The War of the Worlds (1953 )

Cinematography George Barnes
Directed by Byron Haskin


In southern California, Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist who had worked on the Manhattan Project, is fishing with colleagues when a large object crashes near the town of Linda Rosa. At the impact site, he meets Sylvia Van Buren and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins. Later that day, the “cylinder” opens and the inhabitants of the ship kill a welcoming party, simultaneously shutting down all technology in the town with an electromagnetic pulse. The United States military surround the crash site in battle formation as reports pour in of identical objects landing all over the world and destroying cities. Collins attempts to make peace with the Martians before being killed himself. The Martian war machines effortlessly defeat the military with a “Heat-Ray“.


Attempting to escape, Forrester and Sylvia hide in an abandoned farm house. They begin to develop romantic feelings for each other before the house is buried by yet another cylinder. They encounter and dismember an “electronic eye” from the Martian machine, and collect a blood sample from a Martian wounded by Forrester to protect Sylvia. They manage to sneak away from the aliens without being seen. Many of the major capitols of the world are destroyed in the attacks and the United States government makes the decision to use nuclear weapons against the invaders. Forrester brings the Martian camera and blood samples to his team at Pacific Tech, with hope they can study the technology. An attempt to destroy a camp of Martians by nuclear strike fails due to the integrity of their shields, but Forrester remains hopeful they can fight the Martians by studying the blood samples and finding a biological weakness.


As the Martians advance on Los Angeles, with nothing left to fight them, the city is evacuated and many of the inhabitants are forced to live in the wilderness. Forrester, Sylvia and the Pacific Tech team are split apart by looters and their scientific equipment is stolen or destroyed. Forrester searches for Sylvia in the city while the Martians cause widespread destruction. Based on a story she had told him earlier, he deduces that she would be hiding in a church. After searching through a couple of churches, he finds Sylvia in the third among many praying survivors. Just as the Martians strike the church, their machines suddenly crash. Forrester finds the pilot of one such machine dead, and notes that they were “all praying for a miracle“. It is revealed that while the Martians were impervious to humanity’s weapons, they had no immunity to Earthly bacteria, and began to die from common illness all over the world.


Special effects

The War of the Worlds won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and was later selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress An effort was made to avoid the stereotypical flying saucer look of UFOs: The Martian war machines (designed by Al Nozaki) were instead made to be sinister-looking machines shaped like manta rays floating above the ground. Three Martian war machine props were made out of copper for the film. The same blueprints were used a decade later to construct the alien spacecraft in the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars, also directed by Byron Haskin; that film prop was later reported melted down as part of a scrap copper recycling drive.(The model the late Forrest Ackerman had in his massive, now dispersed Los Angeles science fiction collection was a replica made using theRobinson Crusoe on Mars blueprints; it was constructed by friends Paul and Larry Brooks.)

Each Martian machine was topped with an articulated metal neck/arm, culminating in the cobra-like head, housing a single electronic eye that operated both like a periscope and as a weapon. The electronic eye also housed the Martian heat ray, which pulsed and fired red sparking beams, all accompanied by thrumming and a high-pitched clattering shriek when the ray was used. The distinctive sound effect of the weapon was created by an orchestra performing a written score, mainly through the use of violins and cellos. For many years, it was utilized as a standard ray-gun sound on children’s television shows and the science-fiction anthology series The Outer Limits, particularly in the episode “The Children of Spider County“.


The machines also fired a pulsing green ray (referred to as a skeleton beam) from their wingtips, generating a distinctive sound, also disintegrating their targets, notably people; this second weapon is a replacement for the chemical weapon black smoke described in Wells’ novel. This weapon’s sound effect (created by striking a high tension cable with a hammer) was reused in Star Trek: The Original Series, accompanying the launch of photon torpedos. Another prominent sound effect was a chattering, synthesized echo, perhaps representing some kind of Martian sonar; it can be described as sounding like hissing electronic rattlesnakes.

When the large Marine force opens fire on the Martians with everything in its heavy arsenal, each Martian machine is protected by an impenetrable force field that resembles, when briefly visible between explosions, the clear jar placed over a mantle clock; cylindrical and with a hemispherical top. This effect was accomplished by the use of simple matte paintings on clear glass, which were then photographed and combined with other effects, then optically printed together during post-production.


The disintegration effect took 144 separate matte paintings to create. The sound effects of the war machines’ heat rays firing were created by mixing the sound of three electric guitars being recorded backwards. The Martian’s scream in the farmhouse ruins was created by mixing the sound of a microphone scraping along dry ice being combined with a woman’s recorded scream and then reverse-played for the sound effect mix.

There were many problems trying to create the walking tripods of Wells’ novel. It was eventually decided to make the Martian machines appear to float in the air on three invisible legs. To show their existence, subtle special effects downward lights were to be added directly under the moving war machines; however, in the final film, these only appear when one of the first machines can be seen rising from the Martian’s landing site. It proved too difficult to mark out the invisible legs when smoke and other effects had to be seen beneath the machines, and the effect used to create them also created a major fire hazard. In all of the subsequent scenes, however, the three invisible leg beams create small, sparking fires where they touch the ground


Critical reaction

The New York Times review of The War of the Worlds by Armond White, noted, “[The film is] an imaginatively conceived, professionally turned adventure, which makes excellent use of Technicolor, special effects by a crew of experts, and impressively drawn backgrounds … Director Byron Haskin, working from a tight script by Barré Lyndon, has made this excursion suspenseful, fast and, on occasion, properly chilling.””Brog” in Variety felt, “[It is] a socko science-fiction feature, as fearsome as a film as was the Orson Welles 1938 radio interpretation…what starring honors there are go strictly to the special effects, which create an atmosphere of soul-chilling apprehension so effectively [that] audiences will actually take alarm at the danger posed in the picture. It can’t be recommended for the weak-hearted, but to the many who delight in an occasional good scare, it’s socko entertainment of hackle-raising quality.”

The War of the Worlds won an Academy Award for Special Effects (it was the sole nominee that year), while Everett Douglas and Loren L. Ryder were nominated for Film Editing and Sound Recordingrespectively.


the little men in lime green machines

15 April 2004 | by didi-5 (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

HG Wells’ futuristic novel responds well to the Technicolor splashed on it in this 50s B classic. Gene Barry over emotes in the lead now and then but the martian invasion is handled very well and the tension rises to the final scenes where the surviving populace huddle in the church as the buildings crash and burn around them.

‘War of the Worlds’ deserves its place as both a highly regarded novel and a well-remembered movie. Byron Haskin and George Pal did a great job in visualising the apocalyptic bits of Wells’ text, while still making the end result enjoyable and interesting for the viewer.

Recommended for fans of intellectualised science fiction.


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