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The War of the Worlds

Film poster
Directed by Byron Haskin
Produced by George Pál
Written by Novel:
H. G. Wells
Barré Lyndon
Narrated by Cedric Hardwicke
Starring Gene Barry
Ann Robinson
Music by Leith Stevens
Cinematography George Barnes
Editing by Everett Douglas
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) August 26, 1953
Running time 85 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $2,000,000 US (est.)
Followed by War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds is a 1953 science fiction film starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. It was the first on screen depiction of the H. G. Wells classic novel of the same name. Produced by George Pál and directed by Byron Haskin from a script by Barré Lyndon, it was the first of several adaptations of Wells' work to be filmed by Pál, and is considered to be one of the great science fiction films of the 1950s. It won an Oscar for its special effects.



The story is updated to the 1950s for this film, and the setting is moved from the environs of London to southern California. Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a world renowned physicist, is on a fishing vacation in Pine Summit when a giant meteorite lands in the hills above the nearby town of Linda Rosa. Along with the residents, he goes to investigate. At the impact site, he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin). Finding the meteorite too hot to examine closely, he decides to wait in town for the meteorite to cool down.

Later, after most of the people have gone home, the meteorite (actually a Martian spacecraft) unscrews and disgorges a machine. When the three men who remained behind approach in friendly greeting, it kills them without warning. Forrester and the sheriff are also attacked when they return, but survive. Amid reports of numerous other meteors landing throughout the world, a regiment of United States Marines arrives and surrounds the Martian ship. Three Martian war machines deploy. Pastor Collins approaches one of them in peace, but they kill him with their Heat-Ray without attempting to communicate. The Marines attack, but the Martians are protected by an impenetrable force field. The invaders use their Heat-Ray and disintegrator rays to vaporize most of the defenders and move out.

Forrester and Sylvia flee, along with the rest of the civilians. After their plane crashes, they take shelter in a nearby abandoned farmhouse. They are trapped in the basement when another meteorite crashes into the house. The couple comes in contact with a Martian when the creature leaves its machine to look around. They manage to fight it off.

The couple reach Los Angeles, eventually rejoining Forrester's co-workers, who are trying to find a way to defeat the aliens. With a sample of Martian blood and an electronic eye obtained from the farmhouse encounter, the scientists learn a good deal about Martian physiology; in particular, they learn that they are physically weak creatures.

They then leave to observe a United States Air Force YB-49 drop an atomic bomb on the Martians advancing on Los Angeles. When this fails to destroy the machines, the government initiates large-scale evacuations of cities in danger. Refugees head for shelters set up in the Rocky Mountains. However, widespread panic among the general populace scatters the research group and their equipment is wrecked. In the confusion, Forrester and Sylvia become separated.

All seems lost, with humanity helpless before the onslaught. Forrester frantically searches for Sylvia in the burning ruins of a Los Angeles under attack. He finally finds her with others awaiting the end in a church. Suddenly, they see an approaching Martian war machine crash. Upon investigating, Forrester realizes that the seemingly all-powerful invaders are dying. As in the book, they have no biological defense against Earth's viruses and bacteria.


* Not credited on-screen.


The film opens with a prologue in black and white and switches to Technicolor at the opening title sequence.

George Pál originally planned for the final third of the film to be in 3-D to correlate with the final attack by the Martians. The plan was dropped prior to actual production of the film, presumably being deemed too expensive.[1]

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.

Wells had used the second half of his novel to make a satirical commentary on civilization and the class struggle. Lyndon did not write the satire into the movie, though he did add a religious theme (in contrast to Wells original novel), to the point that the Martians begin dying shortly after blasting a church.

The city of Corona was used as the shooting location for the town of "Linda Rosa".

Adapting the novel

George Pal's film apadtation has many 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 from the novel (the state of the planet suggests that Mars is close to it's end, leading to the aliens' decision to make Earth their new home). The Martians land on Earth the same, crashing to the Earth. However, the book's ships are cylinder-shaped instead of the film's meteors, but the Martians emerge from these objects in the same way, from an unscewing "lid".

The Martians themselves bear no physical resemblance to the novel's Martians to speak of. The novel's aliens were bear sized, bulkish creatures whose bodies were "merely heads", with beak-like mouths, sixteen tentacles and two "luminous, disk-like eyes". Their film counterparts are short, reddish-brown creatures with two long arms with three suction cup-like fingers and a single eye with three lenses. The Martians' legs can never be seen. Some designs for the creature suggest the idea of three legs resembling their fingers, though it seems more likely that they have two legs.

