Although science fiction films of the 1950 tend to have a reputation for being cheesy and cheap, there are a few that presented some form of perspective. The Thing From Another World for instance can be read as a warning of communism already being here. Forbidden Planet is a look at man’s unwillingness to be part of society once he’s realized he gained power. The Day the Earth Stood Still could be interpreted as a religious analogy of Christ delivering the message to people to be better. These films possessed spectacle and had a message as well. The genre also had contemporaries that offered spectacle and nothing beyond it.
Then we have 1953’s The War of the Worlds. The first adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic, The War of the Worlds manages to provide more on spectacle than speculating, but also represents a pop art look at the atomic age. The film really represents the minds of both its producer and director, George Pal and Byron Haskin respectively.
This adaptation takes to heart the “war” aspect. The movie opens with a narration by Paul Frees giving an overview of two World Wars before mentioning how this new war is one fought with weapons never before seen. We get extended scenes with military leaders discussing plans. We are shown a montage that plays like a documentary being narrated by Cedric Hardwicke of cities being destroyed (which some is historical footage) and people fleeing in terror. There’s one shot I like that looks like London during the blitzkrieg. The War of the Worlds wants to be a science fiction war film and I believe it managed to achieve it.
The War of the Worlds presents a very clear religious slant. It’s sprinkled throughout, but is pretty much the basis for the final act. This is due to producer George Pal. This wasn’t uncommon for Pal with this genre as in one of his prior films, 1951’s When Worlds Collide, Pal presents the end of the world. That film is the Book of Revelation and the Book of Exodus in the same movie as a group of survivors must leave the doomed Earth to find a new paradise.
The other angle of The War of the Worlds is its sense of helplessness and futility. This was due to director Byron Haskin. Haskin was a child survivor of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. So he wanted to portray events from a perspective of things that suddenly happen to people and there’s nothing you can do to stop it until it’s just over. The second act of The War of the Worlds ends with the failure of the atom bomb and it appears humanity is doomed. That is until the martians begin dying due to exposure to earth bacteria that humans have long been immune to. The film closes that humanity was saved by the littlest things that God put upon the earth in his wisdom. Like the earthquake Haskin survived, it went on, until it was suddenly over. This circled back to the religious angle that Pal inserted. This was a good combination as the two ideas play off each other.
Another aspect that is worth noting is that it is another example of America centering itself. We learn that most other nations have been destroyed and their governments displaced. Washington D.C. remains the only unassailed strategy point. The U.S. is the one with the bomb and humanity only appears doomed once America finally failed. It’s a concept I certainly see in the 1950s.
So while The War of the Worlds may not have one specific thing to say, it is bursting with ideas that mesh well due its producer and director having certain perspectives to apply to it. Combine with with its outstanding audio-visual spectacle and you have one of the best films of its genre.