War of the Worlds (1953)
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War of the Worlds (1953)

Some films are so ground breaking that they forever alter the art of cinema. Others are able to transcend the mundane and become part of popular culture. Then there are flicks that may have a far less reaching scope of impact but rank in the rarefied list of beloved personal favorites. For me one such film has always been the original "War of the Worlds". It was made in the year of my birth, 1953, so I pretty much grew up watching it on television or the occasional classis afternoon showing in the local theater. Cementing its place for me was this was one of the first non Disney movies I watched with my daughter introducing the next generation to science fiction. While any movie no matter what its level of qualifications may be can become a personal favorite this particular film holds up through the decades as one of the best made Sci-Fi films of the fifties. It had everything going for it from a professional cast to excellent story and direction. It even had much better special effects than sported by most of its contemporaries. This film had a big budget remake in 2005 directed by no less a story teller than Steven Spielberg. He has mentioned in interviews that the fifties version helped to inspire him as a film maker. This movie richly deserved the numerous remakes since as a representative of great literature the story demands a reinterpretation by each generation. The 1953 movie was one of many since the story was initially published by the author H.G. Wells back in 1898. The themes explored in this story are universal; fundamental to the human condition and subject to the changing cultural vantage point of the current generation. Of all the great things the advent of DVD has done for movie buffs the ability to revisit these memorable gems of our youth is perhaps one of the greatest. The disc for the 1953 version may have been released years ago but it deserves a chance for consideration remaining one of the seminal genre classics of all time.

‘War of the Worlds’ has repeatedly earned its place in Sci-Fi lore. The 1938 radio broadcast by Orson Welles is considered one of the greatest pranks ever with many people really believing we were being invaded by Martians. The 1953 version did have some alterations from the 1889 publication mandated by the different social climate and requirements of translating the story to the visual media of film. The theme of British imperialism inherent in the written story has been updated with a less overt indictment of the dominant fear in the early fifties; communism. The Martians were the prefect stand-in for the view most Americans had of the communists. They were godless, unemotional and driven by an unrelenting need for conquest converting everything in sight to suit their way. This view of atheist communist is well reinforced here by the inclusion of a preacher as one of the main characters. Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin). He is the spiritual leader of the small Californian town were the Martians initially land. He dies holding a Bible up approaching the alien craft with hope of a peaceful resolution. He was survived by his niece Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson). She becomes the romantic interest for the leading man and main man of scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry). It turns out that everything our scientists can devise is futile against the advancing spaces ships. As noted it will take them only six days to destroy mankind; the amount of time it took God to created the world.

As the Martians advance wiping out everything in their path faith, science and the military are unable to stop the menace. In the end the Martians basically catch a cold and as they are unable to resist our bacteria the die en masse. When I was younger I admit that I felt this was a cop out of an ending. Now, with the advantage of a few more years I can see a different motivation behind this plot device. The narrator Sir Cedric Hardwicke explains that God’s tiniest creatures, germs. "Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth. "Even if our military might is useless and science unable to find a solution we are being divinely protected. Like many science fiction films of the fifties this one forwarded a good helping of propaganda. Usually communism is the villain but the salvation comes through the dedicated might of the American military. Here the religious overtones are present but with sufficient subtly that it never interferes with the sheer entertainment the film still provides. It is interesting to contrast this version with the 2005 one. While there is no doubt that the level of special effects has greatly improved with the newer version but back almost sixty years ago what was used was state of the art. Computer generated effects may look more convincing but there is something special about the old fashion practical effects that required a different type of ingenuity to pull off. In 1953 the use of color was still in the process of general acceptance especially in Sci-Fi. One thing I really enjoyed about the special DVD edition is the commentary track by the stars. Gene Barry is basically quiet through most of it but Ann Robinson provides one of the best commentaries I have come across. She looks back with fond memories of the experience. She was only a teenager when it was filmed but was a professional throughout. Unlike the young stars today that run wild off set Robinson was a member of Paramount’s Golden Circle. These were young actresses being groomed by the studio for stardom. Their image was carefully molded and strictly maintained. In this film Robinson could hold a cigarette but doesn’t actually light or smoke it. In the square dance scene she drinks her soda from a recognizable soft drink bottle so it can’t be confused with her having a cocktail. Robinson reminisces about this as well as some of the props she has collected over the years from the film. This is an oldie and will not be in the latest release section but it is certainly deserving.

Commentary by Actors Ann Robinson and Gene Barry
Commentary by Film Director Joe Dante, Film Historian Bob Burns and Bill Warren, author of Keep Watching The Skies!
The Sky Is Falling: The Making Of War Of The Worlds
H.G. Wells: The Father Of Science Fiction
The Mercury Theatre on the Air Presents The War Of The Worlds Radio Broadcast
Original Theatrical Trailer

Posted 05/16/2010

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