by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Byron Haskin
Cast: Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 89%
Everybody’s a Critic Assignment: Watch a Movie “Classic”

PLOT: A small town in California is attacked by Martians, touching off a worldwide invasion.

I admire the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds most when I try to imagine myself back in that era as someone seeing it for the very first time.  For me, 69 years is still an almost unimaginable gulf of time.  In 1953, TVs were not quite a luxury item anymore, but a color TV definitely was.  Little kids still wore coonskin caps and watched The Howdy Doody Show for fun.  The very concept of UFOs was only six years old.  And the Cold War was a direct threat to our national security and our general peace of mind.

Into this culture came a film that, while thoroughly cheesy by today’s standards, nevertheless captured the paranoia of a nation.  Unstoppable creatures from another planet!  Wreaking havoc wherever they go!  Not even the mighty A-bomb can defeat them!  And who could resist those terrifying movie posters?  “A mighty panorama of earth-shaking fury!”  I would have been BEGGING my parents to give me ticket money.

Is a plot summary even necessary for this classic story?  A fiery meteor plunges to Earth near a small California town, but instead of making a crater, it carves a gully as it slides to a stop.  A scientist hypothesizes it might be hollow inside.  Presently, an alien spacecraft emerges from the meteor, bearing a fearsome weapon that looks like a cobra’s head and rains destruction and death on anything in range.  Forsaking Wells’ original vision of Martian tripods, this version presents sleek, manta-ray-shaped spacecraft supported by nearly-invisible electromagnetic currents.  Or something like that. Reports start coming from around the globe of other meteors and other spacecraft, and it quickly becomes apparent they’re not interested in friendly negotiations.  To paraphrase the stentorian commentary that bridges some scenes, this is the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it.

The heroes of this film are Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) and Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson).  To put it kindly, their acting skills are…adequate.  To be fair, they weren’t working with a stellar screenplay, but the filmmakers wisely decided the real star of the movie should be the Martians and the Oscar-winning special effects.  As a result, Clayton is reduced to either giving scientific explanations of the Martians, while Sylvia’s main purpose is to look scared, scream loudly, and fry some eggs for Clayton in the middle of a war zone.  (I’m not making that last part up.  It’s not exactly Aliens.)

Regarding those special effects, sure they’re dated, but consider that, at the time, Hollywood studios regarded effects-heavy films as financial losers.  At least, that’s what they thought before The War of the Worlds.  It did so well that one of the head honchos at Paramount – one Cecil B. DeMille – presented the extraordinarily effects-heavy The Ten Commandments (1956) just three years later…and it broke box-office records.  The current trend is to blame Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) for singlehandedly creating our insatiable appetite for special-effects extravaganzas, but look back far enough and there’s plenty of blame to go around, in my opinion.

Full disclosure: I still prefer Spielberg’s whiz-bang 2005 remake of War of the Worlds with its actual tripods and its CGI explosions and its callbacks to the 1953 original, including a cameo by Barry and Robinson, to satisfy cinephiles.  But this version, while dated, still has enough charm to remain effective.  Mostly.  (My favorite part is when the “hatch” on the meteor starts unscrewing; right about then is when I would’ve bought a ticket to Australia.)


  1. Best line or memorable quote?
    When Dr. Forrester speculates how the Martians’ death ray works: “It neutralizes meson somehow. They’re the atomic glue holding matter together. Cut across their lines of magnetic force and any object will simply cease to exist! Take my word for it, General, this type of defense is useless against that kind of power! You’d better let Washington know, fast!”  It’s formulaic nonsense that’s only once or twice removed from calling an alien mineral “unobtainium”, but it’s delivered with the kind of conviction that only exists in the movies.
  2. What elements of this film do you feel have helped it become a movie classic?
    On a surface level, I’d say the quaintness of its visual effects.  Comparing them to the films of today is like comparing a paper airplane to the space shuttle.  But its also how the film captures the pop culture of the day.  The War of the Worlds fed on the fears and paranoia of a nation and stuck in the minds of millions of moviegoers and continues to do so today.  The 1953 film was influenced by the Cold War.  Spielberg’s remake was at least partially fueled by a nation’s fear of global terrorism.  Perhaps in another 20 or 30 years, some other enterprising filmmaker will once again send Martians to Earth to lay waste to its cities as a commentary on some future phobia or event.  …perhaps a global pandemic…?  Nah, too on the nose…

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