Follow Chaos Corner by Email

Monday, April 20, 2015

Examining A Movie: The War of the Worlds (1953)

Hey there Chaos followers and assorted mutants. Old Man Chaos has been working on lots of Warhammer stuff- I'm trying to finish up my Harlequin vehicles while also working on some new stuff for my Khorne Daemonkin force (loving that book at the moment). However, I'm not done with anything to show yet, and as you know I don't want this blog to just be about 40K... So, I've decided to do a little movie review. With that, let us now turn to...

First, a little personal background: I loved this movie as a child. My parents were both into Sci-fi to one extent or another, and between the two of them I was introduced to tons of Sci-fi stuff, including Star Trek, The Black Hole, Star Wars, Alien, and a whole lot more. So, of course my parents ended up watching this, and I was just sucked in. Since they owned it on the old Videodisc format, I know I saw it many times as a young kid. It would also be a movie I would revisit quite often; I watched it over the weekend on Netflix, as a matter of fact!

The movie is very, very loosely based on the famous book of the same name by H.G. Wells. I have read it twice- the book is about a British man trying to survive a Martian invasion of England. The character (who is the narrator and hence never gives his name) tries to find his wife, while seeing the horrors of an alien invasion. The Martians, in their tripod walkers, lay waste to the British army with both "heat rays" and poison gas ("black smoke"). The book is written in older English, and it really helps if you know the geography around London. The book was quite revolutionary for its time, and also serves as a critique of British Imperialism. The Martians, so technologically and mentally advanced are able to sweep the British away so easily (just as the British seemed to do to other Asian/African peoples). Allegory? Perhaps, though the book has more than just that going on. The book has become a classic, inspiring Sci-fi creators for over a century.

The 1953 film is, as I said, a rather loose interpretation of the book, though they are accurate when it comes to the broadest strokes (and gist). This time, the story takes place in America, where Dr. Clayton Forester takes the lead in examining a crashed meteor in California. Of course, its not a meteor, but a cylinder that contains three Martian war machines. The American military goes against these Martians, and they are totally destroyed. Now, Forester and Sylvia must try to survive while also, hopefully, finding a way to defeat the alien invaders, who are seemingly unstoppable.

First and foremost, the special effects make the movie so memorable and striking. Now, I admit they are dated, but actually hold up better than you might actually think. The Martian war machines hover and tick menacingly, gently gliding along, incinerating anything in their path. The heat ray is quite simple in look, but effective due to the sound effect that goes with it. The martians themselves, which you never get a close look at, or appropriately weird. Their eyes are obviously a poor effect, but their flesh moves and pulses, which actually looks creepy and real. You also get to see all kinds of US military hardware on display, including a flying wing and an atomic bomb.

The big battle scene, which takes place in the middle of the movie, is still rather exciting, even now. Tanks, planes, and all kinds of ordinance are fired at the Martians, blowing up spectacularly, but also without result. Martian shields prevent any damage, while their death rays just vaporize the army. It is thrilling to watch, even now. We throw everything at them, and they just move forward at an even rate, not stopped by our "powerful" weapons. Later in the film, even nukes cannot harm them.

The other big scene of destruction comes at the end of the movie, with the war machines descending upon Los Angeles. There is no army. No resistance. The Martians are just destroying everything in their path without mercy. It is not as thrilling as the earlier battle, but you get the feeling of hopelessness. It seems no power on earth con stop them.

The movie, surprisingly for 1953, isn't afraid to get its hands dirty. As the people flee LA, there is chaos and anarchy. Mobs of wild people (some criminals, others just left behind) attack any trucks or cars. One of the trucks has important scientific equipment on board; Forester begs the mob to stop, but they won't listen. From that point on, Forester is a desperate, slightly crazed man, without any hope. Not bad for 1953.

The movie is not an allegory, though the Cold War comes up obliquely here. The Martians are cold and unsympathetic, their home world a frozen wasteland. They are advanced in technology, but not in morality. Americans viewed the Soviets in such terms (even before Sputnik was launched). Their "godlessness" is also emphasized. One of the first people the martians kill is a minister; later, references are made to God, creation, etc. Finally, as the Martians burn LA, the only place of safety is the church- take that you godless commies, er, Martians.

What this movie really is, though, is a kind of prototype of future Hollywood sci-fi / destruction films. Whether its Independence Day (which is, in many ways, a direct rip off) or any other large scale disaster film, it is War of the Worlds that sets the tone. The film's main character is a famous scientist advising the military. The smaller characters are either killed or forgotten with total abandon. The scenes of destruction are top notch. The film also has a montage, showing other nations fighting (and losing to) the Martians. This film set the tone and troupes that many movies would use. Frankly, it does it better than half of them do today, that's for sure.

The acting is good enough, as it is the action and effects that will make the movie, not the actors. That said, Gene Barry does a good job of making a "thinking man's hero" out of Dr. Forester. He is a genius, but he realizes early on that even his gifted intellect is of no match for the Martians. As his hope evaporates, he breaks down, becoming near hysterical at the end. His "girlfriend" (they aren't dating but they fall for each other during the Martian assault) Sylvia, played by Ann Robinson, has little to do but scream and run, though she suffers the personal loss of her minister uncle. Finally, Les Tremayne plays General Mann, an Eisenhower-esque soldier who relies on Forester's knowledge and America's brute strength, and he too does a good job of showing frustration and defeat, though he never "loses" it as Forester does. Tremayne has a the air of command, making Mann a tough, but reliable soldier.

The film starts slow, but once it gets going it simply doesn't stop. The action, special effects, music, and solid lead acting make War of the Worlds a first rate classic. It may not be as thought provoking as say Day the Earth Stood Still or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is still a great movie, and it set up incredible precedents, which are still with Hollywood today. If you are a Sci-fi fan, check this film out. I know you won't regret it.

** For the record, Steven Spielberg made a version of War of the Worlds in 2005. That movie is also very good (for different reasons). It is a "bit" more faithful to the book, and the alien war machines are very cool looking. The film is also a strong Allegory to the War on Terror- is that blood or oil? However, I prefer the 1953 version (I can only take so much Tom Cruise running and little girl screaming, which the movie does in spades). Perhaps I should review this one in the future...

Until next time...


1 comment:

  1. Lol ... Tom Cruise runs like no other actor that's for sure. I might have watched this one before but most likely not. To be honest, one thing that holds me back from old Sci-Fi movies is the worry that the special effects do not hold up. That's why I have huge admiration for how the old (well not so old) classics such as Blade Runner and Alien was made. The latter holds up really really well even in today's CGI standards. Bring back the days of hand-painted polymer prosthetics I say!