Friday, December 16, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: War of the Worlds (1953)

The War of the Worlds (1953) ****
Directed by: Byron Haskin.
Written by: Barré Lyndon based on the novel by H.G. Wells.
Starring: Gene Barry (Dr. Clayton Forrester), Ann Robinson (Sylvia Van Buren), Les Tremayne (Maj. Gen. Mann), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Pryor), Sandro Giglio (Dr. Bilderbeck), Lewis Martin (Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins), Houseley Stevenson Jr. (Gen. Mann's aide), Paul Frees (Second Radio Reporter / Opening Announcer), William Phipps (Wash Perry), Vernon Rich (Col. Ralph Heffner), Henry Brandon (Cop at Crash Site), Jack Kruschen (Salvatore), Cedric Hardwicke (Commentary).

The original The War of the Worlds from 1953 holds up remarkably well almost 60 years later. Yes, special effects have come a long way in that time – and are capable of doing things that were inconceivable in 1953 – but even the effects in this movie retain their creepiness and ability to scare. Modern audiences may find some of the movie cheesy, but if they give it a chance to work its magic on them, then they will find a truly wonderful sci-fi film.

The movie transplants the original H.G. Wells story from Victorian England, to 1950s America. It all starts with what looks like a meteor landing in a field outside of Los Angeles. The army is called out, and they also bring leading scientists, including Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry). Forrester is immediately struck by how little damage this supposed meteor has done. Something is not quite right here. He meets the beautiful Sylvia (Ann Robinson), who uncle is the local Pastor, and the two of them immediately bond. But then more and more of these “meteors” start landing across the country – and the world. And soon, they start moving. Once they do move, they lose contact with that area.

I enjoy 1950s science fiction movies, even the ones that can be a little cheesy. What surprised me about The War of the Worlds is how little cheese there is in the film. True, the character of Sylvia is hopelessly dated to the 1950s (she has an advanced degree in science, but spends the whole movie making tea and eggs for all the men), but other than that, the film holds up amazing well. There are several truly scary sequences – especially the long, slow moments as the Martians unscrew their exit hatch that becomes almost unbearably suspenseful. The scenes where the Martians make their ways across the landscape, laying waste to everything in their sight, are also wonderful.

Alien invasion movies have become common place in movies. I don’t even think you could say that The War of the Worlds was the first but it certainly did set the standard. Every alien invasion movie, from Invasion of the Body Snatcher to Independence Day to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake (which I know I am in the minority in thinking is actually a pretty great film, except for the terrible ending), has to be compared to this one. It establishes the clichés that every other film will play with in their own ways.

It must be said however, that the film doesn’t quite have the same impact it once did. Yes, it had groundbreaking special effects for its time. And yes, you can hardly call the movie clichéd since it establishes the clichés, not just mindlessly regurgitating them. For these reasons, The War of the Worlds will forever be placed, and rightfully so, right near the top of any list of the greatest alien invasion movies of all time. The only problem is, that once you see what this movie inspired – in dozens of other movies – it simply cannot have quite the same impact it once did. This is a wonderful movie – a must for sci-fi fans – and whatever faults we see in it now, really aren’t the film’s fault.

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