Watched The War of the Worlds with my girlfriend this past weekend. Not the 2005 Tom Cruise vehicle (nor either of the other two versions that came out that same year to ride its coattails – I know, I hadn’t heard of them either), but the 1953 George Pal classic. And why shouldn’t I? It is, after all, a classic. One of the earliest and best alien invasion movies of a decade stuffed with them, it is a landmark of American science fiction. Its influence has been enormous: there have been sequels, remakes (my favorite is the version from 1996 – you know, the one they called Independence Day), a TV series and endless imitators. In terms of Nerd History, it is the American Revolutionary War.
So how do I feel about it? Well, I’m reminded of something my father once told me about the Beatles: “They were a legend. An era in music unto themselves. And I didn’t like ’em.” (Dad is a Rolling Stones fan.)
The movie is visually gorgeous, and has absolutely stunning special effects for its time (indeed, those special effects were probably better at the time than they are now. Modern high-definition TV’s let you see the wires far too easily), but some aspects of the writing and acting just itched me too much to enjoy.
As always, this review will be mostly about my own personal reactions. For a more informative and educational review, see here. Spoilers start below.
After a brief introduction describing advancements in weapons technology during the World Wars, the movie begins with a description of the planets of the Solar System, explaining why the Martians choose to invade the only one that might fight back. There’s actually a bit of good writing here – I particularly enjoy the description of Pluto as being “so cold that its atmosphere lies frozen on its surface”. Never thought of it that way, did you? For some reason, though, they leave out Venus. That’s more of an omission than you’d think. Sure, we know now that any creatures that find our world comfortable would find Venus just as useless as Mercury and for much the same reasons, but Fifties sci-fi had a tendency to portray Venus as a verdant jungle world where humans and creatures with the same needs could live quite comfortably. If that’s not the case in this movie, you need to establish that.
In any case, having established why the Martians want Earth, they then show the first Martian ship descending to Earth outside a California mountain town during “a pleasant summer season”. The locals rush out immediately to find it: not only did they see it fall, but it has started a forest fire!
Once that problem is dealt with, however, they’re more than happy to have it around. You see, the Martian ship is a featureless cylinder, and so defaced by atmospheric re-entry that they mistake it for a meteor, one far too large and heavy to be carted off to a museum. One of the better-dressed locals opines that it should make “a nice attraction for Sunday drivers”. And well it should! A meteor that size would be far larger than the Hoba Meteorite! And its landing should have destroyed the mountain!
Anyway, the locals wish to have their meteor examined by some Authority, so they send for a group of “scientists from Pacific Tech” who are on a fishing trip in the hills. Are they chemists? Physicists? Botanists? Screw it! This is a Fifties sci-fi movie and they’re Scientists! They’re qualified!
I mock, but I really do appreciate how much respect science and scientists are given in this movie. I think the fact that that’s changed in the years since is a real loss for this country.
I will also say this, they do make camping look comfy. I’ve never been one for roughing it – my idea of “getting back to nature” involves a rustic cabin – but if someone put together a set-up like these Scientists have, I might reconsider.
Two of the three Scientists need to get back to Pacific Tech, but the third is Dr. Clayton Forrester, Our Protagonist. He arrives at the meteor landing site the next day, where the locals are all gathered to see, take pictures around, and make business plans for, their new arrival. It is here that we meet two more important characters: Sylvia Van Buren and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins. We also meet the Painfully Stereotyped Token Mexican (played by Canadian Jack Kruschen), the only non-white character we see in the entire movie, in case you needed reminding that this is the Fifties. At least his Painfully Stereotyped suggestion that they set up a stand selling “tamales and enchiladas” to tourists is treated as no more silly than anyone else’s.
Anyway, Uncle Matthew is a soft-spoken, kindly fellow who quickly wanders away so we can get to know Sylvia, our Obvious Love Interest, better. I’m going to stop right here, and just take a moment to say that Sylvia is one of my biggest complaints about this movie. For one thing, there’s no need for her. She’s just shoved in so that Our Protagonist can have a Love Interest. That’s hardly unusual, and it wouldn’t be so annoying if she wasn’t so bloody useless. Sylvia is one of the worst cases of Distressed Damsel Syndrome I’ve ever seen, made all the worse by the fact that she’s so ear-piercing. Once the shit hits the fan, five minutes doesn’t go by that she doesn’t scream and shriek and cry so that Our Hero can hug and soothe her into calmness with his Heroic Manliness.
One detail in particular stands out to me as the perfect proof that Sylvia doesn’t exist for her own sake, but purely for the benefit of Our Hero: when we first meet her, she mentions that she has a Master’s Degree and that she teaches Library Science at USC. Absolutely nothing is made of this. She simpers, looks pretty, cooks for and clings to Our Hero. She does nothing that a small-town girl who’d never left home and who worked for her uncle as a housekeeper couldn’t have done. The whole “college professor” thing was just to establish her bona fides as an educated woman who was worthy of Our Hero.
Maybe that’s what the Fifties expected of their heroines, but Dr. Pat Medford would come along just a year later in Them! and prove that it didn’t have to be that way.
Anyway. Getting back to the story. Sylvia gushes for a few minutes about meeting the famous scientist Clayton Forrester in person, and Our Hero lets her go on long enough to make sure we get all the exposition about how awesome he is. Charming. In fairness, he is a bit distracted: he saw the “meteor” come down last night, and it didn’t fall like a meteor should. What’s more, the impact crater should be much larger than it is (i.e., see above re. destroyed mountain), which means the meteor is either much lighter than a lump of iron its size should be, or it’s hollow (ding ding ding!). Perhaps most important, it’s radioactive enough to set off the geiger counter he just happens to have in his car. All in all, the thing is strange enough that he’d like to stay until it cools so he can check it out.