The Martian machines do actually have more of a resemblance than they may seem. The book's machines are Tripods and carry the Heat-Ray above them. The film's machines are deliberatley shaped like swans, with a green window at the front, through which the aliens watch. On top of the machine is the cobra-like Heat-Ray. They can be mistaken for Flying-machines, but Dr. Forrester states that they are lifted by "invisible legs", and one scene shows outlines of three legs, so the machines are indeed Tripods, though this is never stated. Whereas the novel's machines had no heavy protection against human weaponry, the film's machines have a kind of force field surrounding them. This invisible shield is described as a "protective blister".

The Martian weaponry is also partially unchanged. The Heat-Ray has the very same effect as that of the novel, and is only physically different. The novel's Heat-Ray was a disk held by an arm connected to the machine and it fires the Ray when it reaches a certain temperature. The film's Ray is shaped like a cobra. The book describes another weapon, the Black smoke, which releases rockets of a black powder that seems to have the same effect as the Mustard gas of the First World War. This weapon is replaced in the film by the "skeleton beam", which releases green beams of light from the sides of the machine. Doctor Clayton Forrester explained how these skelton beams worked as such:

It neutralizes mesons somehow. They're the atomic glue holding matter together. Cut across their lines of magnetic force and any object will simply cease to exist.

The plot of the film is very different to that of the novel. Whereas the novel tells the story of a 19th century journalist who journeys through Victorian London to be reunited with his wife as the Martians attack, this story's protagonist is a Californian scientist who falls in love with a College student. However, certain points of the plot are similar to the novel, from the crash-landing of Martian ships, up to their defeat by bacteria. Doctor Forrester does however go through some of which befalls the book's narrator, such as the ordeal in the destroyed house. This film is given more of a war-time feel to prey upon America's Cold War fears.

Special effects

A conscious effort was made to avoid the "flying saucer" look of stereotypical UFOs. The Martian war machines were instead sleek, sinister-looking constructs shaped like manta rays floating over the ground. Three Martian war machines were made for the film, out of copper. One was modified for use in the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (which Byron Haskin also directed) and was supposedly later melted down for a copper drive. Forrest Ackerman claimed to have owned one. It is believed that the third was destroyed in a fire.

Each machine was topped with an articulated metal arm, culminating in a cobra-like head, housing a single electronic "eye" that operated both like a periscope and a weapon. The electronic eye housed the martian "heat ray", pulsing, peering around and firing beams of red sparks, all accompanied by thrumming and a high-pitched clattering shriek when the ray was fired. The distinctive sound effect of the weapon was created by the orchestra performing the musical 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 sci-fi anthology series The Outer Limits, particularly the episode "The Children of Spider County".

The machines also fired a green ray (referred to as a "skeleton beam") from their wingtips, generating a distinctive sound and exposing the interior of its target (in the case of humans, their skeletons became briefly visible) before disintegrating it. This latter weapon seems to have been substituted for the chemical weapon black smoke described in the novel. The 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 made by the machines is a chattering, synthesized echo, perhaps representing some kind of alien sonar, that has best been described as the sound of electronic rattlesnakes.

Much effort was put forth to recreate the tripods of the novel; but they proved problematic for various reasons and it was eventually decided to make the machines float on three invisible, electronic legs instead. To show their existence, rays were to be shown directly under the hovering Martian war machines as they move along – however, in the final film, these only appear when the military and Dr Forrester first see one of the machines. It proved too difficult to mark out the invisible legs when smoke and other effects also had to be seen beneath the machines. In several scenes, however, the invisible leg beams create fires on the ground at their three tripod points of ground contact.

The machines could also deploy a probe that extended from the belly of the craft on a long cable, tipped with another electronic eye.


The War of the Worlds had its official premiere in Hollywood on February 20, 1953, although it did not go into general theatrical release until the fall of that year.[2] The film was both a critical and box office success. It accrued US$ 2,000,000 in distributors' domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals, making it the year's biggest science fiction film hit.[3]

The New York Times review noted the film was "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 Barre Lyndon, has made this excursion suspenseful, fast and, on occasion, properly chilling"[4]. "Brog" in Variety felt it was "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 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 sock entertainment of hackle-raising quality"[5].

