War Of The Worlds

The flaws I find in this film are pretty much the problems you will find in any fantasy/sci-if or horror film of this vintage. It’s small things, like Ann Robinson’s character being the only one without dust on her after a nuclear bomb goes off — done, you know, simply because “actresses don’t get mussed in Hollywood.” If you can overlook things like this, you should enjoy this film immensely.

Ray Bradbury said in the George Pal documentary, that WotW did something very important among the films of its day, which is deliver something genuinely scary. Bradbury said that. Having gotten his legs as a writer in Weird Tales and other horror pulps before crossing over to sci-if, where he never left the horror completely behind, the great man understood and valued the undeniable universal power in striking a chord of terror.

The effects serve the concept, and not the other way around here, which is good and proper. The alien ship design was and is a handsome piece of design — far more elegant and suggestive of an alien design intelligence than anything put on film before Scott’s Alien in 1979, 26 years later. The sound effects are right, too. (Contrast the sound effect of the alien craft here with Gort’s extended carbine ricochet, for example, in the great Day the Earth Stood Still. I think you would have to concede that this sound, with it’s nerve-wracking strobing and slow accelerating, is more “on it”, and more effective.)

Watching the film again over the weekend, I was struck again by the robust, energetic American shape of the film. Nothing fancy or arty — just a hotly propulsive invasion yarn with suspense, scares, and destruction. No question, this is decent mainstream American studio film-making at mid-century.

About the elephant in the room: It’s irksome that many people on the internet (though by no means a majority) are so exercised over the religious or spiritual dimension of this film. I think it’s primarily young urban hipsters who know it’s cool to disdain this sort of thing, doing their obligatory generational checking the box. But in any event, it’s over-reacting — bordering on religious phobia — to interpret anything in the film as pushing religion. Context is all important, and of course it is context that is so easy to distort or omit altogether in an online back and forth post venue.

A preacher in the film is killed by aliens. His niece, Sylvia, whom he raised like a daughter, sees much that happens after this devastating loss from a religious/spiritual perspective which she shared with her uncle/father. This isn’t a strain of credulity in terms of human psychology, or of character in fiction. A few scenes later, when a scientist says that they’ve calculated that the aliens will be able to wipe out the people of earth in 6 days, if they continue their assault unchecked, she mutters, somewhat dazedly, “Six days… as long as it took to create it.” One can interpret a note of objectivity in some of the faces of the Pacific Tech scientists as the camera pans around the room after she says that. One has a faint smile. Another looks thoughtful. One has a look of pity for the girl. I can imagine the sort of people who announce the first time you meet them that they are atheists getting a blood pressure spike from this scene, the first of many. But within the context of the characters and the emotions of the film, there is nothing to get upset about.

Much of the misinterpreted religiosity of the film is of this nature. It’s character, not preaching. Sylvia, when separated from the rest of her group, winds up in a church — which action echoes a story we have already heard about her being lost as a little girl and making her way to a church because she thought her family would find her. From a storytelling standpoint, another purpose is served by having Clayton’s search for Sylvia take place in churches across town: in this setting, people are resigned, at peace, but in any event quiet and respectful, not like the loud, marauding herd that had hijacked and wrecked the truck Clayton was driving in earlier. A search among such a crowd would have been impossible and hopeless. The aura that exists in these places — where these people, lost in thought and prayer, are far past trying to duke it out in order to survive at all costs — makes the search credible, and the resulting reunion touching.

One can question whether churches would fill to capacity if there really was an alien invasion. I think they would, because, faced with certain death, there are many people to whom that would seem apt and natural. (A Pew Report says just over 78 percent of the American public as identify themselves with a religious tradition.) Disagreeing with that doesn’t change the reality of people’s values and feelings. And, again in terms of larger context, I think this would have definitely been true in 1953.

I submit that the WotW isn’t simply something that an emotionally mature, reasonably tolerant adult can watch and “get”, but that any religiosity the film possesses has been exaggerated by those with a specific ax to grind and agenda to push. Ultimately, such objections are dismissible as so much culture wars cross-talk.

Nine of ten stars. Well-designed effects in service to a well-crafted, emotionally effecting, old-fashioned, all stops pulled Hollywood night at the movies. Work with it.