The War of the Worlds (1953)

This won the Retro Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation for 1954 (awarded in 2004), beating “Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century”, It Came from Outer Space, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Invaders from Mars. It performs pretty respectably in the IMDB rankings, 8th and 11th on the two systems, with Roman Holiday and Peter Pan competing for the top two slots. I have not yet watched From Here To Eternity, that year's Oscar winner; oddly enough the only two 1953 films which I am sure that I previously seen are both French, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot / Mr Hulot's Holiday and Le Salaire de la Peur / The Wages of Fear, which blew me away, so to speak. (On reflection, I must have seen Calamity Jane too.) The War of the Worlds was given a Special Achievement Oscar for Best Special Effects, but lost two competitive nominations (Best Film Editing and Best Sound Recording, both won by From Here To Eternity). Here is a trailer.

Well, this film is many things, but inclusive it ain't – the only non-white character who we see is the unfortunate Salvatore, supposedly Hispanic yet with a somewhat differentaccent, played by Jack Kruschen, who is one of the first three victims of the aliens:
And Ann Robinson's role as the female lead Sylvia van Buren is basically peril monkey to be rescued by our hero, with whom she is in lurve.
The actors are not required to do much more than demonstrate dismay and consternation.
The plot is somewhat adapted from H.G. Wells' novel. Most obviously, the action is in Southern California, not Surrey; and the aliens have sinister floating machines rather than tripods, this being cinematically easier to do (though you can still see the wires sometimes if you look). We also actually see one of the aliens.

But the desperate failure of humanity to do much that is effective in the face of the alien invader, and the aliens' eventual defeat by the bathos of ordinary bacteria, are true to Wells.

And look, this film is about spectacle and threat, and it does those very well indeed. The alien machines are particularly effective, both when they slowly emerge from their spaceships and when they start to lay waste to Los Angeles.

And the breakdown of organised humanity is very effectively portrayed, includnig the desperate seeking of hope in religion:

There's an effective early scene with Sylvia's minister uncle (played by Lewis Martin) attempting to communicate with the aliens (and getting exterminated for his pains):

And I must give fair props to Gene Barry as scientist-hero Clayton Forrester, clearly the inspiration for future geeky heroes in the first part of the film before becoming rugged man of action at the end.

So much of this fed into Doctor Who – the soldiers being disintegrated en masse very reminiscent of Robot, and there's a full-skeleton Dalek-style extermination as well.

Anyway, this was great fun to watch, and while nothing can ever quite have the impact of the Orson Welles radio version from fifteen years earlier, it fairly catches the spirit of the original novel, updated to Fifties California. You can get it here.
Next up is the first actual Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1958).

One thought on “The War of the Worlds (1953)

  1. They are code for submissions to the Arthur C. Clarke award, of which I am one of next year’s judges.

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