dont really understand the gravity and impact of Hiroshima.

    • I agree that Ann Robinson looked more attractive in that dishevelled look than all prim and perfect. I even found the bespectacled Gene Barry more attractive than the one without the glasses (I thought he also looked – in places – uncannily like Jeff Goldblum in the very first Jurassic Park).

      “Also I’m afraid that then, and now, may people dont really understand the gravity and impact of Hiroshima.

      A sobering thought, and a frightening one.

  6. A tidbid: Some scenes such of 2005 War of the Workd was shot in Bayonne, NJ. They used the Bayonne Bridge to show some of the scenes. While the shooting was going on, Tom Cruize went by himself to get coffee early morning. When the door chimed upon him entering the store, the shop keeper was not facing the door and said “sorry, we are not opened yet.” By the time he realized whom he turned away, Cruize had left. With the shop keeper’s interview it made the news in our local newspaper next day; the shookeepers put welcome Tom Cruize signs around.

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