Copyright © 2010 - 2011 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.
The Martians're coming, the Martians're coming !!
What better way to return to Cult Corner than with a look at one of the most iconic alien invasion films of the 1950s?
War of the Worlds is one of the small handful of films that I saw when I was either nine or ten which blew me away. It was certainly the first alien invasion film I had ever seen, and the impression it made lasted a lifetime.
I remember it was a Sunday night in the late sixties when the UK networks (and we only had 2 channels back then) showed films in their prime time slot. These were a mix of different genres with no specific theme, and this particular Sunday it was something called War of the Worlds. As war films were shown with stunning regularity back then and as my late father was a war veteran we saw most of them. I can only assume that I must’ve thought from the title that it was another WW2 epic. I remember the dramatic opening showing wartime footage and how technology and super science have increased our ability to destroy.
This gives way to a sombre monologue by Sir Cedric Hardwicke as he takes us on a brief tour of the solar system explaining matter of factly why the Martians couldn’t invade or colonise any planet other than Earth. Our neighbouring planets are depicted by NASA artist Chesley Bonestell who provided a number of paintings and backgrounds used by producer George Pal over the course of his career.
So in the late summer, the Martians launch their attack and the first meteor lands outside a small Californian town. See, at this point - I didn’t even know that the book existed, much less that the story was British and set in late 1800s England. That would come to me later.
Consequently it never bothered me that the story had been "corrupted" in any way by being updated as an English teacher of mine insisted. She had a point, I guess as the social anti imperialist metaphor of the book was lost. (Essentially, the book has the Martians doing to the humans exactly what the British were doing all over the world in the name of the Empire).
It’s incredible how many iconic images and moments there are in the film, the first appearance of the Martian war machines - a sleek manta-ray design with a cobra-like head capable of delivering a heat ray.
My fondness for the film and in particular the Martian craft, 43 years on from first seeing it is such that I have a model of the craft, proudly in display in my study.
Three hapless locals guard the meteor unaware that they will become the first victims of the Martian vanguard, literally turned to ashes by the heat ray.
Stars Gene Barry and Ann Robinson are sheltering in a farmhouse having escaped the first Martian onslaught, only to have another meteor land directly outside. A warship deploys an electronic eye and we get our only glimpse of the actual Martians as one puts his hand on Ann Robinson's shoulder. A scene Steven Spielberg would repeat in E.T.
The battle for Los Angeles, more than half a century before a film of that name came to be, the sheer destruction before the Martians in what I saw as the best twist ending ever (because it was my first) succumbed to the bacteria that we’ve become immune to. (I feel that the ending in the ’53 original with the war machines crashing was handled better, with more drama than in the Spielberg remake where the Martians just simply stop and stand still.)
It’s in the final scenes that the film really provided an eye opener to me as we see the Eiffel Tower, Rio De Janeiro and other landmarks destroyed, especially the Taj Mahal with its domed roof caved in on one side.
Why did the Taj Mahal make such an impression? We used to have one of those ViewMaster stereoscopic viewers that displayed a 3D slide show when I was a kid and it fascinated the hell out of me. One of the seven or so reels we had that I’d watch over and over and over was a travelogue of India, so seeing this sight which was instantly familiar to me with its roof caved in was something that I could instantly relate to and it made the story more "real" just as seeing Kong clamber up the side of the Empire State Building had. Nothing sells the unread better than setting it in a recognisable reality.
Within the year, I’d discover the book which became one of my all time favourite stories and one which I like to reread every so often. I still get a tingle down my spine when I can see Mars in the night sky. War of the Worlds, in whatever form it takes, being the book, the musical version, Spielberg’s remake or Orson Welles’s radio broadcast still intrigues me and is an integral part of what led me here.
In re-watching the film on DVD for this article, it really is no surprise at all that would end up the way I did with a fascination (or obsession, depending who you ask) with aliens, monsters, horror and science fiction.
I just wish that someone would one day film the story as it was written in the period it was originally set, with those steam punk Martian tripods invading and striding along the serene English countryside of the late 1800s.
You can check out the movie here.