This is the big sci-fi movie of 1953, and one of the top four or five for which the whole decade is remembered. Filmed in Technicolor, with top actors, and an experienced production crew, this was a "A" film. War of the Worlds (WOTW) set a very high bar for sci-fi movies. Barre Lydon adapted H.G. Wells' 1898 novel rather well for 1950s America. Lydon was not slavishly following the novel. Instead, tweaked the story for "modern" audiences, such as having a female lead (Wells had only the single male "narrator"), and having nukes used against the martians. Other than the modernizing, it's a good adaptation of the classic sci-fi novel.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Meteors (from Mars) land at night, Townsfolk investigate to find a too large "meteor". A scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) joins the townsfolk. A cover unscrews. A cobra-like appendage comes out and fries three people with its heat ray. Panic ensues. The army is called in, but to no avail. The martians widen their pit and launch their fighting machines. Forrester and Sylvia flee in a small plane, but crash near a farmhouse. While in the farmhouse, a new cylinder crashes up against the house. While in the ruins, the two encounter a martian probe and a martian. Forrester cuts the camera end off the probe. They escape to Los Angeles and examine the probe at Forrester's lab. The martians attack LA, so everyone must flee to the hills. In the every-man-for-himself melee, Forrester and Sylvia become separated. He searches for her, finally finding her in a church. Just as doom appears immanent, the martian machines faulter and fall. The martians succumbed to earth's germs.
Why is this movie fun?
The script, directing and cinematography keep the pace brisk. Only a few spots get a little talky. The "swan" ship fighting machines were radical for the early 50s -- in which saucers and rockets were king. Wells' original story is so compelling that it survives Hollywood-izing. To their credit, George Pal's crew did a good job of adapting it. The parallels to the book are fun to spot. The new material isn't just filler, but has some merit on its own.
The disintegrator ray effect had become so commonplace in later sci-fi, that it's easy to think it had always been there. WOTW wasn't the first to show a disintegrator ray. In The Day the Earth Stood Still Gort "benign" eye-beam destroyed weapons (but not people). George Pal's WOTW kicked it into the mainstream with mass destruction via rays.
Cold War Angle
Wells' novel was written in an earlier era's zeitgeist of invasion-scare stories. Even then, his story was more of a shoe-on-the-other-foot look at conquest. In the late 1800s, the British were accustomed to be the invader, conquerer, colonizer. Wells tried to see how it would feel (for Britain) to be on the receiving end. George Pal's WOTW set this same notion into Cold War America. We had great confidence in our military and especially our trump card -- nukes. When all that we trust fails, what do Americans do?
Parallel's to the Book -- There are many parallels to the book. The martians arrive in meteor-like cylinders. Their "lids" unscrew. They have a heat ray. The martian machines move on "legs." (This is easy to miss in Pal's WOTW, but it's there). The martians succeed in overpowering us, but it's germs that stop them, not us. One hallmark scene in both book and film was The Ruined House. There is the same snake-like probe and fear of being discovered.
A important scene in the book, The Thunderchild, was recast rather well. In the book, the British warship "Thunderchild" attacks the martians, but fails. Victorian England put enormous faith in its navy as supreme national savior. Thunderchild's failure was symbolic of England's best hope failing. 50s America put a similar stock in its military and especially its atomic bombs. The cutting-edge of American military might was the YB-49 Flying Wing (even though the program was cancelled in 1951) When the "high-tech" military and the nukes fail, America had no hope of stopping them.
Difference from the Book -- Pal set his adaptation in America since his audience was American. This is similar in spirit to Wells' setting his book in England. The addition of a female lead -- Sylvia -- is a significant deviation, but Hollywood or not, it helped the screenplay use dialogue where the book used internal monologue. A notable deletion was that Pal's martians are never depicted as eating people. Pal's martians were less clearly evil, despite the destruction. The one martian we see was more ET-like than Wells' disgusting tentacled blobs.
Mars Mania -- Wells popularized the notion that there were hostile beings on Mars. Pal's '53 film was not the first sci-fi of the Golden Era to feature hostile martians (e.g. Flying Disc Man from Mars, 1950). In fact, Pal's big budget film took a bit long to produce. Pre-release publicity was acute, so B-film producers were able to crank out some quick movies to capitalize on Pal's Mars buzz. Invaders from Mars and Abbott and Costello Go to Mars are two examples.
A fun little homage to Orson Wells is the radio reporter (Paul Frees) giving his report from the crater as the martians attack.
The Divine Ending -- Wells' text credits God with foresight wisdom in creating bacteria. Wells did not believe in the biblical God (as evidenced in his book "God, the Invisible King"), At best, he allowed there being a sort of inner higher standard, but not an objective creator God. George Pal, however, did believe in the biblical God. He (and Lydon) capitalized on Wells' words and played up the divine role. Towards the end, people huddle and pray in a church. Shortly afterward, the martians fall. Nukes couldn't save the world, but God could. Pal was not shy about allowing God in his films.
Remakes Aplenty -- Overall, Pal's WOTW stands up well over the years. Sure, special effects have gotten fancier, but as a story the '53 movie holds its own. Later remakes have tried to modernize the basic tale for their generations, but beyond having flashier effects, their stories aren't any stronger.
Independence Day ('96) is a loose adaptation. The ID4 alien fighters are similar to Pal's swan ships. The aliens are defeated by a computer virus.
Invasion (2005) is an indie film that was quickly renamed "War of the Worlds" before release since Speilberg was getting so much pre-release publicity about his movie. Latt's version is a recast of Wells' tale, but really doesn't add anything beyond updating Wells' tale from 1898 to 2005. Also released in 2005 was a version by Timothy Hines. His version tried to be completely authentic to the book. In many ways it was. The production quality and weak acting, however, made it a version that only hard-core Wells fans would tolerate.
Spielberg's War of the Worlds (2005) was yet another recast, but one relying heavily on massive special effects. Spielberg's martians ate people and rode in tripod machines. He merged the Perlate and the Man on Putney Hill into the ruined house scene. He also did homage to the '53 film in several little ways, including giving Gene Barry and Ann Robinson a cameo appearance at the end.
Bottom line? Pal's WOTW is another must-see for sci-fi fans. It is, in fact, a must-see for cinema fans as it has such historical importance (given all the later remakes and variations).