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The War of the Worlds (1953)

“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.”

You’d be hard pressed to find a piece of sci-fi that is more classic than The War of the Worlds, so I felt it was time to take a look at the 1953 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ iconic story of alien invasion.

The setting for this version is 1950s USA instead of the late nineteenth century British Isles of the original, but the story is going to be familiar to anyone that has read the book, despite this key difference. My class read the novel in grade school, and it was one of the rare classics we had to read that I actually enjoyed. This movie, while not 100% faithful to the text, is an excellent take on the original story.

The movie generally follows the book barring the change in setting, both place and time, with a few key differences that stand out that I’ll summarize here. The movie is kinder to religion than the book is, especially with how each treats their version of a preacher and how the ending is handled, despite the similarities there. The book is bleaker than the movie in most cases, with the movie lacking the black smoke, red weed, and human harvesting of the original, but the movie Martians’ war machines prove themselves invulnerable to everything we throw at them, while the walkers in the book can be defeated with great effort. The movie also feels more global than the book, with the focus being on the USA as I mentioned earlier, but with some scenes where the world’s situation is seen on large maps and communications with other nations are made clear via war rooms, while the book focuses almost entirely on the British Isles and especially on London and its environs, with some passing mentions of other parts of the world. The main characters are quite different as well, with the original sole narrator having a similar but sometimes drastically different experience from our pair of main characters in the movie.

Our main protagonists for this film are Doctor Clayton Forrester and Doctor Sylvia van Buren, played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson respectively. Once introduced to these two characters, the focus remains largely on them and their travails in California as the Martians wreak havoc across the globe. The status of other countries and locations in the US are covered to a small degree as I previously mentioned, but only when our plucky pair of scientists are nearby.

It's unquestionably a product of the fifties. With the opening narration over stock footage of World War I and II, before breaking into the credits and the painted scenes of space, it feels like one of those old educational films before things start rolling forward with the meat of the story. The intro is worth watching just for the hand paintings of our solar system on their own, and the narrator does a great job at piquing our interest for the events that follow.

One part that I feel the movie excels at is setting the mood early on. Everything starts out so light and airy that you may not believe it’s an alien invasion film at first, despite that ominous introduction. This doesn’t last of course, but it has an almost jarring juxtaposition of that wholesome beginning and the nightmare that follows to give it a powerful contrast, that we see more than once during its 85 minutes of run time, but never quite as glaring as the opening portion of the film.

I'm sure this will end well.

If you’re a fan of the book, alien invasion movies, or sci-fi in general, I highly recommend this movie. It’s clearly a product of its time, but it doesn’t suffer for that fact. I do prefer the anti-colonialism and less rosy treatment of religion of the book over the movie, but the movie is still excellent. It’s a nice combination of the slow build up that classic science fiction and horror share with some excellent scenes of action and desolation to bring it home.

--The sound effects alone make this one worth a watch. Other movies, the original Star Trek series, some video games, and of course, many of the classic cartoons I grew up with used this film’s iconic sound effects.

--They had planned for Ray Harryhausen to bring his stop-motion genius to realize the walkers and aliens in the film, but that didn’t pan out, although there is some prototype footage of it out there on the internet. I would have loved to see him work his magic here, but what we got is still good. It’s so good in fact, that it won an Oscar for its effects.

--Related to the Harryhausen point above, the machines in the movie use ‘legs of magnetic force’ while looking somewhat like hovering manta rays. You can see the effects for the largely invisible legs at times, so they are still officially tripods like the original story, but it’s not easily noticeable. Brandon Tenold mentions both these points in his YouTube review of the movie. His review is also very good and amusing, so I recommend checking it out as well.

--The 1988-1990 War of the Worlds TV series is based on this version of the Martians and their war machines. It’s something I watched semi-regularly when it was on the air.

--Another thing Brandon pointed out that I 100% agree with is the scene where we drop atom bombs on the invader’s machines. It’s done brilliantly and quite chilling to witness.

--And yes, Doctor Clayton Forrester is the name of the antagonist from MST3k as well. And if my information is correct, the link is intentional.

Four Martian tripod war machines out of four.

Morella is a Gen Xer who likes strange things a bit too much.


  1. Thanks so much, Morella. I know I've seen this movie although I don't remember it well. I think it was blotted out by the not-great Tom Cruise version I saw recently. The IMDb page says the H.G.Wells estate was so happy with this version, though, that they gave producer George Pal the option of doing another of Wells' books. Pal did The Time Machine, an old movie I love a lot and have reviewed here.

    1. I need to rewatch that one, it's been easily 40ish years since I've seen it.

      My offer for a Discord watch party for at least this movie still stands!

  2. I'm pretty sure I have seen it too, but so long ago that I can't really recall it. Your review really makes me think I should reread the book--I was probably about 10 when I read it, so much of it would have sailed right by me.

    1. It's a good book to be sure. And easier to see the messages when older as well. I first read it very young too, and just thought it was cool, and totally missed the deeper meaning.

  3. One of my favourite films, seen numerous times as a kid on afternoon TV. The special effects were pretty astonishing for the time, and even now hold up reasonably well.

    One fun thing is that the Martian spaceships were re-used for another of my favourites, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, in which an astronaut is stranded on the red planet and, awaiting rescue, befriends a monkey and rescues an enslaved alien. Great stuff, and actually a lot better than it sounds, I promise.

    1. I recall reading that somewhere. I probably did see that one as a kid too, but don't 100% recall it.


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