Note: This is about the 1953 adaptation. For the 2005 one, see War of the Worlds.
The first of several film adaptations of H.G. Wells' seminal alien invasion novel, directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal. It stars Gene Barry as the scientist Dr. Clayton Forresternote and Ann Robinson as Sylvia Van Buren, as they must survive a full-scale invasion of Earth by Martian forces.
The film is a Pragmatic Adaptation of the novel, taking only the premise and ending with little else from the source material. Nonetheless in an age of alien invasion films such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Invaders From Mars and The Thing from Another World this film is regarded as one of the best of that category.
Many years later the film would get a sequel in the form of a television series. Due to Science Marches On, the series RetConned several aspects from the original film, namely the aliens coming from the planet Mor-Tax instead of Mars. Elements of the film would also inspire future science-fiction media, such as Mystery Science Theater 3000, The Iron Giant and Independence Day.
This film contains examples of:
- America Saves the Day: Downplayed in that God himself is the one that truly "saves the day", but America is the nation that spearheads the fight against the Martians, including being the ones leading the research and using the (strangely untouched) city of Washington D.C. as the location where all information regarding the Martians from around the world is pooled to try to determine the best strategy.
- Apocalypse Anarchy: While driving to a lab in the mountains, looters scamper aboard Dr. Forrester's truck, throw him out of the cabin, unload the research equipment and samples, and drives off with anyone able to hang on. When someone tries to bribe his way on board, he's thrown off while being told that his money's now worthless.
- Artistic License Astronomy:
- Apparently whomever revised the opening narration just plumb forgot the existence of Venus, in specifying why all other planets in the solar system except Earth are unsuitable for the Martians to migrate to. The Narrator's description of Jupiter actually fits Venus. note
- The narrator also describes Jupiter as being Mars' closest neighbor, even though Earth is far closer.
- Behind the Black: When the police and Dr. Forrester arrive at the landing site to find the deputies have been vaporized, they fail to notice the eye stalk looming over them, which should have been in full view.
- Belief Makes You Stupid: Averted in a strange way. The source material (at least the second half) is a firm criticism of religion, and there are religious characters who eventually turn out unhinged and dangerous in the wake of the invasion. The film is almost the complete opposite - the main religious character is kind and righteous and is given a meaningful death (one that shows that the Martians are incapable of being approached in any peaceful fashion), and the closing narration comments on how the smallest creatures of God's kingdom defeated the invaders. Even in the original, despite his experience with the lunatic curate, the protagonist gives a prayer of gratitude for deliverance. And although it's far more leaning into the nature of a divine miracle in this story, the following is direct from the original story and is echoed in the movie's ending:And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians—_dead_!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.
- Biological Weapons Solve Everything: Zig Zagged Trope. The film maintains the original ending where the Martians die from regular Earth germs that humanity is immune to, but the emphasis here is that it's regular Earth germs. When nuking them does nothing, the military asks the scientist at Cal Tech to figure out a bio-warfare method to kill the Martians out of desperation... and the trucks carrying the equipment are robbed by desperate Angelenos trying to evacuate, destroying all of the equipment (in Forrester's words, "they sliced their own throats!"). The implication being that the bio-warfare attack would have worked, had the story not decided to stick to the original's ending and letting God do the job.
- Chekhov's Gun: When Dr. Forrester brings a Martian probe with blood samples to a group of scientists, they see that the blood is highly anemic. This foreshadows how they were eventually killed by terrestrial bacteria.
- Cool Plane: A Northrop B-49 flying wing is used to drop the nuke on the Martians.
- Darkest Hour: The film's final act is among the darkest and bleakest acts ever put into a 50's alien invasion film. There's absolutely no hope left for humanity, and the protagonist's only goal is to spend the remaining minutes of his life with his loved one.
- Dawn Attack: During the night before the big Marines/Martian battle, General Mann says "They'll probably move at dawn." He turns out to be correct: the Martian war machines start to move out as the light of dawn appears in the east.
- Deflector Shields: The Martian war machines generate these and it makes them Immune to Bullets as well as artillery and explosives, including the latest model of atomic bomb.
- Deus ex Machina: Like the book that inspired it, the Martians are defeated, not in a final battle against humanity, but by germs.
- Exposition Intuition: Doctor Forrester is able to deduce how the Martian heat ray works, how the war machines levitate, and even determines based on nothing more than seeing what we do that an alien weapon which causes its victims to light up with X-Ray Sparks then fade to nothing works by "cutting across the lines of electromagnetic force" that holds matter together.
- Funny Background Event: As a fire watcher phones in a report his companion peeks at his playing cards.
