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The War of the Worlds (1953) - Mars Attacks!

Updated on May 1, 2015

“No one would have believed in the middle of the 20th Century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than Man's. Yet, across the gulf of space on the planet Mars, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, slowly and surely drawing their plans against us.”

Based on H.G. Wells pioneering novel, The War of the Worlds (1953) is one of the all time classic SF movies. Produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin it stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, Leith Stevens composed the music score.

Following the success Orson Welles had in updating the story for his radio play in 1938, the setting has been changed from 1898 London to 1950s California. The famous war machines are altered from the novels giant walking tripods to flying saucers shaped (rather beautifully) like manta rays, but the classic heat ray weapon has been retained. Byron Haskin’s direction is well paced and stylish, he later directed Conquest of Space (1955) and The Power (1967) for Pal.

When a meteor falls near a small town in California, a Martian machine emerges from the crater, soon more meteors are landing all over the world. The machines destroy everything in their path and the army is called in but the Martian war machines are protected by an impenetrable force shield and the army retreats. Even the atomic bomb fails to stop their attack. As in Wells' novel the aliens are eventually defeated by a strain of bacteria.

Cedric Hardwicke’s closing voice-over –

“The Martians had no resistance to the bacteria in our atmosphere to which we have long since become immune. Once they had breathed our air, germs, which no longer affect us, began to kill them. The end came swiftly. All over the world, their machines began to stop and fall.

After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.”

"It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation, the massacre of humanity."

War of the Worlds is well paced and generates considerable excitement, partly through the spectacular special effects. The wires supporting the war machines are sometimes visible, but as a whole the effects work by Gordon Jennings are very impressive, especially in the final attack on Los Angeles.

The Martian war machines gliding down the streets with their snake-like heat-ray projectors blasting the surrounding buildings into rubble are among the great iconic images of SF cinema.

The prologue of the film shows paintings of the other planets in the Solar System which the Martians examined and rejected as being unfit for habitation, finally selecting the Earth. The planet Venus for some reason is neither shown or mentioned. The paintings were created by Chesley Bonestell, a famous astronomical artist whose works were often published in books on astronomy and space travel in the 1950s.

The sound effects of the Martian war machines were created from the sound of electric guitars played backwards. Charles Gemora created the Martian creature seen briefly in the farmhouse.

George Pal's The War of the Worlds was the first science fiction film to feature a world threatening alien invasion. It was a film that reflected America’s attitudes and fears of the time, the invaders from the "red" planet can be seen as a metaphor for communist infiltration, and wary, suspicious Americans in the 50's found the possibility of friendly contact with extraterrestrials as highly unlikely..

A War of the Worlds TV series appeared in the late 80’s and was based loosely on events featured in the 1953 film.

Steven Spielberg updated the novel further for his 2005 blockbuster The War of the Worlds starring Tom Cruise, the war machines were walking tripods and the fate of the Martians stayed true to the novel. It was one of the biggest hits of the year. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson appeared briefly in cameo roles.

But personally despite the flashy special effects I much prefer the 1953 classic, the Spielberg film lost it's footing once Tim Robbins character appeared on the scene..

The critics wrote -

"The picture is not only a terrific thriller and a miracle of staging but a mighty challenge to 3-D. Its Technicolor scenes of the Martian assault with new and ingeniously designed flying tanks which belch fire and literally liquidate all opposition, have to be seen to be believed... It left us gasping, and that's saying something!" (Kine Weekly)

"Gripping hokum. In fact, it's the best I've seen so far in the current cycle of science fiction melodramas... Basically, this is a schoolboy shocker, but its production scale and ingenious photography make it an absorbing piece of fantasy." (Picturegoer)

"Like his previous sorties into interplanetary space—"Destination Moon" and "When Worlds Collide"—"The War of the Worlds" is, for all of its improbabilities, an imaginatively conceived, professionally turned adventure, which makes excellent use of Technicolor, special effects by a crew of experts and impressively drawn backgrounds." (New York Times)

"The film wisely uses no established marquee names to detract from the feeling that what is being seen is real. Instead, what starring honors there are go strictly to the special effects, which create an atmosphere of soul-chilling apprehension so effectively audiences will actually take alarm at the danger posed in the picture. It can't be recommended for the weak-hearted, but to the many who delight in an occasional good scare, it's sock entertainment of hackle-raising quality." (Variety)

"The best of the post-war American science-fiction films." (Monthly Film Bulletin)


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    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      I remember watching repeats of Burke's Law on tv in the 70's with my dad. Gene Barry died in 2009 he was 90 years old. Anne Robinson is still alive and presenting The Weakest Link... no wait wrong Anne.. Ann Robinson is still around, she's 76, which means she was only 18 years old in War of the Worlds.

      Thanks for posting Flora, much appreciated.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image

      FloraBreenRobison 6 years ago

      I still haven't seen this film. It doesn't seem to air on a channel I get. I have seen lots of Gene Berry's tv work, though.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 7 years ago from London, England

      Haha! Claire, I love Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds! Ulla! I could listen to Richard Burton narrate the phone book. Great voice. Sadly he died about 25 years ago. But that was one of my most listened to albums back in the day. I wonder if anyone's done a hub on it... hmmm.

      Kelly, thanks for the comment.

    • Clare-Louise profile image

      Clare-Louise 7 years ago from Birmingham UK

      Hi Steve, I haven't seen the 1953 film. But I'm a fan of the seventies musical with Richard Burton's narration. We used to have the poster for that on our wall when I was a nipper, and listening to it now it still gives me the creeps!! the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one... but still they come!

    • KellyE1967 profile image

      KellyE1967 7 years ago

      This is a great movie. I agree with the two of you that the new one does not deliver. Very nice hub.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 7 years ago from London, England

      No argument there Cogerson, there were some really effective moments in the 2005 version for instance the sequence when the first tripod rises out of the ground, but when they get to Tim Robbins I started to lose interest. But the visuals and sound design were top notch.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 7 years ago from Virginia

      This is one of my dad's favorite movies....I would rather watch this again and again...than watch the Tom Cruise movie again....the second half of Spielberg's War of the Worlds and the entire Indy 4, makes me wonder if Spielberg has lost that magic touch....sorry about that rant...this War of the Worlds is a classic...