Study Guide for War of the Worlds

1. Filmographic Citation

War of the Worlds. Byron Haskins, dir. USA: Paramount, 1953. George Pal, prod. Barre Lyndon, script, based on the novel by H. G. Wells.

2. Major Cast

Clayton Forrester: Gene Barry Sylvia Van Buren: Ann Robinson
General Mann: Les Tremayne Dr. Pryor: Robert Cornthwaite
Dr. Bilderbeck: Sandro Giglio Radio Announcer: Paul Frees
Pastor Matthew Collins: Lewis Martin

3. From The Science Fiction Encyclopedia , Ed. Peter Nicholls (1979)

Not much of the original Wells novel remains in this George Pal production: the setting is changed from 1890s-England to 1950s-California, the Martian war machines are altered from walking tripods to flying-saucer-like vehicles; and, most damaging of all, a Hollywood "love interest," typical of the period, is added. Despite the weaknesses of the script and indifferent performances, the film generates considerable excitement. Much of this is due to the spectacular special effects which cost $1,400,000, a large amount in those days (the whole film cost only $2,000,000). Not all the effects are especially convincing...but as a whole the effects are dazzling and colourful, especially the final sequences showing the machines attacking Los Angeles. The manta-shaped vehicles glide down the streets (the supporting wires were matted out in these scenes) with their snake-like heat-ray projectors blasting the surrounding buildings into rubble.... The film is usually considered one of the few major works of SF cinema.

4. Questions and Comments

  1. A major theme of H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds was the idea that Martians / Human species = humans / "lower" animals = western imperialists / colonized. Does any of this theme remain in the film? If not, do any other political or social themes substitute for it?

    During the McCarthy Era, it was usually safest to do conscious political art indirectly; and a lot of low-grade art was unconsciously political. And whatever else it is, War of the Worlds is a 1950s movie. Want to do any allegorizing of the Martians? If not, or if you do--what about the impotence against them of The Bomb? What moral should we get of the retention of Wells's ending, where it's our viruses and bacteria that destroy the invulnerable invaders? (There should be some theme: it's not very likely that Martians or anyone else would come across the galaxy to seize Earth.)
  2. The inevitable comparison after 1996 will be between War of the Worlds and Independence Day. If Bob Dole liked Independence Day, should he also like War of the Worlds? If Independence Day shows American/Human can-do resilience, what does War of the Worlds show? Do we at least see a wider variety of humans?