Vintage Movies: “The War Of The Worlds”

MAGNET contributing editor Jud Cost is sharing some of the wealth of classic films he’s been lucky enough to see over the past 40 years. Trolling the backwaters of cinema, he has worked up a list of more than 100 titles—from the ’20s through the ’80s—that you may have missed. A new selection, all currently available on DVD, appears every week.

The War Of The Worlds (1953, 86 minutes)

An immense fireball blazing across the night sky crashes into the foothills near a small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles, and the locals write it off as nothing more than a stray meteor. When three men are stationed to spend the night near the red-hot, earth-encrusted projectile, they are astounded to see a large disc unscrew from its topside and a metallic, snake-like hose with a sinister cobra head emerge from the opening. The three men show the alien craft they mean no harm by waving a white flag made from a sugar sack and shouting, “We welcome you.” The snake-like device zeros in and fires a lethal heat-ray that instantly turns the trio into charcoal dust.

Already in the area on a fishing trip, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a Pacific Tech scientist with experience in nuclear weapons, is called in by local police to help investigate. As a growing alien force begins to rumble down in the valley, Forrester’s square-dance partner from last night, Red Cross volunteer Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), serves coffee and doughnuts to the army personnel now assembling.

Upset that the military intends to destroy the aliens first and ask questions later, Sylvia’s uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin), wants to communicate with the visitors. “If they’re more advanced than we are, they should be nearer the Creator,” he says before stepping into the line of fire while reciting the 23rd psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” In a questionable public-relations move, one of the hovering manta ray-shaped alien vehicles atomizes the man of God with its heat beam.

When the Air Force’s top-secret Flying Wing drops an atom bomb on the aliens and the manta-ray machines emerge from the radioactive dust unscathed, the human race seems doomed. Mother ships have landed in every major city around the world, and no one can stop them. Forrester and Sylvia, trying to get back to his think-tank colleagues in L.A. to create some kind of effective anti-Martian weapon, are pinned down, instead, in the basement of a deserted farm house as Martians patrol all around them.

The War Of The Worlds was the first earth-invasion movie where extraterrestrial forces targeted large cities, then sent out smaller units to mop up peripheral resistance. It’s a blueprint followed by many similar films, from Independence Day and District 9 to Battle Los Angeles and current TNT series Falling Skies.

Inspired by H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, Orson Welles directed a 1939 radio play of The War Of The Worlds that convinced many terrified listeners the American East Coast had been overrun by a Martian invasion. With its exemplary, Oscar-winning special effects, the 1953 film easily outpoints an overcooked 2005 remake that gets mired down in gore.