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The War of the Worlds (George Pal, 1953)


War of the Worlds movie poster, George Pal.

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.

Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, George Pal, War of the Worlds.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 was needed.

First view of Martian heat ray, George Pal, War of the Worlds.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 heat ray in action, George Pal, War of the Worlds.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.

Martian war machines attack, George Pal, War of the Worlds.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 Martian city, George Pal, War of the Worlds.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.

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Film & TV

1968
Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The Martian war machines from the George Pal movie are the foe for an astronaut stranded on Mars.

1975
War of the Worlds TV Series

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?

1988
War of the Worlds TV series

War of the Worlds An intermittently impressive TV series about a second Martian invasion of Earth.

2005
The War of the Worlds, Spielberg.

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.

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