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The War of The Worlds (1953)

Gene Barry and Ann Robinson star in the 1953 science fiction movie classic The War of the Worlds. Martians invade earth in fantastic warships.

The War of the Worlds 1953 lobby card set image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries

Director Byron Haskin and Paramount Pictures delivered the original The War of the Worlds to movie theaters in 1953. Gene Barry plays the American scientist, with Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne and Robert Cornthwaite in stellar support.

H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds is based on the 1898 novel of the same name by British author H.G. Wells (1866-1946). An early titan of the genre, Wells’ other science fiction novels include The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and The First Men in the Moon (1901).

Barre Lyndon wrote the screenplay for Paramount Pictures and Byron Haskin (Treasure Island, Conquest of Space, Robinson Crusoe on Mars) directed. Leith Stevens crafted the spooky music score and George Barnes delivered the dazzling cinematography.

Gene Barry (Dr. Clayton Forrester) and Ann Robinson (Sylvia Van Buren) head the cast. Other players include Les Tremayne (General Mann), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Pryor), Sandro Giglio (Dr. Bilderbeck), Lewis Martin (Pastor Matthew Collins), Houseley Stevenson Jr. (General Mann’s Aide), Paul Frees (Opening Announcer), William Phipps (Wash Perry), Vernon Rich (Col. Ralph Heffner), Henry Brandon (Cop), Jack Kruschen (Salvatore), Alvy Moore (Zippy), Cedric Hardwicke (Commentary Voice), Gertrude Hoffman (Elderly News Vendor) and Walter Sande (Sheriff Bogany).

The War of the Worlds Filmed in Arizona and California

Budgeted at a healthy $2 million, The War of the Worlds was filmed from January to February 1952. Several Los Angeles locations were used to great scenic effect, including City Hall, the U.S. District Court Building on Spring Street, First United Methodist Church on Franklin Avenue, the then unopened Harbor Freeway and St. Brendan’s Catholic Church on Van Ness Avenue. Shooting was also done in California’s Simi Valley and in Arizona (Phoenix, Florence).

As befitting a science fiction film of this magnitude, producer George Pal committed $1.4 million to special effects. The fantastic Martian warships were elaborate models made of copper, each of which was supported by about 20 wires. A scale model of Los Angeles City Hall was lovingly crafted, and then blown up with frightening efficiency.

The movie’s eerie sound effects were accomplished via several means. Three electric guitars played backwards provided the sound of the roving Martian spaceships while a microphone dragged across dry ice coupled with a reversed woman’s scream served as a Martian’s wounded cry.

The War of the Worlds: The Martians Invade Earth

The War of the Worlds opens with the commentary that the earth has been being “watched” from outer space. A flaming meteorite then hurls to earth, landing in the hills just outside Linda Rosa, California, knocking out power. Nearby at a square dance is Dr. Clayton Forrester, the eminent physicist from the Pacific Institute of Science and Technology.

Dr. Forrester and the locals check out the “meteorite,” which turns out to be a buried Martian spaceship that eventually comes to life, destroying everything in its path with a fearsome heat ray. An entire army of Martian war machines follow, falling to earth in strategic parts of the globe and wreaking destruction.

The world’s militaries prove helpless in stopping the invasion, with the alien warships throwing up fantastic force shields that repel bullets, bombs and rockets. When a thermonuclear detonation fails to even dent the Martian spaceship near Linda Rosa, the military is forced to retreat.

Dr. Forrester and girlfriend Sylvia eventually make it back to Los Angeles. Forrester brainstorms with his fellow Pacific Institute scientists, examining a sample of Martian blood that he had extracted while hiding in a farmhouse. The blood reveals that the Martians may have certain biological weaknesses that can be exploited.

With Los Angeles almost completely evacuated, the Martian warships march on the City of Angels. Huddled in a church are Dr. Forrester, Sylvia and other survivors who are bracing for the horrific end while still praying for a last-second miracle.

The War of the Worlds Premieres in Atlantic City

The War of the Worlds made its world premiere in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on July 29, 1953.

“War of the Worlds is a socko science-fiction feature, as fearsome as a film as was the Orson Welles’ 1938 radio interpretation of the H.G. Wells novel,” reported Variety.

“…An imaginatively conceived, professionally turned adventure, which makes excellent use of Technicolor, special effects by a crew of experts and impressively drawn backgrounds,” observed A.H. Weiler of The New York Times (8/14/53).

Film Analysis: The Martians and Psalm 23

Forget Tom Cruise and his irritating dysfunctional family in the 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds and stick with the original. The 1953 version of the H.G. Wells classic is still the one to see, reigning supreme among Earthlings and Martians alike.

George Pal’s The War of the Worlds is 1950s science fiction at its best. The script is literate, the direction innovative, the acting above par and the special effects simply out of this world for a pre-CGI picture.

A bespectacled Gene Barry, who passed away at age 90 on December 9, 2009, carries much of the movie on his able shoulders. Barry’s Dr. Forrester is both courageous and brilliant, piloting a private plane during the Martian onslaught and even (thankfully) slapping a screaming Ann Robinson during one of her bouts of alien invasion hysteria.

One of the movie’s best scenes is garnered by Lewis Martin as Pastor Matthew Collins and Sylvia’s uncle, who recklessly approaches the hovering alien warship while reciting Psalm 23 a.k.a. “The Lord Is My Shepherd.” The Martian ship spots the good reverend and ignores the sermon, blasting him with a heat ray and making good on the psalm’s “the valley of the shadow of death” theme.

The War of the Worlds earned three Academy Award nominations, all in the technical categories: Best Film Editing (Everett Douglas), Best Sound (Loren L. Ryder) and Best Special Effects. The lone winner was Gordon Jennings and his special effects team, who delivered the goods like no other sci-fi production of the decade.

The War of the Worlds Notes, Movie Memorabilia, DVD

  • The movie rights to The War of the Worlds were bought by Paramount Pictures in 1924.
  • Orson Welles broadcast his chilling radio version of The War of the Worlds on Mercury Theatre on the Air, October 30, 1938.
  • Auction results for original 1953 The War of the Worlds movie material, courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas: one sheet poster ($2,151), rare half sheet poster style B ($26,290), insert poster ($1,434), 30″x40″ poster style Z ($4,481.25), Australian daybill poster ($1,195), complete set of eight lobby cards ($2,629).
  • On DVD: The War of the Worlds Special Collector’s Edition (Paramount, 2005).

“Guns, tanks, bombs – they’re like toys against them!” General Mann declares.

A bit humbling, isn’t it, General?

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  1. Posted December 14, 2009 at 5:06 pm

    I enjoyed the original War of the World, and the movie version with Tom Cruz….but the War of the World movie part two was a flop.

  2. Posted December 17, 2009 at 9:37 pm

    Great movie. Great article on the history this 1953 version and so much talent in the background like George Pal and the imagination of HG Wells. A great classic.

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