As promised, this Film Book of Fear is on the 1953 movie, WAR OF THE WORLDS. Though this movie has been re-made into multiple series and a 2005 movie starring Tom Cruise, this is still my favorite version. This is probably one of the most-recognizable of the 50s science fiction movies, especially when it comes to the sound effects used for the martian war machines. I remember watching this film while house sitting once, with someone renting out the basement. I was watching this film and he came upstairs and asked if I was watching WAR OF THE WORLDS because he recognized the sound effects from down in the basement. For this Film Book, I am using the recent Criterion Blu-ray release of this amazing film (see my review HERE).
The story begins with a history of war on planet Earth, complete with stock footage from World War I and World War II leading us into the story of the war of the worlds. After the opening credits we go to a montage, showing the planets in our solar system. Earth has been being watched by inhabitants of the planet Mars. The Martians are envious of our planet, and start devising a plan of attack. Before zeroing in on Earth, the Martians looked at other planets in our solar system, but none offered what they needed to survive.
Back on Earth, a large meteor is seen crashing to the ground. In addition to the locals wanting to see what came down, the fire department is also sent out because of the fires caused when the object hit the ground. When they arrive a large gouge is seen where the meteor hit the ground and skidded into its final resting place. It is glowing red and fires are all around. The fires are extinguished but it is determined that some people should stand by in case more fires start.
Nearby some scientists from Pacific Tech are on vacation fishing. A ranger is sent to talk to them, in case they are interested in the meteor. Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) asks if they were sure it was a meteor as it didn’t come down as one would expect.
The next day, though the meteor has started cooling off, it is still too hot to get very close to. The town is out to see what all of the excitement is about. Everyone thinks it would be a great tourist attraction as it is too big to remove. Dr. Forrester then arrives and meets Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson). We are also introduced to Van Buren’s uncle (Lewis Martin), a pastor. A Giger counter in Forrester’s car shows radioactivity on and around the meteor. They decide to keep people away from it for the time being. Dr. Forrester surmises that the meteor must be hollow because if it was solid, the crater would’ve been much larger.
That evening a square dance is held at the social hall, with everyone in attendance. Meanwhile, at the meteor, three men are staying to guard it to make sure no new fires start. They decide they can leave as it has cooled off enough. Then they notice movement; a circular part of the meteor is unscrewing. What is this? It’s certainly not a meteor. The lid falls to the ground, revealing a red glow from within. Out from this opening comes a scanning device on a long neck. The men figure this object is from Mars, especially since the planet is so close to Earth. They decide that they can become famous by becoming the first people to contact real Martians.
They grab an old sugar sack to act as a white flag to show them that they are friendly. They walk towards the object trying to communicate. In a beautifully shot scene a closeup of the red “eye” of the Martian ship is shown as it scans to the right eventually coming on the three men approaching. The craft then blasts the men with one of their rays, obliterating them.
Back at the square dance, all power goes out to the dismay of the dancers. The entire town has lost power and phone lines. When they check their watches to see what time it is, all watches have also stopped. They have all been magnetized. They use one of the ranger’s compasses and it points to the meteor, instead of pointing north. Fire engines are then heard; the area around the meteor is ablaze.
The officials in town rush to the meteor. When they arrive there are fires everywhere and the power lines have been destroyed. The Martian ship shows itself, and in a panic a police officer gets in his car and tries to escape, only to be met by one of the heat blasts, destroying the car and the officer. Under cover Dr. Forrester and the sheriff see another meteor come down. Word is then sent to the military.
The military is then shown arriving. They set up a defense line and it is revealed that meteors have been landing all over the world. People everywhere are listening to updates on the radio and are anxious to find out what is going on with these Martians and their ships.
A plane flies over and drops a flair to illuminate the ships. In the glow of the flair the plane is shot out of the sky by the Martians. Then they start blasting at everyone in the area. Reinforcements are brought in and a new defense line is set up. It is revealed that the ships are not landing in random spaces and that the Martians seem to have a plan of attack. The cylinders, as the meteors are now called, come down in groups of three, with three ships in each one. Once they start attacking an area it is never heard from again.
At dawn, the gully where the canister is glows green. Everyone is waiting in anticipation. When the movement starts, one Martian craft shows itself in all of its glory. They appear to have three legs of magnetic rays coming out from below them. The pastor questions the military’s refusal to try and communicate. He feels that since they are more advanced than us, then they should be nearer to the Creator. A second ship reveals itself, and then a third. The pastor then walks towards the ships, praying and trying to communicate. He too is killed by the heat blast. At the exact same time the military starts their attack.
