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The War of the Worlds (1953 film)

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Title: The War of the Worlds (1953 film)  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: 26th Academy Awards, Byron Haskin, Daicon III and IV Opening Animations, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Science fiction film
Collection: 1950S Science Fiction Films, 1950S Science Fiction Horror Films, 1953 Films, Alien Invasions in Films, American Disaster Films, American Films, American Science Fiction Films, American Science Fiction Horror Films, English-Language Films, Films Based on the War of the Worlds, Films Directed by Byron Haskin, Films Set in Los Angeles, California, Films Set in the 1950S, Films Shot in Arizona, Films Shot in California, Films That Won the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, Paramount Pictures Films, United States Marine Corps in Popular Culture, United States National Film Registry Films
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

The War of the Worlds (1953 film)

The War of the Worlds
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Byron Haskin
Produced by George Pal
Screenplay by Barré Lyndon
Based on The War of the Worlds 
by H. G. Wells
Starring Gene Barry
Ann Robinson
Narrated by Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Music by Leith Stevens
Cinematography George Barnes
Edited by Everett Douglas
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • August 26, 1953 (1953-08-26)
Running time 85 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2 million
Box office $2,000,000 (US rentals)[2]

The War of the Worlds (also known in promotional material as H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds) is a 1953 Byron Haskin, and starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.

The film is a loose adaptation of the Manta Ray-shaped Martian war machines armed with fearsome heat-ray and "skeleton" beam energy weapons; they slowly begin the route of humanity wherever they move.


  • Plot 1
    • Differences from the Wells novel 1.1
  • Cast 2
  • Production 3
    • Music 3.1
    • Special effects 3.2
  • Release 4
  • Reception 5
  • Cultural relevance 6
  • References 7
    • Citations 7.1
    • Bibliography 7.2
  • External links 8


Following the credits, the film begins with a series of color matte paintings by astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell depicting the planets of our Solar System (all except Venus). A narrator (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) offers a tour of the hostile environment of each world, eventually explaining why the Martians find our lush, green and blue Earth the only world worthy of their scrutiny and coming invasion.

Wells' novel is updated to early 1950s southern California. Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist that had worked on the Manhattan Project, is fishing with colleagues when a large object crash lands near the town of Linda Rosa. At the impact site, he meets Sylvia Van Buren and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins. Van Buren was told that the meteorite came down at a low angle, while Forrester observes it appears far lighter than normal for its massive size. His Geiger counter also detects it is slightly radioactive, but the object is still too hot to examine closely. Unable to account for these anomalies, Forrester is intrigued and decides to wait in town overnight for the object to cool down.

Later that evening, a round hatch on top of the object slowly unscrews and falls away; a pulsating, mechanical, cobra-shaped head piece emerges, supported by the long goose-neck of a Martian war machine. The three men who remained behind at the crash site as night guards approach, waving a white flag, and the cobra-head fires a heat-ray at them, vaporizing them; it also damages a nearby electrical tower, knocking out the power to Linda Rosa. Dr. Forrester notices that his and other people's watches have stopped running, having become magnetized; he then observes the sheriff's compass now points towards the meteorite crash site, away from magnetic north. Forrester and the sheriff go to investigate and are attacked by the Martian heat-ray; both manage to survive and then raise the alarm.

Amid reports that other large meteorite-ships are landing throughout the world, the Marines surround the original landing site. Three large, copper-colored, Manta Ray-shaped war machines rise from their gully and begin to slowly advance. Pastor Collins approaches them, reciting Psalm 23, his Bible held up as a sign of peace and goodwill; the Martians disintegrate him instantly. The large Marine force immediately opens fire with everything in their heavy arsenal, but each Martian machine is protected by an impenetrable force field that resembles, when briefly visible, the glass jar placed over mantle clocks: cylindrical and with a hemispherical top. The Martians then use both their heat and pulsing "skeleton beam" rays to send the military force into full retreat. Military leaders of the Sixth United States Army later gather in Los Angeles to brief reporters and formulate a counterattack defense plan, as well as prepare for an evacuation of major cities in the path of the Martians.

