The War of the Worlds: Sky on Fire

<em>The War of the Worlds: </em>Sky on Fire

As The War of the Worlds is essentially a cautionary tale, each generation gets its own adaptation of H. G. Wells’s classic account of extraterrestrial invasion—one of the several seminal science-fiction novels, also including The Time Machine (1895) and The First Men in the Moon (1901), written by the prolific British author.

A superior Martian civilization seeks to leave its dying planet and transplant itself to Earth, visualized as rural England. Originally published in serial form in 1897, Wells’s durable fiction is at once a prophecy of modern carnage and technological havoc and an example of psychological blowback, projecting colonial brutality on the imperial metropolis. In this “scientific romance,” the British Empire gets its comeuppance, as the Martians proceed to lay waste to London and its surroundings. The novel’s narrator survives the onslaught to invoke the extermination of the Tasmanians, reminding the reader that, before judging the alien would-be conquerors, “we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought.”

Orson Welles took another tack. Broadcast for Halloween 1938, less than a year before Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Welles’s radio drama, which took the form of a mock news report, played on prewar jitters and triggered a mass hysteria that, though it has been exaggerated, made Welles’s reputation. But realism was less a factor than sensation in the film version that came fifteen years later. Following Destination Moon (1950) and When Worlds Collide (1951) to complete producer George Pal’s trilogy of Cold War F/X-travaganzas, and acutely aware of its own historical context, this War of the Worlds begins by conjuring black-and-white memories of World Wars I and II, then switches to strident Technicolor for post­atomic extraterrestrial combat.

Closer to Welles than Wells, the 2005 Steven Spielberg War of the Worlds allegorizes the events of 9/11, complete with Tom Cruise’s mutation from callow, hotshot rapscallion to responsible mensch—a George W. Bush–like transformation played against such evocative imagery as pictures of the “missing,” the Manhattan skyline, and bewildered, dust-coated survivors. (Imagining something like nature’s revenge, the 2020 Epix mini­series has eerie intimations of a pandemic, which was, after all, how Earth prevailed over Wells’s Martians.)

The 2005 War was, Spielberg maintained, “as ultrarealistic as I’ve ever attempted to make a movie, in terms of its documentary style.” Be that as it may, he grew up on the 1953 The War of the Worlds, made by two veteran showmen and inveterate tinkerers, Pal (1908–80) and director Byron Haskin (1899–1984).

“George Pal’s most expensive film up to that point, War was made during the highest anxiety of the Cold War. Armageddon was much on America’s mind.”

Remarkably, the Pal-Haskin War was the first movie based on the novel, and remains its most influential visualization. Paramount secured the rights in 1926, perhaps as a project for Cecil B. DeMille. Four years later, the studio’s head of production, Jesse Lasky, proposed it to Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, then improbably under contract. One of Eisenstein’s comrades, the English filmmaker Ivor Montagu, also in Hollywood, thought the idea promising—although, as he wrote to Wells, the story needed to be transposed to the United States: “What fun to drop the Martians down in the middle of America . . . and show all their blooming Navy and the Daughters of the American Revolution getting blast!” This left-wing, anti-American War came to naught. (A few years later, Wells signed a contract with Gaumont for a sound version based on Montagu’s scenario. That fizzled, too, when Paramount asserted its rights—waiting some fifteen years to reactivate the project for Pal.)

Pal’s most expensive film up to that point, War was made during the highest anxiety of the Cold War. Armageddon was much on America’s mind. In mid-January 1952, as shooting was underway, the Federal Civil Defense Administration kicked off the Alert America Convoy, a film tour that would crisscross the country with a series of shorts promoting preparedness for atomic war.

All year Hollywood germinated fantasies of the nation under attack. The first to arrive was Albert Zugsmith’s independently produced cheapster Invasion U.S.A., in which six citizens learn that an unnamed enemy has invaded Alaska and is bombing California. Flying saucers were a thing as well: In William Cameron Menzies’s richly paranoid Invaders from Mars, the first science-fiction film in general release to present aliens and their ships in color, a terrified child realizes that space creatures have arrived and are abducting humans, including his parents. Released in the U.S. not long after Invaders from Mars and several weeks ahead of The War of the Worlds, Jack Arnold’s 3D It Came from Outer Space provides a cosmic sense of our home planet. The aliens who crash-land in the great southwestern desert have no particular interest in Earth—they simply want to repair their craft and move on.

