The War of the Worlds (1953)

Picking movies to watch with our son usually comes down to weighing two big factors: do I want to sit through it again, and will the kid enjoy being introduced to a “classic” – however you want to define that – from long ago. This shouldn’t be homework. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about The War of the Worlds. I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid myself, and I’ve picked up the memory of it being quite dated. But really, that’s a problem with the original story. The 1953 production, directed by Byron Haskin, is mostly a lot better than its source, and some of it is just fascinating to watch. Criterion released a new edition with a brilliant restoration and piles of bonuses last year, so I decided to give it a try. We enjoyed it very much. It was not homework.

I’ve never liked the original novel, and since any adaptation of it is probably going to stick to its – let’s be blunt – utter cop-out of an ending, I’m going to be checking my watch waiting for the Martians to die without any help from the protagonists. That means what an adaptation needs to give us is a story worth watching while all the death rays and war machines do their trick. For a while, it’s the usual disaster movie / monster movie stuff, with Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, and Les Tremayne, plus a small on-camera role for the great Paul Frees, going through the motions against a backdrop of tremendously good special effects. It’s a lean 85 minutes long, and I liked how it doesn’t waste any time getting started. The prologue’s awfully dopey, but once we get to Earth, war machines are landing.

But there were lots of “usual” disaster movies and monster movies in the fifties, some good, and some bad. The War of the Worlds is a standout because after that first big battle against the Martians, this movie kicks it up a notch and goes for real bleakness. It’s a movie that does a whole lot with sound, both in the screaming, shrieking noises of the Martian guns (later pilfered by everybody, including Benita Bizarre’s zapper in The Bugaloos) and in silence so thick it’s uncomfortable.

The scene in the abandoned farmhouse is rightly remembered and praised for being one of the scariest things in any monster movie, but in my book, it’s the evacuation of Los Angeles that really makes this film a genuine classic. I’ve seen a lot of extras running away from giant monsters in my time, and a lot of empty streets, but The War of the Worlds is just eye-poppingly excellent. It shifts from backlots to the real streets of LA effortlessly. Well, that’s probably not the right word, because prepping the streets with all that trash in the dead of night just to get first-light Sunday morning shots like the one above was certainly not effortless. But the conviction in making audiences believe this city has fallen apart except for the looters and the ones too poor or injured to get out, is solid.

And Gene Barry, who spent the next few decades of his long career looking for a role half as memorable as this, is just remarkably good throughout. When night falls and he moves from church to church desperately searching for Ann Robinson, he really looks like a man who just wants to die holding somebody’s hand. And if the film started a little unconvincingly, with a big echoey studio pretending to be a country hillside, it ends looking like a trillion bucks, black, red, and orange, a city on fire with hours to live. It’s a movie which badly deserved a better ending than “Oh, the invaders didn’t wear spacesuits.”

For what it’s worth, our son didn’t roll his eyes at the climax like I did. It’s one that culture spoiled for him quite some time ago, somewhere, so I couldn’t keep this one a secret like some of my other triumphs in the field, and said “I think it’s a good ending. It makes sense that our bacteria would kill them!” He enjoyed all the mayhem and explosions and can’t pick out a favorite moment or scene. He did say that his favorite character was the little orange tabby who briefly surveys the destruction of LA. Film buffs have not positively identified this cat but speculate that it’s probably Orangey, a cat who did a lot of work for Paramount and also appeared in two other well-remembered fifties sci-fi epics: This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man, which Criterion is releasing in a spiffy new edition next month.

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