H.G. Wells' 1898 classic alien invasion novel, The War of the Worlds, has been adapted several times for the big screen, most recently by Steven Spielberg five years ago (my first "Scenes We Love" entry for Cinematical), two low-budget entries, one set in Victorian times and the other in the present released to coincide with Spielberg's adaptation, and most memorably, fifty-seven years ago by producer George Pal (The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, The Time Machine, Conquest of Space, When Worlds Collide, Destination Moon) for Paramount Pictures. Pal's adaptation, directed by Byron Haskin (The Power, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, From the Earth to the Moon, Conquest of Space) from a screenplay by Barré Lyndon, created the template for every alien invasion film that followed. The War of the Worlds won an Academy Award for its groundbreaking visual effects. It was nominated, but surprisingly didn't win, the Academy Award for the equally innovative sound design.

An unseen, unnamed, omniscient narrator (Sir Cedric Hardwicke, at his most stentorian) guides us through the prologue. He explains the Martians' decision to escape their dying world and conquer our relatively unspoiled one. Chesley Bonestell, an illustrator who specialized in science fiction, provided the full-color art for the prologue. When, finally, The War of the Worlds leaves the prologue behind, we're in the fictional town of Linda Rosa. A meteor falls from the sky. The local authorities turn to Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a celebrity astrophysics and nuclear science professor at the (fictional) Pacific Tech, and two fellow academics, Dr. Pryor (Robert Cornthwaite), and Dr. Bilderbeck (Sandro Giglio), vacationing in the nearby mountains, for help.

At the meteor site, Forrester meets a local "girl," Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), the obligatory romantic interest and, alas, a perfect representative of 50s'-era women on film (e.g., passive, submissive, retrograde). She's a late twenty-something librarian and science geek who fawns over the super-smart Forrester. Sylvia wrote her master's thesis on Forrester and follows his career with stalker-like intensity. She doesn't, however recognize the newly shaven Forrester. She fawns over Forrester one moment, serving coffee to military leaders another, and once the alien invasion gets underway, openly hysterical. Apparently she's a good cook, though.



Not counting stock footage used for several montages, minorities (e.g., African-Americans, Latinos, Asians) are conspicuous by their absence in The War of the Worlds, with one exception: a local farmer/farm worker, Salvatore (played by all-purpose ethnic actor Jack Kruschen), deputized by the sheriff to watch over the cooling meteor. The meteor-like cylinder contains a technologically advanced Martian war machine. Two years later, Kruschen played a Polish character in Pal's Conquest of Space as the comic relief-sidekick. Kruschen received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the wise Jewish doctor who makes house calls in Billy Wilder's The Apartment seven years later.



But let's get back to the scene in question. Salvatore and two other newly deputized men are the first to see the manta ray-inspired Martian war machine emerge from the crater. They're also the first to the cobra-like head that emits a red heat-ray. Initially unsure about what to do, the men decide to give in to their better natures and attempt to communicate with the Martians. It's the last choice they'll ever make. The Martian heat-ray kills them instantly, leaving three mounds of ash where they once stood.



In a later scene, Sylvia minister uncle, Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin), makes a second, futile, attempt to communicate with the Martians. He assumes, wrongly, that the Martians' advanced technology brings them closer to God. It doesn't. For that woefully optimistic assumption, Collins pays with his life. The War of the Worlds leaves anything related to the Martians' social structure, cultural values, and religious beliefs unexplored. All we learn is that the Martians want to eradicate humanity and transform Earth into their new home.



Other scenes are almost just as memorable, e.g., the first battle between the U.S. military and the Martian war machines (the military loses), the first time we see the Martian war machines covered by an electronic shield Forrester calls a "protective blister;" the farmhouse scene, referenced in Spielberg's adaptation, where Ann Robinson gets to use her talent for instant hysterics twice, first at the sight of an alien probe and later at the sight of a Martian; the decision to use an atomic bomb, in effective here as in Independence Day four decades later; and Forrester's desperate search for Van Buren as the Martians annihilate Los Angeles.



The War of the Worlds paints an incredibly bleak picture of our first encounter with aliens. Peaceful coexistence isn't possible. Given the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it's easy to substitute the fear of an alien invasion with the fear of an attack by the Soviet Union. Successive governments used that fear as justification for ever-increasing defense budgets. It shouldn't come as a surprise that The War of the Worlds never mentions any Eastern Bloc countries, including the Soviet Union. We assume they've been attacked, but we don't know their fate. Even then, The War of the Worlds doesn't shy away from depicting the worst in human nature (e.g., a late-film riot and attack on school buses and trucks carrying scientific equipment).

As with Spielberg's 2005 adaptation, The War of the Worlds keeps Wells' deus ex machina ending, setting the final scene inside a Christian Church (complete with heavenly choir), and invoking the Christian God in Hardwicke's closing voiceover narration, an idea that Wells, no true believer when it came to organized religion, would have found objectionable. Pal, Haskin, and Lyndon, however, reflected the 1950s mindset accurately, but despite that, almost sixty years later, The War of the Worlds remains an engrossing, thought-provoking adaptation of H.G. Well's seminal novel.



Are you a fan of the 1953 adaptation? If so, what's your favorite scene or scenes? If not, is it because of the dated visual effects, gender/ethnic stereotypes or some other reason?