Forrester and Van Buren escape the carnage in a small military spotter plane, but later crash land, barely avoiding colliding with other Martian war machines now on the move. They eventually hide in an abandoned farmhouse, but are trapped inside when another meteorite-ship comes crashing down, half-burying the farmhouse. Later, a Martian electronic eye attached to a long, flexible cable inspects the ruined farmhouse's interior, but fails to notice them, finally leaving the ruins. When a lone Martian explorer later confronts Van Buren, Forrester quickly wounds it with an axe. Forrester saves a sample of Martian blood on Van Buren's scarf after quickly using the axe to sever the thick, long cable of the returned electronic eye; he then grabs up the undamaged camera housing, and they quickly exit. The hovering war machine soon blasts the farmhouse, but Van Buren and Forrester have safely made their escape. They eventually rejoin Forrester's co-workers at Pacific Tech in Los Angeles. From the blood sample and the electronic eye's optics, the scientists make deductions about Martian eyesight and physiology, in particular that the creatures are physically weak and have anemic blood.

U. S. Air Force YB-49 taking off to atom bomb the invading Martians.
In a desperate bid to stop the invaders, a United States Air Force Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing bomber drops an atomic bomb on the three original war machines, but to no effect, due to their protective force fields; the Martians continue to advance and the government orders an immediate evacuation of Los Angeles. The Pacific Tech group must now come up with something, because they estimate the Earth can be conquered in just six days. As they evacuate, widespread panic among the populace scatters the Pacific Tech group; a mob steals their trucks and wrecks their equipment, and in the chaos Forrester and Van Buren are separated.

All seems lost; humanity is helpless against the Martians. Forrester searches for Van Buren in the burning ruins of Los Angeles, now under attack. He remembers something she told him, and he eventually finds her in a church with other refugees, waiting for the end. An approaching war machine suddenly crashes into a building, then another one falls nearby. Forrester soon discovers that the invaders are dying. As in H. G. Wells' novel, the Martians have no biological defenses against the Earth's viruses and bacteria to which humanity has long since become immune. The smallest creatures that "God in His wisdom had put upon this Earth" have saved mankind from extinction.

Differences from the Wells novel

As noted by Caroline Blake,[3] the film is very different from the original novel in its attitude toward religion, as reflected especially in the depiction of clergymen as characters. "The staunchly secularist Wells depicted a cowardly and thoroughly uninspiring Curate, whom the narrator regards with disgust, with which the reader is invited to concur. In the film there is instead the sympathetic and heroic Pastor Collins who dies a martyr's death. And then the film's final scene in the church, strongly emphasizing the Divine nature of Humanity's deliverance, has no parallel in the original book."

Pal's adaptation has many other notable differences from H. G. Wells' novel. The closest resemblance is probably that of the antagonists. The film's aliens are indeed Martians, and invade Earth for the same reasons as those stated in the novel (the state of Mars suggests that it is in the final stages of being able to support life, leading to the Martians decision to make Earth their new home). They land in the same way, by crashing to the Earth. However, the novel's spacecraft are large cylinder-shaped projectiles fired from the Martian surface from some kind of cannon, instead of the film's meteorite-spaceships; but the Martians emerge from their craft in the same way, by unscrewing a large, round hatch. They appear to have no use for humans in the film. In the novel, however, they are observed killing human captives by directly transfusing human blood with

External links

  • Hickman, Gail Morgan. The Films of George Pal. 1977. A. S. Barnes and Company: New York. ISBN 0-498-01960-8
  • Parish, James Robert and Pitts, Michael R. Pitts. The Great Science Fiction Pictures. 1977. McFarland & Company. ISBN 0-8108-1029-8.
  • Strick, Philip. Science Fiction Movies. Octopus Books Limited. 1976. ISBN 0-7064-0470-X.


