The War of the Worlds (George Pal, 1953)
It was in 1951 that George Pal (then working on his SF movie "When Worlds Collide"), took a
look through the Paramount script archive and found a pile of un-produced scripts for The War
of the Worlds. He saw the potential, but choosing to discard these scripts, Pal selected Barre
Lyndon to pen a new version. Lyndon was new to science fiction movies (he had just come off a co-writing
job on the DeMille circus extravaganza The Greatest Show On Earth) but he was actually a collector of
Wells memorabilia, so had considerable respect for the material. Together with Lyndon and director Byron
Haskin, the three began to craft the tale, working to produce a movie that above all, would attempt to
portray as realistically as possible the details of an alien invasion.
Of course most of the original novel is jettisoned for one reason or another, be it the prohibitive
cost of setting the movie in England (it was naturally moved to California) or the insistence of studio
executives that the hero of the movie, (played by Gene Barry), had to fall in love with a readably available starlet, Ann Robinson. Another
victim of cost (and available technical ability at the time) was the original Tripod war machines.
Lyndon's early drafts made use of these, and early production drawings took the same tack, but the
difficulties of realising slick movement from the tripods quickly made it apparent that a fresh approach
The brilliant Al Nozaki had been Pal's art director on When Worlds Collide, so no surprise that he
turned to the same person to conceptualise the Martian war machines. Anyone who watched the movie has
to agree that the result is simply electrifying. While giving lip service to then hysteria about flying
saucers, the design is in fact wholly original, with a fluid organic feel. The first view of an
appendage of a Martian machine rising from the still smoking cylinder is a chilling one, as it swivels
and focuses on an advancing group of curious locals before incinerating them. Equally, one of the
greatest features of the movie has to be the amazing sound effects for the Martian War Machines. This
was realised entirely by manipulating feedback from electric guitars, and is an amazing effect, from
the initial pulsating beat, to the peak of the rising crescendo as they unleash their heat rays.
Aside from the amazing war machines, the supplementary imagery of the film has much to recommend it.
The twisted and blackened Eiffel Tower glimpsed at the end has to rate alongside other iconic moments
in science fiction cinema such as the Statue Of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, and acclaimed
space artist Chesley Bonestell painted a series of breathtaking planetary images for the beginning of
the film, including one pure fantasy scene of a Martian city. By contrast, the stock footage of human
resistance to the Martians is rather obvious, but there is a certain charm to the scenes of roaring
jet fighters and thundering artillery.
Barry makes for a stoic leading man as Dr Clayton Forrester, while Robinson does an awful
lot of screaming and emoting as the damsel in distress, but the actors are really secondary to the
action, submerged as they are in a furious maelstrom of colourful imagery. Certainly the film looks
a little dated now, but it retains a deserved place in history as one of the best and most important
science fiction movies of the time, in a period that saw some pretty dire entries in the genre.
In a final curious note to this story, in 1975, George Pal attempted to make a television series
sequel of sorts to The War of the Worlds. You can also see Gene Barry and Ann Robinson in the 2005 Steven Spielberg version
of The War of the Worlds, where they make a brief appearance at the end.
Buy from the US
Buy from the UK
See also in:
Film & TV
Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The Martian war machines from the George Pal movie are the foe for an astronaut stranded on Mars.
War of the Worlds TV Series by George Pal. Who knew that George Pal once planned a television series spin off from his 1953 movie?
War of the Worlds An intermittently impressive TV series about a second Martian invasion of Earth.
The War of the Worlds Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise get a huge bang for their bucks in this massive re-imagining of the story.