War of the Worlds, 1953. 7/10

The better of the War of the Worlds movies; I think for the most part because it was made not many years after the 1938 radio hoax of Martian landings in New Jersey, itself preceded by the H.G. Wells novel of 1898. Other than the post-war nexus of sci-fi having shifted its focus from Victorian England, and then from New Jersey to the West coast of the U.S., this follows the book version in many ways, while a religious theme was a key addition. War Of The Worlds was remade, with some acclaim, in 2005, and it looks that (according to IMDb) there’s a version in the works for next year, 2020 (interestingly, it’s set back in Wells’ England).

Like many good sci-fi movies the plot is simple: an alien invasion– motive–straight extermination of humanity. That is to say, the Martians are totally evil. And a hidden, fatal flaw is their downfall. Religion is invoked as a strength for humanity, as all conventional force proves inadequate (that’s familiar stuff though).

Gene Barry is the lead as scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester, Anne Robinson is the love interest, Sylvia. Les Tremaine is General Mann, there’s Robert Cornwaithe as Dr. Prior, Sandro Giglio is a Dr. Bilderbeck, Lewis Martin is Slyvia’s uncle and also a pastor, Dr. Collins, Sir Cedric Hardwicke is our narrator.

War of the Worlds in known for good special effects, for which it won an Academy Award. For people who demean specific effects from this era as ‘fake’, I’d like to know what ‘reality’ they contrast it with. For me, it’s how well-done, and therefore how convincing the special effects are that matters.

The nice thing is, thanks to the crashing meteor, we see the effects in action immediately. It is kind of ridiculous that there’s almost no security at the crash site. Luckily for Clayton and Anne, there’s a squaredance that night. Meanwhile, the meteor (hey, its got portholes, it’s a spacecraft!) gets active. A probe of one of the smaller craft pokes out.

It’s plainly silly that the three ersatz watchmen decide to approach the craft–of course they get blasted. The power’s out, and the Martian blast has started a fire. More mayhem, so the military’s called in. Plenty spacecraft ‘cylinders’ are landing around the world. Slyvia is reduced to serving coffee and donuts at the original site. The General shows up.

At night, the manta-ray-shaped craft emerge from the cylinder. The Pastor wants to “communicate” with the Martians. That’s usually a bad idea; the pink ray gets him. In reaction, the army opens fire. Problem is, of course, the Martians ars protected by their force field. Really spectacular use of color with the action “This type of defense is useless!”

Next idea is a jet attack. Meanwhile, in L.A., a meeting of big-wigs. Evacuation is set. The bombing didn’t do anything to the Martians. Cool scenes of wildlife fleeing, as Clayton and Slyvia are stranded in the sticks. They find an abandoned house, putting Slyvia back into domestic duty. Dinner time is interrupted by more cylinders landing. Now we get up close with the Martians. A creepy probe slithers in a window..but then withdraws. Now a sentient alien appears outside, and comes inside.

Cleverly, the triple-eyed motif is repeated in the creature, the probe, and the spacecraft. Time for stock footage of what looks like wartime film overlayed with Martian spacecraft, firing and glowing. At U.S. Headquarters (probably in D.C.), there’s a conclave of the world’s military representatives. Now we decide to A-bomb the Martians. Sylvia and Clayton get back to civilization. Clayton made off with one of the Martian eyes to examine.

From that example, the scientists are able to view how the Martians see. Anyway, who cares–we deliver the A-bomb with the very exotic jet-engined Flying Wing, an XB-49 (?). Completely absurdly, though, there’s no lack of specators to the nuclear bombing. Wouldn’t we have known that the radiation would be dangerous–given the effects from Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Well, we’ve got some dark glasses on…just not enough for everyone. The result of the attack: nil. “They (the Martians) haven’t even been touched!”

Now it’s time to evacuate. We at least do know that their blood is anemic, that they’re physically weak. The evacuation scenes are extremely well-done: we see not just city streets, but highways, and pathways choked with refugees. The destrucion scenes are as good as any of the Japanese sci-fi movies from the ’50s.

Adding some tension is that Clayton, hauling critical scientific stuff, is basically carjacked by a mob. Clayton finds clues of Slyvia’s whereabouts. He looks into churches, in one, somewhat defiantly, a service is in progress. In other churches, refugees and injured people huddle. He finds one of the scientists; then, finally Slyvia.

Pretty much at that point, all the Martian craft go still, everything’s silent. Yes, they’re dying. Chuch bells ring, our germs have killed them. A final panorama of thankful crowds. Although the ending is abrupt, it’s not entirely unanticipated. Since the anemic condition was discovered earlier, we have to figure that the Martians are inherently weak. Because of the focus in the last part of the film on the evacuation and the romantic subplot, there aren’t any more meetings of big-wigs where the Martian vulnerabilities were discussed.

Actually, I think it was a good idea to refocus on Slyvia and Clayton, as it does play well dramatically. Usually in this type of film, the focus moves away from the particular to the generic, but here it comes full-circle. I just would’ve like a little more build-up to the quick denouement.

Having read a bunch of other reviews in preparation for this viewing, I was paying particular attention to the religious content. Many folks feel that that this motif (Slyvia’s uncle as a pastor who tries to understand the Martians, the church scenes, etc.) is not quite a good fit. I somewhat disagree. For one thing, Slyvia’s uncle acts on his own; he’s a little too trusting–no one thinks he’s very smart to take such a chance. He ends up as just a victim.

The church scenes are very different in that the purpose is to comfort, encourage, and give shelter to people, not despair or take risks. In other words, we can say that religion has many functions and manifestations, and life-affirming goals. This theme is reinforced by stock footage from all over the world, implying very clearly that ‘we’re all in this together.’

What didn’t work so well was some rather uneven performances; in some ways the crowds were as interesting as the main characters. Barry is fairly good; Robinson is constrained too much by her role to create much empathy, Tremayne seemed to stand out the most.

War of the Worlds is very entertaining, and visually stunning in places. The plot was maybe a bit too simplistic; the Martians never communicate in any way (in this context the pastor’s role, with his communicative intention, could’ve been developed a bit). As a result, the Martians are a monolithic, impersonal force. It might’ve been good to see more than snippets of them, away from their machinery. All in all, well-worth watching.

Farmermouse loved the Flying Wing, and, when no one was looking, he made off with a couple of donuts, so he gives this seven glowing meteors. 7/10.

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