- Hell Is That Noise: The sounds of the Martian fighting machines moving and the sound of the heat ray firing-a sound that is now oft-copied as a generic "energy weapon" noise in homage.
- Idiot Ball: Uncle Matthew approaches the war machines in a misguided attempt to parley with them. He says that no real attempt has been made to communicate with the Martians, even though they've fired unprovoked on people who come near the cylinder and there are reports of them leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Although, in fairness, Uncle Matthew is well aware that they could easily decide to kill him. He recites Psalm 23 as he approaches the Martian War Machines.
- Man on Fire: One of the Marines takes a glancing bolt from a heat-ray.
- Money Is Not Power: As Los Angeles is being evacuated, people are rioting in the streets. One guy tries to buy his way onto a truck, only to be thrown off while being told "Money's no good anymore!"
- Monumental Damage: The Eiffel Tower and The Taj Mahal. Oddly enough Washington went untouched.
- Mythology Gag: The scene where the reporter's transmission is cut short during the plane observation by his equipment getting destroyed by the heat-ray is a deliberate reference to Carl Phillips' fate from the 1938 radio adaptation.
- Nuclear Candle: When the lights go out at the square dance, a candle is lit - lighting the room far brighter than a candle should.
- Nuke 'em: The military tries to kill one of the tripods using a nuke, when all other weapons have been exhausted. When the shields of the Martians turns that into a No-Sell, Forrester says that attacking the machines is of no use, and they need to focus on trying to kill the Martians themselves (through biological warfare).
- Omnidisciplinary Scientist: sort of; it's more of an omnidisciplinary lab group: Forester, an astrophysicist, is not only in the same department but actually shares the same lab space with an electrical engineer and a biochemist.
- Pragmatic Adaptation:
- The original novel took place in late 1800s England and the aliens piloted towering tripod walkers. This film takes place in 1950s California, and the aliens pilot hovering manta-ray/scorpion spacecraft.
- Originally the spacecrafts were meant to be tripods, but since a tripod effect was difficult to achieve the film instead states that the spacecraft hover via invisible tripod "stilts". In a few shots you can see vague outlines of the "stilts" along with sparks on the ground.
- In the novel the fighting machines were NOT Immune to Bullets, they were just too fast and agile for contemporary artillery to hit before being overwhelmed (in fact, at least two of the tripods are destroyed in the book - one by a lucky artillery shot, the other by a ship that manages to close the distance before opening fire). This had to be changed to keep it believable that the 1950s army doesn't mop the floor with them immediately.
- Rule of Three
- The Martian cylinders come down in groups of three. Each cylinder carries the components for three war machines. Once built, the machines operate in groups of three.
- When searching for Sylvia, Forester enters three churches, finding her in the third.
- Screaming Woman: When Forester and Sylvia encounter a Martian in the flesh, Sylvia at least waits until it's driven away to lose her composure. But when she does, her wailing is downright blood-curling.
- Sensory Tentacles: A viewing device attached to a long cable was inserted into the farmhouse where Professor Forrester and Sylvia van Buren were hiding. Professor Forrester knocked it down with a crowbar and escaped with it.
- Stock Footage: The scenes of people listening to the radio, along with some of the destruction footage, were taken from Pal's previous film When Worlds Collide.
- Too Dumb to Live: Yes, it's a noble thing Matthew did, but he apparently forgot three other people had already approached the machines with peaceful intentions and been summarily erased. Why exactly did he think it'd go any different for him? Faith, apparently.
- The War Room: We're treated to a war room in the Pentagon, including a map of the world with small black triangles indicating areas that have been wiped out by the Martians.
- Washington D.C. Invasion: Averted and even lampshaded: the Martians never mobilize towards the city, for some odd reason, and so this provides the opportunity to utilize it as the headquarters for the world-wide effort to fight the Martians.
- Watch the World Die: When it's clear nothing can stop the Martians from destroying the cities, a lot of people can be seen camping out in the hills just outside Los Angeles.
- Wave-Motion Gun: The secondary weapon of the machines, in the form of a Disintegrator Ray - people, vehicles, even entire buildings vanish when they are hit by it, leaving no trace but an ashy silhouette. They still have their signature heat ray, which may also qualify.
- A Wizard Did It: Rather well put in-universe, actually. Dr. Forrester acknowledges that it doesn't matter if it should be possible or not if it's happening right in front of you.Major General Mann: Pattern-wise, one lands, then two, making groups of threes joined magnetically. Is that possible?Dr Clayton Forrester: If they do it, it is.
- X-Ray Sparks: The Marine commander gets hit by a Martian Disintegrator Ray right in front of the camera. As the ray takes effect, his skeleton shows through his glowing silhouette before he vanishes into nothingness.