The attack comes fast and furious and yet they cannot hit them. A clear dome is shown surrounding each ship, protecting them from the shells. The Martians then start fighting back, showing a new weapon; a green beam that fires from the two sides of the ships. People and equipment are destroyed. It is quickly learned the the military is no match for the firepower of the Martians. The colonel orders everyone to fall back, just as he is heat by one of the green beams, revealing his skeleton before he dies.
The Air Force then tries their hand at attacking the Martian ships, to no avail. Dr. Forrester and Sylvia try to escape in the doctor’s plane. In a great point of view shot from the cockpit of the plane we follow the couple as they are forced to fly nearby two of the Martian ships just before they crash. They survive and hide nearby as the Martians destroy the plane.
A meeting then happens with the military. They talk about how in the last attack, they lost 60% of their men and 90% of their equipment. Because of the protective shield around the war machines, the general feels that their forces are impenetrable.
We go back to Dr. Forrester and Sylvia, who are hiding in a ditch. They then go to a nearby farmhouse that has been abandoned. They make breakfast and they get to know each other better. As they start to calm down, a loud screeching noise is heard from outside. Another canister has landed, crashing right into the farmhouse. In a nice detail shot, a second canister is shown coming down in the background. The farmhouse is destroyed.
Dr. Forrester is unconscious and Sylvia takes care of him until he wakes up. One of the ships is standing right outside of the remains of the farmhouse. An electronic eye is then lowered from the ship into the farmhouse, perhaps looking for survivors. When the eye finds nothing, it leaves. Sylvia then sees something moving outside; one of the Martians. They make their way into what’s left of the attic to try to escape as all areas at ground level are blocked by mounds of soil. From behind, the electronic eye comes in again and Sylvia looks at it straight on. She yells “Look out” and Dr. Forrester knocks it to the floor with an axe, smashing it.
As they try to clear a way to escape, a shadow is seen moving in the background. As we pan back to Sylvia, a long, skinny three-fingered hand touches her shoulder. Dr. Forrester pulls her to him and shines a light on the alien, who then covers its eye. He throws something at it, injuring it as it is seen running from the house screaming. They grab the remains of the electronic eye and find blood on a scarf. The alien bleeds. They manage to escape just before the Martian ship blows up the farmhouse.
As hundreds of more cylinders arrive on earth, chaos ensues throughout the world. Everyone is in panic and all for themselves. Entire cities are flattened. In Washington, one of the only remaining intact cities, the military makes new plans. The use of the atom bomb is approved.
Forrester and Sylvia arrive at Pacific Tech with the electronic eye and the blood. Their blood is revealed to be very primitive, despite being technologically advanced. The electronic eye is tested, showing how the Martians see. The lens has three sections, red, blue and green, but the colors do not combine to form one image in color.
Everyone then prepares for the bomb attack by taking shelter while they wait. The countdown is eerie as there is no other sound to be heard. The bomb is dropped and the explosion is intense. As the smoke starts to clear the ships are shown, untouched. They survived our mightiest weapon. Since we cannot beat their machines, we now have to focus on beating them.
Air raid sirens start and Los Angeles is told to evacuate. Everywhere crowds of people are shown driving, riding bikes or even walking to get away. The scientists at Pacific Tech load up trucks and a school bus with all of their equipment so that they can continue their work. The empty streets feel so lonely and as Forrester drives with his equipment, you feel how truly isolated he is; that is until he reaches the next town.
When he arrives a desperate crowd awaits. They take over every vehicle that manages to come through, showing how selfish humanity can be in times of trouble. They don’t care about each other or the people driving these vehicles. As Forrester arrives he is pulled from the truck and all of the equipment is thrown out, making room for more panicked people. When he tries to reason with them he is punched in the face. He is then left alone in the city, finding the sign from the school bus and an overturned Pacific Tech truck. He searches the city for Sylvia.
As night falls the Martian crafts arrive and start destroying everything. Some military police arrive and offer to take Forrester to safety. He refuses, wanting to find Sylvia. He remembers a story she told earlier where she was found by her uncle hiding in a church. He starts to check all of the churches for her.
At the last church he checks he finds her. The sight inside is sad as everyone is awaiting death. The light of the explosions can be seen through the stained glass windows. As they reunite through the crowd of the church, the explosions go quiet. The war machines are losing power and falling to the ground. Everyone leaves the church and Forrester heads to the closest ship, as a hatch open up. A Martian’s hand is seen moving slowly. When it stops Forrester checks its pulse, saying that it is dead. Church bells are then heard.
Ships are then shown falling out of the sky all over the world. The narrator says, “The Martians had no resistance to bacteria in our atmosphere to which we have long since become immune. Once they had breathed our air, germs which no longer affect us began to kill them. The end came swiftly. All over the world their machines began to stop and fall. After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this earth.”
If you would like to read any other in my Film Book of Fear series, please click HERE.