In some ways, The War of the Worlds—which opened in the summer of 1953, a moment of relative calm following the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower and the death of Joseph Stalin—synthesizes all three flicks. Like Invasion U.S.A. (but with far greater skill), it is a vision of apocalyptic destruction. As much as Invaders from Mars, it is a space-age horror film predicated on art design and spectacle, and, although more nationalist than It Came from Outer Space, it, too, has a planetary perspective.


The War of the Worlds—which, like Destination Moon and When Worlds Collide, won the Oscar for special effects—marked the apex of George Pal’s Hollywood career. But before World War II, Pal had been regarded as Europe’s answer to Walt Disney, at one point operating the largest animation studio outside the U.S.

Born into a theatrical family, György Pál Marczincsák broke into the Hungarian movie industry as a designer and self-taught animator. In the early 1930s, he relocated to Berlin, where he pioneered the use of model animation at Ufa studios and then went independent. With its Busby Berkeley–like deployment of dancing cigarettes, his advertisement Midnight (1932) became something of a minor classic.

Pal left Berlin for Prague after the Nazi seizure of power, moved on to Paris, and, largely employed by the Philips Radio company, established himself in the Netherlands, making puppet-animation ads and adaptations from The Thousand and One Nights. In 1936, Sight & Sound praised his “steady contribution to the cinema.” In 1939, he was recruited by Hollywood, where his small studio, affiliated with Paramount, became devoted to three-dimensional animations.

During the 1940s, Pal produced over forty “Puppetoons.” The most notable, Tulips Shall Grow (1942), allegorizes Nazi brutality and shows the decimation of a peaceful countryside that presages The War of the Worlds. Although Pal made two Puppetoons based on Dr. Seuss stories, the best-remembered were also the most problematic, featuring an African American boy named Jasper. In 1949, Pal produced his first feature, The Great Rupert, directed by Irving Pichel and starring Jimmy Durante, along with the eponymous animated rodent.

The credulous had difficulty believing that Rupert, who despite his limited screen time is responsible for the film’s several miracles, was not an actual trained squirrel. Indeed, Pal’s follow-up feature, Destination Moon, was celebrated for its vérité. Life magazine’s production story absurdly reported that “important scientific visitors” came to the set, to poke around “the painted craters just to get an idea of what a trip to the moon might really be like.” But Destination Moon had more to do with geopolitical reality than with extraterrestrial speculation.

In Destination Moon, the need for the space mission—to establish a lunar military base—is provided by an unnamed hostile foreign power; in When Worlds Collide, it is supplied by a hostile foreign planet. When Worlds Collide concerns a runaway planet heading straight for Earth. As our world is devastated by earthquakes, volcanoes, and tidal waves (in the most famous effect, Times Square is submerged), a handful of white Americans escape to build a new civilization on the satellite planet Zyra. As in Destination Moon, the rocket is privately financed. In The War of the Worlds, however, the army rules—or tries to.

The movie begins with Sir Cedric Hardwicke reading the first words, slightly updated, from the Wells novel: “No one would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s . . .” The action is transposed from England to Southern California, allowing for the climactic destruction of Los Angeles, something that had particular resonance for Haskin, a child survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

A technologically savvy Hollywood all-rounder (rated “Lightly Likable” in Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema), Haskin had briefly studied commercial art at the University of California, Berkeley, before getting a job as a newspaper cartoonist, then as a newsreel cameraman; he went on to direct several silent features for Warner Brothers, and later headed the studio’s special-effects department, for which he invented a superior form of rear-screen projection that got him a special Oscar in 1939. Returning to direction, Haskin made a number of workmanlike genre films (noirs and westerns) for Paramount and Disney in the late 1940s and 1950s before the former studio packaged him with Pal on The War of the Worlds.

Gene Barry, cast as a nuclear scientist in his first movie, The Atomic City (1952), plays another here—bespectacled but folksy, capable of fly-fishing and folk dancing, not to mention piloting a plane, battling Martians, and romancing a local librarian (Ann Robinson). The principals were strictly B-list at best (Robinson and especially Barry both soon found steadier work on TV). The tepid love story notwithstanding, the stars are the Martians who saucer down in the California country—or rather, the stars are their armored devices, with their spindly supports and snaky probes, all miniatures designed by Pal and his team. Following Wells, Haskin withholds the Martians for most of the movie. The scene in which the aliens investigate the mountain cabin where Barry’s and Robinson’s characters are holed up is a vivid example of visceral surveillance, restaged by Spielberg in his remake.

