#CleanMovieMonth2020 Guest Article: “Review of ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953)” by Wes Sterling

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The below article was written by Wes Sterling, one of our devoted readers, as his first entry in #CleanMovieMonth2020. Since he has no website, we are proudly publishing it here.

So today, as I’m writing this, it is the 4th of July.  Happy Independence Day!  In our home, it is a tradition that we watch the Action/Sci Fi movie, “Independence Day” (1996) at some point during the holiday weekend.  Which, by the way, if you have the opportunity to watch, I would recommend the Special Edition of on the DVD as opposed to the Theatrical Version.  It has about 10 minutes of extra footage that isn’t necessarily important to the story, but it does help develop the characters quite a bit more and the audience’s connection with them.

But this review isn’t about Independence Day (ID4 from here on out).  This review is about its Breen Era equivalent, “The War of the Worlds” (1953), adapted from the H.G. Wells novel, starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson.  It was directed by Byron Haskin, produced by George Pal, and released by Paramount Pictures.  Since my family would be watching ID4 again, I thought it would be good to give The War of the Worlds another screening and see how the Code made for, in my opinion, a better film all around.  Of course, there have been many film incarnations of War of the Worlds over the years (most notably Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version with Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning), but this was the first.  And again, in my opinion, not only the best War of the Worlds film version, but one of the greatest Sci Fi films ever made.

The War of the Worlds (1953 film) - Wikipedia

The Plot:

What is thought to be a meteor crashes on the outskirts of a small California town as three scientists are in the area, fishing.  One of the scientists was Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) who is the main character in the story.  At the crash site, he meets a local young lady, Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), who is an instructor at USC and an admirer of Dr. Forrester’s work.  He also meets her uncle, Rev. Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin) of the Community Church, and several townsfolk who have come out to see the meteor.  However, the “meteor” turns out to actually be the first of an invading fleet of Martian ships bent on conquering the Earth, making it their new home, and exterminating humanity in the process.

Throughout the film, it becomes evident that the might of all of Earth’s armies are no match for the Martians’ weapons and technology, and they would have to find some way to get past it (just like in ID4).   If they can’t find a way to get past the Martian technology, Dr. Forrester and the others realize that it would take nothing short of a miracle to defeat them.  This brings me to one of the main reasons why I especially like this film.

Positives of the Film:

First, while this is not a “religious” film, it is very God honoring.  This was an important Code concept for the PCA and Mr. Breen.  I especially liked the way that Sylvia’s uncle, Rev. Collins, was depicted.  The Code required depictions of clergy to always be done reverently, and The War of the Worlds was no exception.  He displayed gentle love, friendliness, generosity, and hospitality to people.  In a key scene that leads up to the first battle between the humans and the Martians, it is Rev. Collins who heroically tries to avert conflict by trying to communicate with them.  When Sylvia reminds him that they’re not human and some advanced species, Rev. Collins replies, “If they’re more advanced than us, they should be nearer the Creator for that reason.”  He then quotes Psalm 23 as he walks toward their ships, trying to communicate with them.

I won’t give any spoilers here as to how the movie ends but suffice it to say that the miracle that they were all hoping and praying for (yes, they do show people praying) comes about in a way that honors and glorifies God’s wisdom, sovereignty, and providence.  This was a noticeable Code difference from ID4.  In ID4, the aliens’ defeat relied on the humans outsmarting them.  In The War of the Worlds, their defeat relied on God.  When the humans realized that none of their weapons or technology would be effective and that a miracle was needed, it made me think of Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”  While it was not a Code requirement for films in the Breen era to specifically mention God, it was certainly understood that Biblical values were to be promoted and God was to be treated reverently.   The War of the Worlds does this very well.

Secondly, the acting was first rate.  Gene Barry was fantastic as was Ann Robinson and the supporting cast.  Many Sci Fi films of that era tended to have rather wooden, sometimes campy, acting.  But not the case here.  Emotional reactions to the Martian invasion and the different battles always seemed genuine and never forced.

