Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Forgotten Film Tuesday: WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson

Over at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM, Todd Mason has a great selection of forgotten films listed and linked every Tuesday. Some, even I have never heard of! Ha! No surprise there, the more I delve online the more I realize just how much it is I don't know and have never heard of. Oh well, I look upon this whole thing as on-going learning experience. This old dog is learning plenty of new literary and film tricks. It's the only way to look at it if you want to keep your sanity.

I'm going to be posting a Forgotten Film every Tuesday from here on in, so, as I like to say: Stay tuned! (Todd, having very kindly, asked me to join in.)

Patti Abbot at her blog, PATTINASE also has a Forgotten Film post every Tuesday, along with her usual pithy comments. Fun.

Let's face it: Sometimes,  films are better off left forgotten. For instance, you stumble across a movie online or on tv and you think: oh yeah, I used to love this - I'll watch it again for old time's sake. And then you do and you think: GAK!! This is awful! What could I have been thinking? Has that ever happened to you? Well, I'm going to try and NOT post about films that upon recent viewing have disappointed me. There's no fun in that. Why would I want to talk about a film I don't like? But I won't hesitate to point out any 'doofus' moments I find, even in films that have lived up to my recollection. How's that?

WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.

If there is any weakness in this film it is the raging scaredy-cat, Miss Robinson. You see, here's the thing: films in the fifties often had heroines who screamed a lot - screamed and screeched over the slightest inconvenience.  They were women. Women were SUPPOSED to behave this way. It was expected.

Now you may think, well, an all out attack by Martians on our world IS something to screech about and no doubt,  you'd be right. BUT - on film, it makes for an unsettling racket when this sort of thing is allowed to go unchecked.

Still, even with Miss Robinson's histrionics, I love WAR OF THE WORLDS, the 1953 version and ONLY the 1953 version.

Oh, before I forget, a second weakness in the film which only, really, became apparent to me upon the 10th or so viewing:  Gene Barry's histrionics. Yes, he has his hysterical overwrought moments in the film as well and upon the 11th or 15th viewing, you sort of notice that it has become grating. A hysterical man is never to be excused. But what the heck, I guess I sort of do/did.

 Okay, both doofus moments having been taken care of up front - in the interests of full disclosure,. Now on to what I love about WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), a film directed by Byron Haskins and produced by George Pal (a name very familiar to sci-fi fans of the era). The  IMDb website also has Cecil B. DeMille as an uncredited producer. (What would we do without the Internet Movie Database website? I shudder to think. I would wish though, that it had an easier name to remember correctly.)

 The original story by H.G. Wells actually takes place earlier in the century and the setting is the English countryside - something I don't think has ever been utilized in the many adaptations. (Certainly not by Orson Welles in the radio version that convinced America that Martians had landed in, I think, New Jersey.) I've listened to the audible book of the original story on www.audible.com and I must say, it is quite effective. And yes, there's a sense of overwrought hysteria evident in the written story as well. Not lots of screaming though, but it is implied.

The 1953 film (made during the Cold War - the end of WWII was just 8 years past) takes place in California - to begin with - though eventually the Martians are shown landing in capitals and landscapes all over the world in a very effective and nicely edited way. It is implied, but is not clearly made specific that the Martians have begun their tirade in the California countryside. Maybe they were not movie-lovers.

The film ACTUALLY begins with an onerous voice-over by Sir Cedric Hardwicke (and ends that way as well with one of the more memorable lines, I think, in sci-fi history).

Barry's character. Dr. Clayton Forrester, is some sort of scientist, I've forgotten exactly what he does  - but I think he's a physicist at a California university - Cal-Poly or Poly-Cal, something like that. Anyway, he and his friends are on a fishing trip (in their own little plane) up in the mountains - an interesting side note: one of the 'extras' in the film - not really on screen long enough to call it a real supporting role - though he is listed in the credits - is the red-haired (who knew?) Robert Cornthwaite a B-movie stalwart. Cornthwaite will be remembered by many of us as the obsessed Dr. Arthur Carrington in the 1951 classic, THE THING (From Another Planet).