  1. ^ (X)"THE WAR OF THE WORLDS".  
  2. ^ 'The Top Box Office Hits of 1953', Variety, January 13, 1954
  3. ^ Caroline G. Blake, "Religion in Speculative Fiction", Ch.2, 5
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Rubin, Steve. Cinefantastique magazine, Vol 5 No. 4 (1977), "The War of the Worlds", pgs. 4 - 16; 34 - 47
  5. ^ M. Keith Booker, Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Cinema, page 126 (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010). ISBN 978-0-8108-5570-0
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Warren, Bill. Keep Watching The Skies Vol I: 1950 - 1957, pgs. 151 - 163, McFarland, 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.
  7. ^ Gebert, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards (listing of 'Box Office (Domestic Rentals)' for 1953, taken from Variety magazine), St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1996. ISBN 0-668-05308-9. "Rentals" refers to the distributor/studio's share of the box office gross, which, according to Gebert, is normally roughly half of the money generated by ticket sales.
  8. ^ "The Screen in Review: New Martian Invasion Is Seen in War of the Worlds, Which Bows at Mayfair". New York Times, August 14, 1953. Retrieved 2007-12-29. 
  9. ^ "Brog". Review from Variety dated April 6, 1953, taken from Variety's Complete Science Fiction Reviews, edited by Don Willis, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985. ISBN 0-8240-6263-9
  10. ^ "The 26th Academy Awards (1954) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-20. 
  11. ^ "The War of the Worlds".  
  12. ^ added to National Film Registry"Forrest Gump, and Bambi, Silence of the Lambs". New York Times: Artsbeat. 2011-12-27. Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  13. ^ a b "2011 National Film Registry More Than a Box of Chocolates". Library of Congress. December 28, 2011. Retrieved December 28, 2011. 
  14. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies Nominees
  15. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills Nominees
  16. ^ AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot



  • The 1988 War of the Worlds TV series is a sequel to the Pal film; Robinson reprises her role as Sylvia Van Buren in three episodes.
  • The name "Pacific Tech" ("Pacific Institute of Technology") has since been referenced in other films and television episodes whenever directors/writers/producers needed to depict a science-oriented California university without using a specific institution's name.[6]

Cultural relevance

American Film Institute lists

The War of the Worlds was deemed culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant in 2011 by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.[12] The Registry noted the film's release during the early years of the Cold War and how it used "the apocalyptic paranoia of the atomic age."[13] The Registry also cited the film's special effects, which at its release were called "soul-chilling, hackle-raising, and not for the faint of heart."[13]

The film still receives high acclaim from critics: On the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an 85% rating based on 27 critics; the consensus states: "Though it's dated in spots, The War of the Worlds retains an unnerving power, updating H. G. Wells' classic sci-fi tale to the Cold War era and featuring some of the best special effects of any 1950s film."[11]

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning in the category Special Effects.[10]

The New York Times review 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."[8] "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."[9]


The War of the Worlds had its official Hollywood premiere on February 20, 1953, although it did not go into general theatrical release until the autumn of that year.[4] The film was both a critical and box office success. It accrued $2,000,000 in distributors' domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals, making it the year's biggest science fiction film hit.[7]


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.[6]

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.[6]

The machines also fired a 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.[6]

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".[6]

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.[4] (The model the late Forrest Ackerman had in his massive, now dispersed Los Angeles science fiction collection was a replica made using the Robinson Crusoe on Mars blueprints; it was constructed by friends Paul and Larry Brooks.)

The film won an Oscar for its special effects and was later selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.[6]

Special effects

The composer of the film score, Leith Stevens, also composed two other scores for Pal productions: Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide.[6]


On the Destination Moon, a Woody Woodpecker short is an integral part in the film.

The California city of Corona was used as the shooting location of the fictitious town of Linda Rosa. St. Brendan's Catholic Church, located at 310 South Van Ness Avenue in Los Angeles, was the setting used in the climatic scene where a large group of desperate people gather to pray. The rolling hills and main thoroughfares of El Sereno were also used in the film.[6]

The film opens with a prologue in 3-D process to visually enhance the Martians' attack on Los Angeles. The plan was dropped prior to actual production of the film, presumably being deemed too expensive. World War II stock footage was used to produce a montage of destruction to show the worldwide invasion, with armies of all nations joining together to fight the invaders.[6]

This is the first of two adaptations of Wells' classic science fiction filmed by George Pal; it is considered to be one of the great science fiction films of the 1950s.[5]




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