Thirdly, the special effects were amazing.  Even by today’s standards, the effects used for the Martian ships and the battles were very realistic but not gory, which was another good compliance to the Code.  Detail is quite remarkable.  In one scene when Dr. Forrester and Sylvia are in a small airplane, you get a brief glimpse of the Martian ships below them, and they look hauntingly real even then.  One of the problems with watching classic films like this, especially Sci Fi, on modern 4K Ultra HD TVs is that the increased resolution also magnifies every imperfection and makes mistakes and cheap effects stand out.  Not so with The War of the Worlds, except in a couple of brief moments where it is now evident that they filmed on a stage set and not on location somewhere.  You wouldn’t have noticed that watching a VHS copy on the old CRT televisions.

Finally, there is a brief scene with a radio announcer upon the Martians first arrival.  I believe this was a throwback to the 1938 radio broadcast play done by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre that panicked the nation in October of that year.  Many of the film’s original 1953 audience would have remembered that event as it had only been 15 years prior.  That may be a little thing, but as a fan of Old Time Radio and American history, I thought it was a great addition.

Minuses of the film:

I really only have a few small criticisms of The War of the Worlds.  First, when you do actually see the Martians themselves, they look fake and a little corny.  This is the one area of special effects that I think wasn’t done very well.  While I’m sure that the FX artists did the best they could, I think that it would have been more effective if the aliens’ bodily presence was communicated by implication and shadow as it begins to do before you actually see them.  Once we see them, the tension and realism is broken by the ineffectuality of the effects.

Secondly, while the acting was very good, I would have liked to have seen more character development all around.  The run time was only around 85 minutes, so I think they could have spent a little time giving us some more dimension to everyone and Dr. Forrester’s character, particularly.

Finally, I mentioned that you do see people praying, which is good.  However, many of the clergy’s prayers that are offered are wooden and stoic.  I would think that in the chaos and destruction of an alien invasion all around you and your congregation, offered prayer would be considerably more emotional and desperate.  Much like during World War II, Westminster Chapel in London was pastored by a man named Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones.  Since London was under regular heavy bombing by the Nazis at the time, Dr. Lloyd-Jones knew that many of the people he was preaching to and praying for in the morning could be dead by evening.  That will add urgency to one’s preaching and pastoral prayers!

Concluding Thoughts:

As I said earlier, I believe The War of the Worlds to be one of the greatest Sci Fi films ever made.  Corny alien bodies notwithstanding, the movie holds its own quite well here 67 years after its initial release.  Most modern Sci Fi, like ID4, put a lot of attention on special effects.  This is now mostly accomplished through CGI and I believe that an over reliance on that is more distracting than it is engaging.  Effects should compliment a story and move it along.  They shouldn’t dominate it.  The War of the Worlds does a very good job of the former.  I usually rate movies personally with 1 to 5 stars, and I give this 4.5.  Very few films in my opinion actually get 5, but this comes pretty darn close.

To truly appreciate The War of the Worlds, as with most classic films, we must understand the historical context in which the film was initially released.  In 1953, the Korean War was drawing to a close and the country was only eight years removed from the end of World War II.  Tensions were high in the world as the Cold War was in full gear with increased nuclear testing and unrest was again bubbling in Europe with the death of Stalin, a worker’s uprising in East Germany, and riots in Czechoslovakia.  Many American soldiers who returned from war had a hard time adjusting to the new normal of civilian life with things such as PTSD (as we now call it) and this caused stress in many families and workplaces.  It is in this context that the Code’s recognition that films had the ability to “re-create and rebuild human beings exhausted with the realities of life” was especially helpful in not just providing entertainment, but in helping people to heal.  The  War of the Worlds provided a scenario where all peoples of the world faced a common threat and they all depended on the same God to intervene on their behalf.  You leave the movie feeling uplifted; with some fresh wind in your sails for dealing with “the realities of life” and help with your faith.  It is a message that is fitting for our time as well.  Not to mention it’s also great Sci Fi.

Happy #CleanMovieMonth2020!

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