I can only assume that some of his scenes in WAR OF THE WORLDS might have been cut since he has so little screen time. Cornthwaite is one of an interesting coterie of long-lived supporting actors.  He was born in 1917 and just passed away in 2006. Maybe being a supporting player in films is the way to go to live a good, long life.

WAR OF THE WORLDS - the basic story: When a strangely acting meteor lands in the hills outside a small and quaint California town (Square-dancing Saturday night!), everyone in town drives up to take a look. Word of the interesting scientific event reaches Forrester and his friends fishing in the hills and they come down to take a look. Once Forrester meets Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) who is a fan of his - she's the town librarian - a most acceptable post for a pretty young woman with a Masters AND she's read his book - he decides that attending the Saturday night hoe-down might be the thing to do, once he's finished taking a look at the remains of the meteor.

It soon becomes obvious, after some deaths occur and some laser scorched remains are found and all the watches in town go on the fritz at exactly the same time - some sort of magnetic intervention - that the meteorite embedded in the earth is not JUST a harmless piece of rock from outer space - the army is called in. Earlier, I love the scene when something in the meteor begins to move and part of it sort of unscrews (very low-tech) and a long necked thing with a green-lit tip pokes up and out and takes a look around. Obviously mechanical, it is a weapon that spews a deadly ray. This is the ray that will be used by the Martians to conquer the world in a few days.

Speaking of the army - this is a film made in the days when it was thought the army could fix anything. (Hey, they'd just won a war. They A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki! They meant business.) So it's kind of weird fun to watch as the Army (and Navy and Marines and whatnot) are made impotent by this new threat from space. But only, I suspect, from a modern day vantage point. It might not have been so much fun back in the day. I saw this film in theater in 'real' time -  once upon a time, but can't remember what we felt about the Army's lack of omnipotence then. Very probably, it was a frightening concept. Les Tremayne, who made a career of playing army types, was the General in charge. We empathized but realized he and his men and materials were licked. If Les Tremayne couldn't wup the Martians - who could? Obviously, no one.

 When Forrester and Sylvia are forced to grab his small plane and take to the skies - evacuations have begun all over the world as word spreads (very effectively shown in the film) that New York has gone silent, Paris has gone silent, Rome, London, etc. An Indian government in exile is set up in a railroad car outside of, I think, Calcutta. All sorts of anecdotal events are shown in clips or talked about - the world is being effectively shut down by the Martians and their triple-threat warfare. They divide and conquer in 'threes'. Three being a very important number - at least in Martian numerology. We learn the Martians have three eyes, three fingered-'hands' and they fight in pods of three ships. (It would not surprise me to learn they have three brains and three stomachs too, but that would be conjecture.)

Once the plane that Forrester is piloting, with Sylvia as passenger, is forced to land - the two hide out in an abandoned farmhouse.What follows is a very creepy and very important scene since it results in them being able to get a sample of Martian 'blood' for the scientists back at Cal-Poly or Poly-Cal - whatever- to study. Though later this proves futile as well when rioters and looters overrun the truck carrying the samples and the scientists - the only men and one woman of reason and thought in the film (interesting) are attacked and the samples destroyed.

 But not before the blood, nonetheless, is shown to have some peculiarities which hint to the eventual outcome. The first time I saw the movie I do remember being shocked as well as gratified by the ending. Far as I'm concerned, it's still one of the great endings in film.

 The main reason WAR OF THE WORLDS still works so well for me is, I admit it, the concept and design of the Martians and their ships and the excellent way the screenplay allows the story to evolve in a linear way. The film makes sure you don't miss any of the important points. There is no 'artistic' flummery, just good story-telling in a straight forward, almost docu-drama kind of way. The art direction of the film is by Albert Nozaki and Hal Pereira and the special effects and visual photographic effects are by a whole slew of talented craftsmen and artists. If you want to see the whole list of names, please use this link and scroll down near the bottom. Many of these names were, unbelievably, uncredited at the time.