The story picks up that evening at the town’s Saturday night square dance. I’m reminded of something one of my music teachers once said: “There’s never been any such thing as boring dance.” Whether that square dance caller is making up those calls on the fly and everyone is responding to them in the same way, or if everyone is going by memory, it’s impressive either way.
This is the last scene before the Martians emerge from their cylinder, so it’s important to note what the movie has been doing so far: showing us what the Martians are destroying. Camping in the woods, Friday nights at the movies, town square dances on a Saturday night, even peeking at your buddy’s cards while he has his back turned – the Martians are about to burn all of that down. This is something that the movie actually does very well and subtly. No scene is wasted; everything advances the plot, but everything also shows us an aspect of the peaceful American life that the Martians are about to smash. I can watch this part over and over again (fast-forwarding past the painful exposition dump about how awesome Dr. Forrester is), not least because it’s also something that the filmmakers probably never considered: a fascinating period piece. When the news of the Martian invasion goes out, we see people across the country gathered around their radios (some around an iron stove in a general store!). Also notice how many clothes everyone is wearing during “a pleasant summer season”: only the children wear t-shirts, and even they wear jeans; the adults are all wearing jackets. That “better-dressed local” I mentioned above is wearing a suit and tie. On a Saturday afternoon. While checking out a meteor crater in the woods. Maybe it’s cooler up in the mountains, but it doesn’t seem like that could be comfortable. Still, those were the expectations of the day. And of course, town square dance.
Not to mention that saddest of artifacts from a bygone time: a prosperous small town. This is what one looked like, folks.
The square dance is almost over when the Martians poke their heads out of their ship and vaporize the locals who had stayed by the “meteor” to make sure it didn’t light anymore fires, and who try to make peaceful contact.
After that, it becomes the movie you’ve seen a million times. The military sets up outside the crater where the –
Wait. What is Sylvia even doing here? This is a dangerous, highly unstable military situation. The shooting could start at any second. Why do they have a civilian serving coffee and doughnuts? If you absolutely must have women to serve you refreshments, aren’t there any WACs available?
Never mind. The Martians come out of crater in their warships and everyone gets ready to fire, but Uncle Matthew (not knowing that the Martians’ first victims had attempted this very thing) decides –
Wait. What the hell is Uncle Matthew doing here? He’s not a chaplain. He’s not even serving coffee and doughnuts! There is literally no reason for him to be here, and every reason for him not to be, first and foremost being what actually happens: he walks out, tries to talk to the Martians, and gets vaporized. Sylvia gives us her first shriek of the movie, and the Army starts shooting.
Doesn’t work, of course. That’s the whole point of movies like this, to say nothing of the original story: that nothing will work. For all our vaunted American power, we might as well be attacking the Martians with flint-tipped spears. Even nukes accomplish exactly nothing (btw, folks, that dust covering you is radioactive fallout. Whoever wins the war, you just lost.).
(Interesting note: the Martian war machines presented here are significantly different than the tripods of HG Wells’s 1898 novel, the biggest difference being the force fields. This is because the picture’s military consultants explained to the filmmakers that the 1898 tripods wouldn’t survive the first encounter with a modern military. How’s that for technological advancement?)
As the movie goes on, and everything continues to not work, it becomes clear just how early in the Fifties this movie was made. This invasion is not the metaphor for Communist subversion that later alien invasions would be. This is WWII being fought all over again, with our cities being smashed and our people fleeing into the hills before the advancing invader (to say nothing of the ground-based military tactics we see). Yes, Korea had come and gone by this point, but for this generation, The War would always be The Big One.
But perhaps there’s hope! As Our Hero and Our Hero’s Love Interest flee the initial rout, they encounter a Martian outside its ship, and manage to get a sample of its blood. And Sylvia shrieks. It’s not her blood, it’s not Our Hero’s blood, it’s essentially a handful of evidence that her enemies are mortal, but she still shrieks until Our Hero can hug and soothe her into calmness with his Heroic Manliness. And it causes me pain. But I digress. They manage to get back to Pacific Tech with the blood sample, and upon analysis discover that it’s more anemic than anyone present has ever seen. One of the researchers declares that while the Martians “may be mental giants, physically, by our standards, they would be quite inferior.”
This is based on the original story, so I’m not going to pick on it much. HG Wells seemed to have an idea that as people grew more civilized, they would grow more soft and useless. However, the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, which somehow got the rights to use Wells’s Martians as monsters, points out something important: the Martians can move unaided (in the case of the one we see, quite quickly) on what, for them, is a Heavy World. Earth is triple their normal gravity. They’re not inferior, they’re enormously strong. They’re not going to win any footraces on Earth, but if a human gets too close, they will win a wrestling match.
Still, strong or weak, the Martians have essentially no immune system. The scientists consider brewing up a biological agent, but they never get the chance. In the chaos of the evacuation, their equipment is destroyed, leaving the story to follow the original course of Wells’s novel, with a slight change in mood: in Wells’s novel, the Martians being wiped out by disease was a subversion of the typical “plucky defenders drive off the threat to the homeland” ending of the Invasion Literature that was popular at the time, with a reminder of one of the complications of conquest that Britain knew all too well, plus just a dash of “humans maybe aren’t as special as we think”. In the movie, it’s a literal (if deniable) Deus ex machina that reaffirms the vaguely Protestant Christianity that defined American culture at the time.
So here we are, my first negative Horizon Review. And it’s against a classic of science fiction whose hull I can’t hope to scratch. Ah, well. It’s a classic, one of the great foundation-stones of American science fiction, especially in the cinema.
And I don’t like it.