If you include the original H. G. Wells novel, there have been four major versions of The War of the Worlds, and each one was an accurate reflection of the fears of the time in which it was made. The recent Steven Spielberg film is clearly influenced by the events of September 11, 2001. The Orson Welles radio broadcast of 1938 reflected the gathering clouds of a war in Europe that was less than a year away. Likewise, the 1898 novel portrayed the author’s concern about the rising militarism that would sweep the continent into World War I.
The 1953 version is equally a product of the Cold War, reflecting the concerns of its producer, George Pal, whose native Hungary had been swept up in the postwar annexation of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union. Anyone who can’t see this film’s implacable Martians as stand-ins for Communism, well, that person probably hasn’t actually seen the movie.
I’m not sure that H. G. Wells would have thought much of this version of his work, had he lived to see it. Since the author himself was well known as a utopian socialist, to see his novel turned into a metaphorical rallying cry against the “Godless Reds” would probably not have sat well with him. Wells was one of the earliest advocates of what became the League of Nations, but in this version, all of those who attempt friendly communications with the Martians are turned into piles of ash. Appeasement is equated to weakness and vulnerability.
Wells also probably wouldn’t have been thrilled with the character of Sylvia Van Buren (Anne Robinson), the decorous love interest of the film’s hero, Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry). This is a truly conventional film and true to the conventions of the time, Sylvia has three jobs: look beautiful, be frightened and serve coffee. Given that the H. G. Wells was one of the earliest advocates of women’s equality, the character of Sylvia might have made him lose his lunch. The last time I saw this film with an audience, her scenes were largely greeted with a lot of unintended laughs from the crowd.
Gene Barry doesn’t have it much better. He’s stuck with the “Basil Exposition” role, doling out the pseudo-scientific explanations for the Martian technology as if the people around him really care. To his credit, he handles the technobabble well enough to have made a decent guest star on a later season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
It doesn’t take much to summarize this film. The Martians land and hand humanity its collective asses before having theirs (if Martians even have asses) handed to them by the bacterial cavalry. The film manages some genuinely suspenseful scenes, especially when Clayton and Sylvia are trapped in the farm house by several Martian machines. The color photography is gorgeous, even more so on the new DVD edition which was just released. However, the clarity of the picture reveals that the alien invaders used highly advanced Martian fishing wires to make their ships fly.
Aside from heat rays and fishing line, the Martians’ primary weapon appears to be stock footage of panicky crowds and destroyed European cities from World War II. Humanity fights back with its own stock footage, that of an YB-49 Flying Wing sent to drop an atomic bomb on the Martians.
To be totally accurate, you could say there was a fifth unofficial adaptation of The War of the Worlds, if you count 1996’s Independence Day, which I try very hard not to do. Unlike the official adaptations, this movie reflected very little of the genuine concerns of its time, other than the summer audience’s appetite for lotsa ‘splosions. But it does show signs of being heavily influenced by the 1953 version. In both films, we realize we’re beaten when the attempt to nuke the aliens fails completely. The crowd on the rooftop in 1996 parallels the three guys with the white flag in 1953. The later film’s destruction of the White House recalls the flattening of L.A. City Hall in the first. And, of course, you could draw a connection between Independence Day‘s idiotic “plant a computer virus on the alien mothership” device and the bacteria which save Earth’s bacon in the original. However, this War of the Worlds has its own equally implausible technical achievement when a team of scientists successfully reverse engineer a Martian television camera in the space of an afternoon.
Given the choice, I’ll take George Pal’s version of War, even with its dated social conventions and hokey effects, over Independence Day every time. At least it doesn’t have Randy Quaid as a hick in a fighter jet or any stupid speeches by Bill Pullman.
Note: The current DVD contains a recording the original 1938 Mercury Theatre on the Air radio production of The War of Worlds with Orson Welles. Not only is this one those cool extras that remind me what I love about DVDs, it also reminds me to renew my request for a DVD of the 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America, which dramatized the night of the famous broadcast which convinced an unknown number of Americans that Earth was really being invaded. Told from the standpoint of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater staging the radio drama as well as some of the people who were fooled by the fake news format of the play, it’s a fascinating look at a world when live radio drama was to people what a new episode of Lost is today.