Paramount bought the rights to the novel The War of the Worlds from author H. G. Wells in 1925 at the request of Cecil B. DeMille, who was by then one of silent-era Hollywood’s most successful directors. DeMille originally planned to make the film himself but ultimately abandoned the project.
In the years to follow, several other highly regarded filmmakers, including Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock, became interested in adapting the novel for the screen.
Ray Harryhausen also wanted to make The War of the Worlds and created concept sketches and a 16 mm stop-motion-animation test reel several years before producer George Pal undertook to make his 1953 version. (Harryhausen’s first commercial animation job was on Pal’s “Puppetoons.”)
When Pal decided to make the film in the fifties, he found that Paramount had licensed only the silent film rights. By this time, Wells had died, so Pal went to his estate, at the time run by the writer’s sons, to secure the rights for a sound version.
Pal originally wanted DeMille to be the film’s narrator, but DeMille felt the job should go to someone English, given that the source material was written by the Londoner Wells. The prolific British character actor Cedric Hardwicke was ultimately cast.
Pal’s chosen director, Byron Haskin, had worked as a cinematographer and director in the silent era before a lengthy and award-winning career in special effects. After The War of the Worlds, Haskin went on to collaborate with Pal on three other films, and to coproduce the original Star Trek TV pilot.
The movie’s soundtrack is monaural, but on its release select theaters showed the film with “Panaphonic” sound, an early attempt at stereo. The Panaphonic system essentially doubled the mono track through the addition of extra speakers.
For The War of the Worlds, stuntman Harvey Parry—who had by that time doubled for James Cagney, John Wayne, and even Shirley Temple, among many others—performed a scene where he was fully engulfed in flames, an early example of this pyrotechnics stunt.
In 1989, Saturday Night Live aired a Brooklyn-set spoof called “Da War of da Woilds,” featuring Phil Hartman as the president, Dana Carvey as Einstein, and guest host Tony Danza as “Rudy,” who warns that Martians have landed.
Orangey the movie cat—an animal performer who made many on-screen appearances throughout the fifties and sixties, including in films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s—appears to survive the destruction of Los Angeles near the end of the film.