When it’s on: Monday, 22 December (12.50 pm)
The 1950s was a brilliant decade for science fiction movies. Within a deepening Cold War climate, invaders from other worlds substituted for the Soviet menace during an era of heightened paranoia. Behind the Iron Curtain, the Russians were every bit as unknown, their threat the matter of guesswork and potentially limitless, as aliens from distant planets, and cinema played on this sense of fear with the likes of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers and today’s entry.
It’s also worth mentioning that even as recently as sixty years ago, very little was known about Mars. Earth’s nearest celestial body had always intrigued us as a possible sister planet, teeming with its own intelligent lifeforms just as humankind evolved on our own sphere, and if that was so then wasn’t it also feasible that those beings might not be friendly? It was of course HG Wells who explored the possibility of invaders from Mars in his 1898 novel, positing the initial meteorite landing on Horsell Common in Surrey as the precursor to a full-scale global attack. But it was entirely speculative, with no scientific evidence to back up the possibility of beings of any kind existing on Mars, indeed it wasn’t until 1965 that NASA’s Mariner probe revealed the planet to be a desert, then in 1976 the Viking lander explored further, pretty much confirming it as a dead world. Even now, ongoing discoveries suggest life on Mars to be something discussed, at best, in the past tense.
These were discoveries for future generations in 1953, however, when the rights to The War of the Worlds had already been held by Paramount for almost thirty years. Initially slated as a project for Cecil B DeMille, and then Sergei Eisenstein when the great Russian director started working in America, it gathered dust when the limits of special effects and then a real world war stalled its production. It was picked up finally by George Pal, the Hungarian stop-motion animator who moved into production with films like Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide. Barré Lyndon was hired to write a screenplay, tasked with moving the story out of Victorian England and into modern California in order to give it contemporary resonance, whilst retaining his documentary style that had lent The House on 92nd Street a degree of authenticity.
Considerable work was undertaken on the design of the invaders. Out went Well’s tripods, which were seen as tough going for the designers and special effects teams of their day, and in came flying machines, sleekly designed eggs with antennae, adding to their otherworldliness and spitting out deadly rays that could incinerate humans into piles of ash. These were far easier to manipulate than tripods, and whilst the wires that controlled the vehicles are often clearly visible in shots, they still look great.
The War of the Worlds opens with some black and white stock footage of human war machines from the two world wars, juxtaposing what we have created to kill each other with the technologies of the Martians, before bursting into full colour for its title credits. After a brief opening narration by Cedric Hardwicke that outlines why Earth was chosen for invasion over the Solar System’s other planetary bodies, and features some gorgeous artwork, the action moves to small-town California, which pays early witness to the first meteor landing. By chance, scientist Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is enjoying a fishing trip nearby and dashes over the investigate, accompanied by the usual crowd of gawkers and the film’s heroine, Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson). A nice touch of these more innocent times is that the hordes are allowed to get so close to the meteorite, a molten lump of rock, then it’s later supervised by three locals while the rest of the community, including Forrester, goes to the celebratory square dance.
Soon enough though, the rock unscrews and out come the machines, vapourising the luckless people watching them before cutting the power and turning on the town itself. Pretty soon the world is in jeopardy, powerless to stop the machines, which protect themselves with a sort of force field. No matter what the military throws at them, culminating in the obvious atomic bomb drop, the Martians are unaffected and keep on coming, leaving the likes of Forrester to wonder what can possibly be done to prevent the conflict from turning into a rout. Not a lot, it seems. Whilst the majority of the film’s focus is on Forrester, there is a brief glimpse into the aliens’ attacks elsewhere on Earth, with Britain marked as fighting magnificently, albeit with futility as Mars marches on.
In the meantime, romance between Forrester and Sylvia sort of blossoms, albeit constrained within an 85-minute running time that tries to pack as much action into every frame as it can manage. In one of the film’s best scenes, they’re holed up in her home, one visited by an actual physical Martian that introduces itself by touching Sylvia on the shoulder. The alien looks as good as you might imagine in terms of 1950s effects work, but the eyes, looking a bit like a walking Simon Says with its three primary coloured orbs is suitably sinister, and shows a very neat design decision to repeat this consistently across the Martian machines.
The ending of the film is well known enough, though unlike in the Spielberg-Cruise adaptation from 2005 the story mounts to a very tense moment before its climactic twist kicks in. Less than ninety minutes have taken place, but it feels longer, in a good way, with the yarn taking in a full-scale invasion at a pace that’s out of breath. Serious money ($2 million) was sunk into it, and the kaleidoscope of alien craft, beautifully designed miniatures being zapped, an army of extras in military fatigues and the wonderful shots of a swiftly deserted Los Angeles shows exactly where those bucks were sunk. It’s a treat of a movie; the effects still have some power, and – religious subtexts aside – there’s little to jar with an audience from 2014.
The War of the Worlds: ****