H. G. Wells The War of the Worlds is probably one of the most famous and influential science fiction stories in literature. The story has spawned films, radio dramas, TV adaptations, comic adaptations, videogames and even a record album. One of the lesser known works highly influenced by Wells work would be ‘The Tripods’ by John Christopher. This itself was adapted into a BBC TV series in 1984 which has since developed a strong cult following.
Of course the most infamous adaptation was a live radio broadcast narrated by Orson Wells in 1938. The story was presented in a news broadcast fashion which in turn led to many many listeners actually thinking it was real. Can’t blame them really, if you think about it back then the radio was all people had. No internet, very little television, and what was on TV would have been extremely limited. So if a serious sounding news bulletin comes on informing you about destruction from unidentified objects, chances are you’d believe it.
But its this 1953 movie that is probably the most well known adaptation of Wells story the world over. Not only was this a loose but solid adaptation of the book, it was also an excellent science fiction film in its own right. For the time this movie was groundbreaking with its special effects, effects that earned the team an Academy Award in 1954. What is incredible is looking back you’d think the effects would be pretty hokey these days (much like many sci-fi movies of the era), but surprisingly they still hold up relatively well.
Of course the film is adorably cheesy and quaint, can’t avoid that. The feature begins with the typically standard 1950’s sci-fi narration accompanied with black and white stock footage. This footage shows us military technology as it progresses through the years, mainly through both world wars. It then cuts to colour with the movies title and then to a series of matte paintings of every known planet in our solar system. The narrator (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) informs us about each planet and its hostile environment, basically why the martian invaders would want Earth (but how would the narrator know this? Is the movie a story being told to someone by the narrator? Is the whole ordeal a flashback?). Anyway my point being the film unfortunately still relies on stock footage but also includes some lovely matte paintings.
The meat of the effects comes with the alien invaders themselves, although there were issues. Obviously for starters we all know the classic look of the Martian machines, huge towering tripods. Well at the time the effects crew had problems trying to create the three-legged machines so it was decided to alter the design. I have never really been happy with this look though, I realise there were technical limitations at the time so I’m not angry or anything, but the Martian machines just looked awful in my opinion. They essentially looked like a hovering, crescent shaped platform with a long periscope sticking out on top. They never really looked intimidating to me, more flimsy and fragile, and the green colour scheme was just ugly.
To make matters worse (in my humble opinion) the effects team did actually include the tripod legs…only they were force field legs and invisible. If you strain hard enough you can actually see the imprints (with a small pyrotechnic touch) in the ground as the machines move. Alas these look more like small explosions from shells or whatever than imprints from tripod legs. You can also see the wires holding the machines up in some scenes, which was amusing.
Indeed the chaos and destruction seen on the movies posters are well imagined in the film. The model Martian machines slowly hover down city streets (some live action, some models), their wires quivering. At every opportunity they unleash their devastating heat-rays from their cobra shaped periscopic eyes. Brilliant flashes of white heat that reduce damn near everything to rubble. Oddly though, at first the heat-rays reduce military equipment, vehicles and men to either piles of white or black charred ash (or just nothing at all). Yet when they take to the city streets the same doesn’t seem to happen to buildings, they just crumble and catch fire. Theoretically there should be nothing left standing other than mounds of charred ash. Everything you see is a frantic blur of various effects such as superimposing, models, stock footage, matte paintings etc…That along with the terrific sounds effects for the alien weaponry (think Star Trek: TOS photon torpedoes) and you have some great sequences of action.
The actual aliens themselves were a real achievement also. The level of detail on the rubber puppet was incredible for the time. It had veins, skin texture, skin folds, and it was moist which gave it a more realistic ‘living’ look. Sure they look silly now but considering this was all done in 53 its extremely impressive for the time. I think the one main visual flaw for me was the ridiculous looking, large three-hued (red, green and blue) eye they had. The actual shape of the aliens body, their short stocky torsos with long thin arms and three thin suction cup fingers, was all perfect, quite scary for the time. The sequence where Dr. Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) are holed up in an abandoned house, only to be met by one of the little aliens during the night, was executed excellently. I’m very sure that had viewers screaming back in the day. But alas that big colourful bug eye looked like a kids toy from the 80’s. It was neat to give the aliens this unique vision, but the three coloured lens sections looked a bit daft to me.
Of course this being 50’s America you know it wouldn’t take long before the Yanks would break out their Atomic weaponry. Although lets be fair here, the humans get their asses handed to them on a plate. But there is a really effective build in tension as the Americans blast the aliens with everything they have, including nukes. But still the Martian machines keep coming, protected by their amusing bell jar shaped force fields. Eventually the military leaders realise they cannot stop the invaders, the fate of the human race lies in Gods hands (not literally). Its actually quite a haunting solemn moment.
This again leads to another element of the film I don’t really like. After getting separated the main duo (Forrester and Buren) meet up again in a church (now in LA). The Martian machines loom down on the church as they tear through the streets, nothing can stand in their way, not even the house of God. But low and behold just before they are about to destroy the church, the alien crafts falter and come crashing down. Of course I’m sure everyone knows why now, but the fact that its implied there may have been divine intervention from up above that saved the Earth (and that church) is somewhat off-putting. The idea that bacteria infected and killed the Martians was always a brilliant move, genius. Its also perfectly normal to accept that if something like this did happen in reality, there would of course be a lot of religious rhetoric flying around no doubt. But to end this exceptional sci-fi on the notion that mankind was kinda saved by God just sours the fun.
Whilst I recognise the brilliance of this film in everything it achieves, I can’t quite bring myself to say its a perfect movie. Yes it is one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made and it does still hold up today, but the few issues I have with this adaptation I cannot ignore. I think the main peeve for me will always be the look of the Martian machines, I just can’t stand the fact they don’t have tripod legs. Any imagery you see of towering alien tripods is just so instantly recognisable and evocative, it pains me that they are absent in this film. Nevertheless there is a good balance between the action and exposition scenes. Its not bogged down and boring, its actually a really tense and eerie affair, and you do genuinely care about the main cast (all of which do sterling work I might add). End of the day despite its small flaws, this is an absolute must see for all ages.