Column: The Vault of Secrets: The War of the Worlds (1953)


The War of the Worlds (1953). Directed by: Byron Haskin. Starring: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Cedric Hardwicke.


Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film may be one of the most famous that we’ve done on the program, the original cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.

Though it was technically directed by Byron Haskin (Robinson Crusoe on Mars, among others), it is most often associated with the name of its producer, George Pal. Pal was originally given the reins of the film by Cecil B. DeMille, who had been proposed to direct the film when the rights were initially purchased back in the Twenties.

While the 1953 version was the first time the story made its way to film, it certainly wasn’t the first time that a cinematic adaptation was considered. After Orson Welles’ famed radio broadcast on the eve of Halloween in 1938, there was some talk of him turning it into his first feature film, though he declined. Alfed Hitchcock was also proposed to direct a version in the 1930s that never came to pass, and stop-motion giant Ray Harryhausen went so far as to create test footage for his own version of The War of the Worlds shortly after he finished production on Mighty Joe Young.

Pal’s version was a huge success and it supposedly pleased the estate of H.G. Wells to such an extent that Pal was offered his choice of any other Wells property to direct, which led to his excellent 1960 version of The Time Machine.

I watched The War of the Worlds on Amazon’s instant video service, where it’s available in HD and free to Prime subscribers. It looks absolutely brilliant in HD. The Technicolor really pops, and the picture is as clear and sharp as you could ask for. Watching The War of the Worlds for the first time, I feel it’s a film that is incredibly familiar. Not only does everyone already know the story, but pretty much every alien invasion movie since has owed at least some debt to it. When the first meteor comes down and the crowd in town sees it is a moment that seems as if it has recurred in cinema so many times that it’s impossible to separate it from the status of modern myth. And, of course, there’s the recent Spielberg adaptation of the same material, and the big invasion film of our time, Independence Day, which owes a substantial debt to Pal’s War of the Worlds.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, amidst all that familiarity, the film still feels remarkably fresh and effective, in no small part thanks to the absolutely incredible special effects of the Martian ships, which supposedly cost more than half the film’s total budget to make. They’re worth every penny. Their heat rays make a distinctive sound that’s been literally repurposed into the noises of dozens of other ray guns throughout science fiction history. The ships themselves, as designed by Albert Noziki, are immediately iconic and weirdly graceful. I knew what the ships looked like long before I ever saw the movie, of course. They’re far too famous in sci-fi and horror circles for anyone not to recognize them. But knowing what they look like, and seeing them in action for the first time, are two very different things. One thing I didn’t realize is that, while they’re not the tripods of the novel or the later Spielberg adaptations, they are a sort of tripod after all, not really flying but instead being suspended on three invisible magnetic “legs” that are produced in one of the film’s best effects, with subtle lights to indicate the positions of the “legs” and sparks going off on the ground where they touch. The effects used to achieve their forcefields are equally spectacular, though sadly, both forcefield and leg effects mostly only show up in the first major encounter with the ships, which is one of the most effective special effects sequences I’ve ever seen in a film, old or new.

However impressive the effects of the ships in the George Pal version of the film, though, it’s hard for a die-hard Harryhausen fan like me not to wish and wonder for the Harryhausen version that never was.

That’s it for tonight’s program, but be sure to join us next time when we visit a family whose science has gone mad!