Director: Byron Haskins
Writer: Barré Lyndon from a novel by H.G. Wells
Producer: George Pal
Composer: Leith Stevens
Production Company: Paramount
Principal Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Lewis Martin, Bob Cornthwaite, Sandro Giglio, Bill Phipps, Jack Kruschen, Vernon Rich
OK, so Wells purists have much to complain about, but despite the gross liberties taken with the source novel, Byron Haskin’s (very) loose adaptation remains a hugely enjoyable film. Relocating the action to 1950s United States (the sound you hear is that of a whole army of Wells scholars groaning in anguish) and dispensing with the single most iconic image from the novel (there’s not a tripod fighting machine to be seen anywhere), Haskin, his producer, the legendary George Pal, and screenwriter Barré Lyndon were clearly in no mood for a straight adaptation, even if finances and existing effects technology had allowed it.
What they kept was what made the Wells novel so powerful and memorable in the first place – the notion of a mass alien invasion, something that hadn’t been tried on the big screen before. We’d had the odd solitary alien, both benign (The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)) and belligerent (The Thing From Another World (1951)) , but there hadn’t been a full-scale attempt to control the planet in the cinema before.
In Wells novel, the Martian forces make short work of the combined military forces of Great Britain, then a globe-spanning colonial power with a military machine unmatched anywhere in the world. The vision of this fighting force being swept aside by an implacable and seemingly unstoppable foe galvanised Victorian readers and Pal’s decision to relocate the story to California at the dawn of the Cold War retains some of that same sense of shock – at a time when the United States military was strutting its stuff, posturing aggressively at the new-found enemy behind the Iron Curtain, the sight of military personnel and hardware being casually trampled underfoot by the Martian war machines must have been unnerving in the extreme. Even the much-vaunted – and much-feared – new super-weapon, the nuclear bomb, is shown to be useless and the film effectively voices America’s fears about its place in a new world where new enemies possessed weapons of fearsome destruction against which there was no guarantee of any successful defence.
So many of the 1950s Hollywood science fiction films traded in these Cold War fears and paranoias, but The War of the Worlds now seems to be the most blatant of them all – faceless invaders from the Red Planet lay waste to the States as they trample underfoot just about every image and icon of all-American decency and wholesomeness as Haskin can cram in. They have no truck with religion, blasting a foolhardy preacher without compunction; care nothing for our architectural history, demolishing great Los Angeles landmarks with abandon; they swat away the US military’s most fearsome weapons as one might swat away an irritating fly; they disrupt a wholesome square dance by cutting the power to the small Californian town where they first turn up; in short, they’re heartless bastards who can’t be reasoned with, can’t be made to see sense and will eventually be struck down by God Himself, pretty much the same broad strokes in which the Soviet Union would be painted in the decades to come. The War of the Worlds lends itself well to this sort of political commentary – Steven Spielberg would do it again in his under-rated 2005 take on the story which, made in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, would replace the communist threat with international terrorism.
However, in his efforts to hammer home his Cold War points, Lyndon fatally misreads the climax of the novel, in which the apparently invincible Martians are finally halted, not by anything that Man pits against them, but by the bacteria that their bodies’ immune systems are unable to combat. Wells meant the death-by-microbe business to be ironic, but Lyndon gives the classic ending an all-too-literal reading and the climax becomes the culmination of a long-running religious streak that permeates the entire film. Wells, a life-long atheist, would have no doubt been appalled, especially by the sight of a fighting machine brought crashing to Earth outside a church full of cowering believers singing their little hearts out. (In his version, Spielberg explicitly rejects the religious subtext – at the climax of Pal’s film, humanity seeks refuge and solace in a church; in Spielberg’s version, just about the first thing the invading aliens do is demolish the first church they get their claws on.) Pal, a Catholic, inherited the film from Cecil B. DeMille who had tried to mount his own version of the story for many years, and Pal’s own spirituality and DeMille’s penchant for theological epics seems to have combined in Lyndon’s script.
Regardless of this odd mis-step, there’s still much to enjoy in Haskin’s version of the story. The effects were, for their time, extraordinary. Today, they might seem crude – you can clearly see the wires holding up the Martian fighting machines – but at the time, nothing had been attempted on this scale before. The lengthy sequence wherein the first of the flying machines emerge from the pit and begin their assault on the military forces surrounding them is still astonishing, despite that fact that no effort seems to have been made to disguise the many wires holding the machines up. The design of the fighting machines is fabulous, now one of the most indelible icons of 50s SF. The sleek, manta ray like machines are a far cry from the towering, terrifying tripods of the novel, but they work remarkably well, those bloody strings notwithstanding.
Elsewhere, things are less successful. The stiff and wobbly little alien that menaces Anne Robinson beneath the ruined farmhouse is wholly unconvincing (thankfully we only get the briefest glimpse of it); some of the more visceral details of Well’s novel has been omitted (the Martians no longer feed on the blood of humans); and the acting is, at best, merely functional, at worst pretty poor.
But overall the Byron Haskins/Barré Lyndon/George Pal take on The War of the Worlds (and it’s very much a collaborative effort) is a wonderful piece of 50s science fiction cinema, inevitably dated and flawed, but moving at such a breakneck pace and packed full of incident and beautiful visuals that it retains its impact even in the wake of the remakes by Spielberg and others. The set-piece scenes of massive devastation are still hugely impressive and more than make up for the rather unconvincing love story that takes up centre stage, and it’s just very hard indeed to dislike a film that has so many lofty ambitions – thematically and technically – and achieves almost all of them.
The War of the Worlds proved the be the most influential of the 50s science fiction blockbusters – When Worlds Collide (1951) had given us the end of the world, but did it so well that no other large scale version was felt necessary; Klaatu came and reasoned with us in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but with McCarthy at the height of his powers and the super-powers squaring up to each like petulant but horribly armed brats, no-one was in the mood for reason; and although The Thing From Another World‘s intellectual carrot spawned many a snarling, growling invader, it was the cold, clinical, heartless invasion force that became the most popular trope in 50s screen SF, vying for screen space with the giant mutant monster genre. The effects of The War of the Worlds were still being felt many years later when Roland Emmerich took a much bigger budget, a massive cast and completely failed capture the charm, wit and invention of the Haskins/Pal/Barré film when he unleashed his bloated and bombastic Independence Day (1996) on us all.
A truly satisfying version of Wells’ novel remains to made but for now, this and the Spielberg version will do just fine. Neither are perfect, and neither are particularly good adaptations of the book, but as pieces of story-telling in their own right, both are great fun – with this version just gaining the upper hand as the more enjoyable version.