Pal upped the religious angle in When Worlds Collide (which opens with a biblical quote) and does the same here, adding a Christian dimension to Wells’s anticlerical story. It’s a minister, rather than the usual scientist, who insists on communicating with the aliens. “If they’re more advanced than us, they should be nearer the Creator for that reason,” he declares moments before the Martians’ vaporizing heat ray sends him to meet his maker. The leads take refuge in a church—praying for “the miracle of thy divine intervention”—and there’s a closing nod to the then unnamed theory of intelligent design. (Wells’s use of the term “natural selection” is dropped.)

America is mobilized and combat-ready. A newsreel of worldwide destruction is followed by the assertion that Washington, D.C., is “the only unassailed strategic point,” the center of international resistance. Still, if the Americans have the bomb, the Martians have an invisible shield akin to the protective Gardol promised by the toothpaste ads of the day. Their implacable attack causes mass evacuations, looting, and panic until (spoiler alert) it doesn’t. Haskin maintained that he tried to recreate the “unreality” he remembered from the San Francisco earthquake: “I wanted to stress the total helplessness of humanity.”

The War of the Worlds is pure spectacle—hot comic-book chiaroscuro, flaming skies out of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

The War of the Worlds does that and more. “If Russia and the United States had started hostilities, you could have substituted the Russian invasion and have had a hell of a war film,” Haskin noted. Still, seen today, The War of the Worlds is less redolent of nuclear anxiety or anti-Communist paranoia than it is an expression of triumphalist pop art. Indeed, the first third of the movie is close to Tim Burton’s underappreciated 1996 version of Mars Attacks! (based not on Wells but on a series of bubblegum cards), which all but quotes the scene in which a gaggle of mercenary rubes imagines the spacecraft crater as a tourist site: “It’s gonna be like having a gold mine in our own backyard!”

Mainly, The War of the Worlds is pure spectacle—hot comic-book chiaroscuro, flaming skies out of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The Martians’ streamlined Danish-modern hovercrafts are like a prediction of the 1964 New York World’s Fair; elegant and graceful, they float through the streets of downtown LA, reducing the civic center to the rainbow-colored rubble touted by the city’s own Herald-Express, which headlined its review of the film: “See Los Angeles Crumble Before Your Very Eyes!” The multihued mushroom cloud of a (failed) tactical nuke anticipates the Joshua Light Show. At one point, Pal considered presenting the atomic blast and all scenes following it in 3D. The studio nixed that effect, but The War of the Worlds was released in select theaters in an early stereophonic format known as Panaphonic sound, which involved the use of additional speakers to enhance specific scenes.

While The War of the Worlds had better box office than Destination Moon or When Worlds Collide, it finished far from the year’s top-grossing films, taking in only slightly more money than Pickup on South Street. Critics appreciated it. The New York Times called the movie “hokum of a high order.” The Los Angeles Times deemed it “the finest of science-fiction thrillers,” and the Washington Post reviewer declared that “The War of the Worlds is, for my money, the King Kong of its day,” adding, “Adults searching for the Fountain of Youth need look no further.”

In fact, kids loved The War of the Worlds—not so much a warning of World War III as an entertaining alternative. It provided a template for numerous drive-in movies. As a Phoenix schoolboy, Steven Spielberg used to project the 8 mm version in the family den, charging a quarter admission and selling popcorn too.

Haskin went on to direct two subsequent Pal productions—The Naked Jungle (1954), in which Charlton Heston battles an army of voracious ants, and Conquest of Space (1955), a sort of Technicolor sequel to Destination Moon, with Mars as its target—as well as two other sci-fi spectaculars, From the Earth to the Moon (1958) and Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and several outstanding episodes of the TV show The Outer Limits.

Pal, meanwhile, became his own director with Tom Thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). In 1968, Pal and Haskin reunited to make The Power, a film maudit that in its bizarre trippiness is as redolent of its era as their first collaboration was of its time. Nevertheless, neither man, whether working together or separately, ever again achieved the cheesy magnificence or mass-destruction pop poetry that is The War of the Worlds.