(director: Byron Haskin; screenwriter: Barré Lyndon/from book by H.G. Wells; cinematographer: George Barnes; editor: Everett Douglas; cast: Gene Barry (Dr. Clayton Forrester), Ann Robinson (Sylvia Van Buren), Les Tremayne (Gen. Mann), Lewis Martin (Pastor Collins), Henry Brandon (Cop), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Pryor), Jack Kruschen (Salvatore); Runtime: 85; Paramount; 1953)

“The acting was wooden, the romance was blah, and the religious messages tacked on were pathetic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Warning: spoilers throughout review.

Producer George Pal presents the H.G. Wells story, the one used in Orson Welles’ infamous radio play of 1938 that scared the country. The star of this film is Pal’s special effects, orchestrated by Gordon Jennings, which won an Oscar. This updated version from the Victorian-era London of 1890 is now set in contemporary Southern California of 1953. The acting was wooden, the romance was blah, and the religious messages tacked on were pathetic. But this sci-fi spectacle had much in it to be praised for; it was especially scary, the Martian design was sleek and ominous (there were spider-like characters with cobra-like heads), and the recreation of an Atomic-bomb blast was spectacular. It wisely stuck to the theme of mankind’s arrogant belief of his own superiority rather than go the Red Menace route as most sci-fi films of that day did.

The film opens with the sobering commentary by Cedric Hardwicke telling something about the scientific facts about Mars and how the Martians are on the verge of extinction, stranded on a dying planet. Their only hope for survival is landing on the green Earth and conquering it.

In a carefully designed plan to carry out their mission groups of three cylinder spacecrafts fall from the sky in different parts of the world looking like giant meteors, with the one the story focuses on falling in a small town in Southern California about 30 miles from L.A..

A leading atomic scientist from Pacific Tech, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), vacationing in the area, joins the crowd of curious onlookers and strikes up a romantic friendship with a teacher, Sylvia (Ann Robinson), the niece of Parson Collins (Lewis Martin). The romantically inclined couple go square dancing while waiting for the meteorlike object to cool down before the scientist begins his observation. But the Martians descend from their spaceship and zap the three locals guarding the area. They approached the Martians thinking they could make friends. The Martians also cut the town’s electrical power and telephone lines. The authorities now realize that they have visitors from another planet. The military is called in after word from across the world is that the aliens are zapping cities with their heat rays and are bent on destroying the Earth.

Sylvia’s uncle believes he can show the aliens he’s a true man of God and attempts to talk with them about friendship, but he’s quickly zapped. The Army then blasts away with all its modern weapons of mass destruction, but the Martians have an electronic shield around their space vehicles and the weapons have no effect. The authorities now figure that they better come up with something drastic to save the world and use the U.S.A.’s A- bomb. But the Earth’s most powerful weapon of destruction is also ineffective. It seems nothing can destroy them and as Dr. Forrester, in his deep baritone voice says: we’ll find their mortal weaknesses and destroy them that way.

In the lab the scientists study samples of the blood collected from the Martians and their electronic eye. This leads the scientists to the conclusion that the Martians are physically primitive even if they are mentally superior. They also have anemic blood and because of the darkness of Mars, it’s 140 million miles away from the sun, they can’t handle a strong light.

In the climax, Los Angeles is being attacked and the evacuation of the city causes a great panic. Barry is disappointed with the selfishness of humanity and fights through a crowd of rioters who seek transportation out of the ruined city any way they can. Barry tries to be reunited with Ann in the church she sought shelter in before the world ends. In the end the Martians are defeated not by science or the military, but by bacteria germs their systems can’t adapt to; or, as the film states, these insignificant things were put on Earth by God in his wisdom.

The War of the Worlds Poster