Cultural relevance

  • The 1988 War of the Worlds TV series is essentially a sequel to this film, and employs several elements from the film, including having Ann Robinson reprise her role as Sylvia Van Buren in three episodes. Robinson also quasi-reprised her role in two later films, first as Dr. Van Buren in 1988's Midnight Movie Massacre and as Dr. Sylvia Van Buren in 2005's The Naked Monster.
  • In The Iron Giant (1999 animated film), the giant robot, when transformed into weapons mode, sprouts 3 snake-like "heads" that are clearly modeled on the articulated "eye" periscopes of the martian machines in the 1953 "War of the Worlds", and the robots arrival on a meteor-like spacecraft (though a common device in '50s science fiction) is also similar.
  • In Independence Day (1996), the aliens (not from Mars) are defeated in part by infecting the mothership with a computer virus. There are also several other references to the 1953 film, such as the failed attempt to use an atomic bomb by a flying wing, but this time the bomb is dropped by a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber; a downed streetlight twisted into the shape of the gooseneck of the original war machines; and Captain Hiller being based in El Toro, which Dr. Forrester mentions as the home of the Marines who make the first assault on the Martian war machines. Director Roland Emmerich added a scene in which three helicopters are destroyed while attempting to communicate with a city destroyer.
  • Tim Burton's 1996 Mars Attacks! was a more humorous treatment, loosely based upon the original story, but more directly adapted from Topps' famous 1962 trading card series. The film primarily spoofs 1950s alien invasion films, including The War of the Worlds. In this version, the Martians are repelled not by germs, but by Slim Whitman's yodeling, which causes their heads to explode.
  • Steven Spielberg's 2005 adaptation, though technically not a remake, does feature several references and homages to the original film. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson had cameo appearances, and the aliens kept their three-fingered hands, though they became reptile-like tripods. There was also a snake-like alien probe that inspected the interior of a farmhouse in much the same manner as the 1953 version (which was, itself, similar to an event in the original book).
  • The Asylum's 2005 film adaptation, H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds has just one notable reference. Inside the Martian mouth (from which they spit acid), three tongues resembling the Martian fingers from George Pal's film can be seen.
  • The name "Pacific Tech" ("Pacific Institute of Technology") has been referenced in other films and television where directors/writers/producers wanted to depict a science-oriented university without using a real institution's name, including Galactica 1980 and Real Genius.
  • On the Commentary track of Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, on the Special Collector's Edition, they point out that the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker is seen in the tree top, center screen, when the first Martian meteor crashes through the sky at the beginning of the film. Woody's creator Walter Lantz and George Pál were supposedly close friends and George tried to include the character out of friendship and good luck, in many of his productions.


  1. ^ Warren, Bill. Keep Watching The Skies Vol I: 1950 - 1957, pgs. 151 - 163, McFarland, 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.
  2. ^ Rubin, Steve. Cinefantastique magazine, Vol 5 No. 4 (1977), "The War of the Worlds", pgs. 4 - 16; 34 - 47
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ "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.  
  5. ^ "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

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

For other uses, see The War of the Worlds (disambiguation).

The War of the Worlds is a 1953 science-fiction film based on the H. G. Wells novel of the same name.


[Three local men approach the Martian spaceship, only to be distintegrated after offering greetings.]
Wash Perry: Hey! Open up!
Ogilvy: Come on out! We're friends.
Salvatore: That's right. We're friends. We welcome you. We're friends, yeah?

Sheriff Bogany: What is that gizmo?
Forrester: I think that gizmo is a machine from another planet.
Bogany: Better get word to the authorities. Look!
[They see the second cylinder fall.]
Forrester: Sheriff, you better get word to the military. You're gonna need them out here.

[Col. Heffner's last words before being disintegrated.]
Col. Heffner: Dr. Forrester, get out of here! Everybody out of here! Everybody out—

Gen. Mann: They'll probably move at dawn.

General Mann: According to intelligence from other nations, they're working toward some kind of plan. Now, what it may be isn't clear yet, simply because once they begin to move, no more news comes out of that area.

Sylvia: They seem to murder anything that moves.
Forrester: If they're mortal, they must have mortal weaknesses. They will be stopped, somehow.

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