The Martians unchain a direct assault to our planet, with hundreds of invulnerable ships. The invasion takes place all over the world, and all the major cities are destroyed one after one; even the atomic bomb can't stop them. But, if the humans can't beat them, who can? Maybe something MUCH smaller than them...
Directed by: Byron Haskin
. Starring: Gene Barry
, Ann Robinson
, Les Tremayne
, Robert Cornthwaite
, Sandro Giglio
, Lewis Martin
, Houseley Stevenson Jr.
, Paul Frees
, William Phipps
, Vernon Rich
, Henry Brandon
, Jack Kruschen
, Cedric Hardwicke
. Music by: Leith Stevens
A number of commentators here have registered complaints, making what I think are unfair comparisons of the film to much later and more technically sophisticated movies, and to Welles' original short novel. I intend to address some of these issues here. BEWARE, SPOILERS AHEAD.
The screenplay by Barré Lyndon updates and relocates the story to rural California in 1953, where a supposed meteorite crashes to earth near a small town. The choice of a modern day American location versus the original late Victorian England was made partly for budgetary reasons, staging a mass exodus from Los Angeles was certainly easier for a Hollywood studio to manage than an evacuation of London. However, updating the action to the age of nuclear weapons allowed the besieged Earthlings to confront the Martian invaders with a much more powerful array of weapons than anything dreamed of in 1898. Thus when the alien fighting machines prove invulnerable even to the most advanced nuclear explosives it is much more effective visually and dramatically than if they were being fired upon by the small and relatively crude horse-drawn cannons featured in the original story.
The central character is Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), evidently a physicist with a major California-based university, who fills in the role given to the unnamed narrator of the original story. By making him a scientist the screenplay is able to economize on characters whose only job is to provide exposition, Forrester can be both the object of the viewer's sympathies and can instantly explain some of the more dramatic elements of Martian military technology, such as the fighting machines, which rather than flying actually walk on invisible legs of magnetic force, and the devastating anti-meson plasma weapon. The narrator of the original story has to rely on extraneous characters or post-invasion scientific analysis of Martian technology to supply similar important information to the reader. Dramatically the movie's solution is more satisfying since the references in Welles' text to post-war scholarship telegraph the ending (i.e. human civilization survives) whereas the movie version could have ended with mankind's extinction without internal contradiction. One particularly satisfying point about Forrester character is, brilliant as he is, he is not the lone authority with all the answers – he is part of a highly respected team of scientists from many disciplines who jointly tackle the problem of alien invasion.
Providing the romantic foil, which Hollywood always deems to be necessary in sci-fi films, is Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Richards), a graduate in Library Science (the most misnamed academic discipline ever). She has no parallel in the Welles text except perhaps the narrator's wife, who is only referred to obliquely and has no dramatic role except as an object of longing. Sylvia is mostly ornamentation, but she does provide emotional counterweight to Forrester's cool intellectualism and curiosity.
The original story has two important secondary characters, the artilleryman and the curate. Welles uses both as vehicles for his social commentary, employing the artilleryman as a symbol of a reformed European society (i.e. a rational, scientific meritocracy without class distinctions) while the curate functions to show the weakness of religiosity in the face of mortal peril (Welles was an avowed atheist). Not only is his curate is a despicable coward; he is also a parasite who endangers his fellow humans. The artilleryman comes off somewhat better, but he is shown to be lazy dreamer rather than a true visionary, perhaps this is Welles' veiled criticism of the socialist agitators of his day who offered themselves as spokesmen for the working class yet were notably shy of personal experience as workers themselves.
The movie has no parallels to the curate and the artilleryman, except for Sylvia's uncle Mathew, the minister of a local church. In keeping with George Pal's religious optimism (faith is always a central and positive force in his body of work) Uncle Mathew offers hope and kindly guidance to his flock in the face of imminent war, helping to organize and comfort the townspeople. He also shows a remarkable curiosity about the alien invaders – an unexpected and refreshing take on the clergy considering the usual Hollywood stereotype.
Much as been made about the fighting machines as a regrettable deviation from Welles' animated tripods. Personally I think the gliding metallic manta rays (designed by master prop artist Albert Nozaki) are an improvement. When Welles pictured his tripods he evidently didn't work out how they would move. When the movie was in preproduction the tripod concept was discarded as unworkable and visually unimpressive, even comical. Granted the supporting wires are too obvious and distracting in many scenes (perhaps with a larger budget they could have been matted out), yet their stately, inexorable movement and scanning swans necks do communicate a thoroughly alien technology with no reliance on the concept of the wheel, a point Welles makes in his narrative. UPDATE -- I have since learned that the original theatrical release prints using the Techicolor process effectively masked fighting machine support wires, ergo more kudos to "War of the Worlds". I've never seen this film in Techicolor, unfortunately. This makes me long for a re-mastered DVD or Blu-Ray which has the wires obscured digitally.
My final point is the appearance of the Martians themselves. In Welles' conception the Martians are essentially body-less heads, which make and use mechanical substitutes as needed. In place of arms and hands they have tentacles. From the standpoint of a Victorian layman's thinking influenced by Darwinism, the idea of evolution producing giant brains without a supporting suite of organs might be tenable. However, more advanced research would tend to discard that notion. The movie Martians are a much more alien and more plausible with their functional bodies, three-fingered (and thumb-less) hands, and their remarkable tripled-lensed eyes.
Overall I give the movie high marks. It has little of the social commentary of Welles' novel, but it is better sci-fi, a pioneering work in the context of its times.
Review by Neal Scroggs from the Internet Movie Database.