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The War of the Worlds (1953)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1997

A scary adaptation of H.G.Wells' novel, The War of the Worlds still looks and sounds amazing. Opening with a monologue by Cedric Hardwicke, the Martians are described as a civilisation on the verge of extinction, stranded on a dying planet. Their only hope for survival is the verdant Earth, ripe for colonisation. Thus, in a do-or-die attempt, the first scout ship is soon plunging through the Earth's atmosphere in a fiery display, driving itself into the ground near a small Californian town. The inhabitants of Linda Rosa are naturally curious about the meteorite; soon crowds have gathered around the still glowing mass, excitedly discussing its origin. While Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin) considers the commercial implications, with an eye to tourism, some scientists from Pacific Tech fishing nearby are dragged in to speculate.

Since it appears to be merely a large, if unusually large, rock, Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), one of the atomic scientists, isn't unduly alarmed. However, he'd like to carry out some tests when it's cooled down so he elects to stay in the area. Since Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) has her sights set upon the handsome doctor, it's rather fortuitous that there's a square-dance taking place in town that evening. With just 3 deputies left to guard the extraterrestrial interloper, the rock is mostly ignored until a hatch starts to slowly unscrew (with a decidedly eerie sound). All to aware that this is no ordinary rock, the guards hesitantly approach, mindful of the fame that would be theirs for making first contact. Unfortunately, the metallic, cobra-like head that emerges isn't after interplanetary friendship - the trio are vaporized for their trouble! At that very instant, the town is plunged into darkness, whereupon people realise that their watches have all mysteriously stopped.

From hereon the crisis escalates, with the Army hastily arriving to surround the hostile visitor. As General Mann (Les Tremayne) positions his troops, the alien probe continues to observe and appear menacing by its very inactivity. The military, flush from WWII success, are confidant that they can contain the Martians. However, reports filter in of meteorites landing all over the globe, disgorging fleets of ships which destroy everything in their path. The tension mounts among the troops, waiting for a movement. It appears that the future of mankind is at stake, with the defense that General Mann manages to mount crucial to the coming war. Then, slowly, the sleek, glowing craft begin to emerge.

Tapping into a basal fear, The War of the Worlds presents an opponent which is both invincible and implacable, resistant to human ingenuity and bravery (the traits which usually come to our rescue). It's not particularly important that the invaders are from Mars, simply that they're so different (in actions and motivations) as to be unfathomable. To this end, the cracking story unfolds at a deliberate pace, in step with the slow but continual march of the Martians. Every weapon that humanity has at its disposal is brought to bear, without even scratching the ships - we are, as a community, as impotent as a dust mite. The twist, of course, is that it's the little things that matter, demolishing our unwarranted claim to the title of "King of the Beasts".

The special effects are exemplary, the highlight of The War of the Worlds, which is only fair since they swallowed most of the budget. The master technician Gordon Jennings created objects of beauty, alien craft which are streamlined, yet functional and packed with death-dealing heat-rays. The spindly looking creatures which so the piloting are also impressive, even though they're barely glimpsed (a wise move). In combination with weird and unsettling sound effects, put together with flair, the alien menace becomes vividly real.

It's a shame that the acting and script don't achieve the same high quality. While the characters behave reasonably, for small-town people in such a situation, the cast are wooden and tend to over-act. Together with the tacked on romance and overtly religious angles, it's a wonder that the underlying tale survives. Happily it does, even if some would like to take it as an allegory for the Communist menace uppermost in America's mind in the post-war era. That just isn't the point (Mankind's blind belief of his own superiority is) and The War of the Worlds does just fine without this extra intellectual and emotional baggage.

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