War of the Worlds, The (1953)

The War of the Worlds (1953), produced by George Pal, directed by Byron Haskin.

A fondly remembered Technicolor SF film finally appears on Blu-ray.

Seeing it again after all these years, I have dissonant responses. Compared to black-and-white 1950s First Contact movies like Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Jack Arnold's It Came From Outer Space (1953), this seems more like family entertainment, with chills and thrills not too intense for children.

On the other hand it is more dark and despairing than those more adult films. The human race seems hapless and lacking any sense of wonder. Their first response to the "meteor" is to plan a roadside attraction. The attempts at peacemaking are utterly ineffectual. Turning the area into a war zone: equally pointless.

The scientists are humbled first by the Martian invaders and finally by the human mob. As a kid that scene of the crowd looting the science supplies and attacking our hero scared me more than the aliens.

The film goes out on a note of elevated religiosity, quoting the book: the Martians "slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth". Which is either Providence or good luck, as you wish, but nothing the human race accomplished.

The commentary track points out that -- unusually for this type of film -- our hero does have a character arc. At the outset he is all business and science; by the end he no longer thinks of the science or even of defeating the invaders, but simply of finding the woman he loves so they can be together at the end.


You might think this is the only shared credit for space artist Chesley Bonestell and costumer Edith Head, but no: they were both on When Worlds Collide (1951). According to the wikipedia, Bonestell:


...designed the art deco fa├žade of the Chrysler Building as well as its distinctive eagles. During this same period, he designed the Plymouth Rock Memorial, the U.S. Supreme Court Building, the New York Central Building, Manhattan office and apartment buildings and several state capitols.

Returning to the West Coast, he prepared illustrations of the chief engineer's plans for the Golden Gate Bridge for the benefit of funders. In the late 1930s he moved to Hollywood, where he worked (without screen credit) as a special effects artist, creating matte paintings for films, including Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

Available on Blu-ray from Criterion. A light happy commentary track by Joe Dante, Bob Burnes and Bill Warren gives an appreciation and production detail. Warren is author of Keep Watching the Skies!: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties.

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