Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tonight's Movie: The War of the Worlds (1953)

I've always felt irrational fear watching most old sci-fi films, no matter how hokey they look to the modern viewer. I'm not quite certain why these particular movies evoke such a strong reaction, but I suspect it may have to do with years of nightmares caused by a scene in THE BLOB (1958)! In any event, I decided now was the time to stretch myself a little and try out watching THE WAR OF THE WORLDS.

The film drew my interest for a few reasons, starting with its Technicolor filming of Los Angeles of the early '50s. I was also intrigued as I've seen a number of films this year which were written by TWOTW screenwriter Barre Lyndon. A short piece by Jacqueline at Another Old Movie Blog also caught my attention. Finally, the Welles radio broadcast -- played on LP -- was a staple of late-night slumber party entertainment when I was growing up in the '70s, so I was curious how the story translated to film.

This 1953 film version transfers the main action to Southern California, where scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) meets Sylvia (Ann Robinson), a pretty library instructor from USC, just as Martians are invading the world. The military, led by Maj. Gen. Mann (Les Tremayne), proves to be no match for the invaders, while Dr. Forrester and his colleagues try to come up with scientific solutions. But time is running out...

I enjoyed the film, although I can't say it was a relaxing experience; even without my predisposition to be nervous during sci-fi films, if one is willing to buy into the story, this is a nerve-wracking experience. The Oscar-winning special effects still impress and spook today, nearly six decades later.

I especially enjoyed the film's vivid Technicolor, particularly the aforementioned scenes shot in Los Angeles. (The cinematographer was George Barnes.) The superbly designed opening credits also make great use of Technicolor.

I'm not sure I'd seen Gene Barry in a theatrical film before, and I thought he and Ann Robinson were an appealing team. It was quite believable, given the end-of-the-world circumstances, that they'd pair up immediately!

I also liked how the story was brought to a conclusion near the end of its 85 minutes. The miracle of God's design of life on earth accomplishes what the military and science could not.

Screenwriter Barre Lyndon had a number of creepy films in his prior credits, including THE LODGER (1944), HANGOVER SQUARE (1945), and NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948). This film has very different subject matter from the '40s movies, yet in various ways the same otherworldly malevolence suffuses all these titles.

The movie was directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal.

The large supporting cast includes Robert Cornthwaite, Lewis Martin, Paul Frees, and Ann Codee. Edgar Barrier, a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre, plays Professor McPherson. The narrator is Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

WAR OF THE WORLDS has had more than one DVD release, including a Collector's Edition DVD which includes a commentary track by lead actors Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. I watched this edition, and the print was outstanding.

The film was also released on VHS.

7 Comments:

Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you for the link. I especially enjoyed the Los Angeles scenes. And all those (now classic) cars.

4:53 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

I love this movie! This was a childhood staple, along with The Time Machine. I absolutely love the design of the flying martian ships. Elegant and cool. With an astronomer for a father, we grew up on old sci fi movies. Some actually scare me more as an adult than as a kid. Like the Sphinx in Time Machine. That thing is seriously, positively freaky (and absolutely beautiful and perfect in the film), but it didn't faze me when I was young. Weird.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

You're welcome, Jacqueline, weren't those cars gorgeous?

I really felt a pang when the Martians blew up L.A. City Hall. Fortunately I just drove past it a few days ago so I know it's really still there, LOL.

How interesting your dad was an astronomer, Deb! I agree, the design of those ships was really beautiful. How interesting that as time has gone on some of the films affect you more. Was trying to analyze yesterday why sci-fi has always affected me in a way that other potentially disturbing films (i.e., murder mysteries, war films) don't.

Best wishes,
Laura

10:18 AM  
Blogger DKoren said...

Yeah, he worked at Griffith Observatory for years. It was great growing up there!

You got me thinking about which movies gave me nightmares, and the only ones I can really remember were from certain traumatizing death scenes. Like one in particular from The Green Berets. And there's a few others out there that just always haunted me and my dreams. There was also one movie that I don't know the name of, but it used to be played on television in the '70s every Christmas for some unknown reason. It was about some girl whose plane crashed in the Amazon and how she tried to get back to civilization, or something like that. A couple scenes gave my sister and me both nightmares for years and years and years.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

That must have been a wonderful experience -- what a great opportunity to know about Griffith Observatory up close.

Your description of the plane film made me curious and I found this Wikipedia entry about the plane crash survivor -- apparently there were two different films made about this girl. Could one of them be the movie you remember?

It's quite fascinating how a particular scene or two from a movie, viewed at a young age, can have a lasting impact on the psyche!

Best wishes,
Laura

12:20 PM  
Blogger Jim Lane said...

Oh, Laura, you've touched a nerve now! My uncle (in college at the time) took me to see The War of the Worlds in December '53 when I was five years old. I was unnerved almost from the outset, but when that Martian grabbed Ann Robinson's shoulder I went through the roof, screaming and sobbing. My uncle thoughtfully draped his jacket over my head ("I don't want to hear it either!" I whimpered, but was ignored) until the Martians were safely dead at the end. He caught holy hell from my grandparents for this flagrant child abuse, but of course (once a decent interval had passed) I couldn't wait to see it again, especially the parts I'd missed.

In 1998 uncle and I were at Cinevent in Columbus, OH, where we met none other than Ann Robinson herself, who autographed an 8x10 glossy enlargement of the very frame that sent me into orbit ("Jim -- Is that you? Ann Robinson"). I told her my story of that first viewing, and you know what? She didn't bat an eye. That's when I realized I wasn't the only five-year-old in 1953 who sat through that movie with his uncle's coat over his head.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

What a marvelous story, Jim! I'm so glad you got to share it with Ann Robinson. Thank you for sharing it here with us! It's nice to know I'm not the only one who had a scary sci-fi experience as a child. :) :)

Best wishes,
Laura

2:07 PM  

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