If you are not familiar with this film but you are fond of movies, sci-fi or otherwise and regard a good film from any era as worth watching, at least once, then see WAR OF THE WORLDS. I'm tempted to say this is a film made when movies WERE movies, but it's possible many of you won't know what I mean. I don't even know what I mean. Oh yes, I do.

Note: I originally saw this on a double-bill (plus 10 cartoons) with another forgotten sci-fi classic, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE - a film I'll be talking about next week.  Trailer for WAR OF THE WORLDS.


  1. I've seen War of the Worlds many times since I was a kid. I think what I like most, aside from the sound effects, is that everybody seems knocked out that Gene Barry is a "scientist." Like "scientist" was a handy jack-of-all-trades profession that made him an expert in astronomy, biology, geology, fishing and forest fires.

    That, and the only woman on the entire west coast is a scientist freak -- did her thesis on scientists!

    Every time I see War of the Worlds, I think, "Why didn't I become a scientist?"

  2. M.M. Thanks for reminding me of the super-duper sound effects. Somehow I'd forgotten to mention them.

    Yes, I think you SHOULD have become a scientist. Absolutely. :)

    The thing that I find so interesting and I do agree with your point, by the way - is that scientists were shown in this film, at least, to be worthy of admiration and general gee whizzedness. The very same 'scientists' who were basically treated with some contempt in THE THING From Another World, filmed just a couple of years earlier.

    I always thought of Gene Barry in this as a sort of G-Man/Scientist/Mr. Know-It-All.

    Yet in the end, science (in the form of Mother Nature) saves the day indirectly - or God, if you prefer to believe that.

  3. Always loved Gene Barry in Burke;s Law but I think I only saw War once and have little memory of it. I think this sort of movies scared me as a kid. Seemed likely to happen.

  4. I love this movie. It's probably the first scifi movie I remember watching and loving.

  5. Patti: Get over it. See this movie. It's FABULOUS! :)

  6. Ryan: Yeah, it holds up. My brother reminded me that it actually holds up better than the other George Pal film we saw on the double feature: WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. (Which we thought at the time, perhaps, a better movie. Kids. What did we know? Ha!)

    But I think I'm going to talk about WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE next Tuesday, anyway.


  7. Well, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE was a more unusual sf film for the '50s, at very least. One of the several WOTW films made in the last decade is set, iirc, in the English countryside, and in the proper time setting for the novel...and was made crudely, by all accounts, on a budget of three bucks. A single $3 bill used. (I think it was Howard Koch who wrote the script for the MERCURY THEATER radio version, and to set it in rural Jersey seemed like a reasonable update for the purposes of the show...)

    Given how much childhood love these films have seen, if anything DIVA and THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS are More Overlooked than they are...though my own favorite of the Pal films probably remains THE TIME MACHINE, even with the copout from Wells's ending there.

  8. I'll be talking about WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE next week only because once I wrote about WAR OF THE WORLDS, the fact I'd seen them on a double bill came flooding back to me. AND my reaction to WWC also.

    As you know, I'm more about the emotion of a film than the technicalities, so I'm gearing up for next week. Ha!

    I liked THE TIME MACHINE, but never loved it. The Yvette Mimieux section of the film, for me, was an utter bore. Though, of course, not the implication. ALtogether not my kind of film though I usually love anything having to do with time machines and/or time travel.

    Since DIVA is my favorite film of all time (next to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) I never consider it a 'forgotten' film, but I suppose you may be right. Certainly about THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS.

    This is going to be a very fun meme!

  9. And, indeed, fewer screaming women make for a better sf film experience...the relative lack of screeching certainly didn't hurt THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL...

    Glad you're joining in!

  10. Todd: I recently watched THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL with my brother at his house - he has one of those super-duper flat wall tvs.
    It still held our interest. Primarily because of Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. I think I'd like to call this sort of film: Noir-Fi. How's that?

    Klaatu, barata, nikto. (My spelling.)


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