The War of the Worlds (1953)
G, and let's really stress this...the G stands for Genocide. How? How is this G rated? Like, I get it. It's 1953. I played this while my four-year-old was in the room. But there's a scene where a pastor gets point-blank vaporized. It's great and it's old-timey special effects, but that guy got vaporized. Also, the alien arms look upsetting. People treat each other like human garbage. It's brutal for 1953, that's why it's rated G.
DIRECTOR: Byron Haskins
Like, I knew I had seen it before. But I wasn't sure if I had A) seen it before when I was a kid and forgot about it or B) had watched it in the past decade and just gotten it confused with other B-movie sci-fi films from the '50s. (Okay, it's not a B-movie, but it shares a lot of biology with the B-movie sci-fi). The answer is: both? Do you know how I remember that I had definitely seen it recently? The main character's name is Dr. Clayton Forrester. You know, from Mystery Science Theatre 3000? That name always reminds me. I actually question if I've written about this movie before. But moving on...
There's something about the morality of the '50s that is really weird to me. There was a time in my life where I might have been passing around copies of The War of the Worlds as an example of how to make Christian films that would appeal to the mass market. Now, The War of the Worlds, as good as it kind of is, is just Left Behind in its messaging, something that I don't think H.G. Wells put in his original story. My goodness, the imagery there. There's a scene in the movie, straight out of Man of Steel, where a pastor decides to confront the aliens who are (let me check my notes) vaporizing everything in sight. Father comes out to the chanting of Psalm 23 ("Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death") and then gets completely obliterated. He's slaughtered off camera, unlike the immigrant who first encounters the alien. That dude dies the most rad on screen death in 1953, per my vote. No, there's the hysterical screaming of the pastor's niece, which will become a thing all throughout the movie. Anyway, the priest bites it and I'm like, "Oh, the spirit is moving through me." At least, the one in the past is. Because the new me is deeply troubled by this scene.
See, the priest is in the right in this situation. Condemning war and violence, this lovely chaplain decided to confront monsters whose only personality trait is vaporizing people. Okay, I'm not sure if the vaporizing thing was concrete yet, but there's evidence there. But the pastor is there for one purpose only: ensuring that military action is a moral deed. Two years prior to this movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still came out. This is my favorite sci-fi movie from the era and it probably always will be. It's full of moral ambiguity and paints humanity and war in a negative light. We're always so quick to pull the trigger that The Day the Earth Stood Still yells its message at us that we're war-crazy. But The War of the Worlds straight up has the title of "War" in the name. It has to be about war. There's going to be guns and rockets and missles and the whole lot aimed at these space invaders. But if we're damned to be war dogs, at least justify it. And the way that we do that is to sacrifice members of the clergy to show how much we tried to avoid war at all costs. Cool. I mean, I still respect how the clergy were presented in films in the 1950s, but it does seem like a tall order.
Anyway, all through this movie, the only havens from the aliens is religion. Yeah, aliens are shooting down churches. These things are from the devil, full of demonic imagery. They are smashing everything in sight, even attacking chuches. There's no respect for the sacred with these aliens. They are kill and destroy, without any notion of coexistence. It's why we're allowed to nuke them, but I digress. But notice, as many bad things that are happening in the world, Forrester and Sylvia survive the attack when in church? The movie doesn't mince words with it either. These aliens fall straight up dead while the two are in church, praying to God. The movie ends with people on a hillside, praising the Lord for saving them from the aliens. The funny thing is, I always read The War of the Worlds as a temple to science. The creatures die because of their lack of planning when it comes to bacteria. It's kind of sad and oddly sympathetic that they just can't survive things that we've grown accustomed to. But we also don't feel bad for colonizers because they tend to be the ones who bring disease into the world.
Wait, I'm having this epiphany right now. Okay, The War of the Worlds uses the colonizers' model for how disease works. The aliens didn't prep an immune response to Earth's diseases, so they died within days of landing. Okay, fine. I like that as an end, for some reason. It's very sciencey. But isn't the reverse true? The aliens are techinically bringing their Martian diseases to Earth. I mean, isn't every ship that crashes and every alien that is to be studied just one giant smallpox blanket? Sure, there are more of us and we'd eventually adapt compared to the limited landing party that comes to Earth in The War of the Worlds, but I guess we probably shouldn't be all high and mighty that the aliens couldn't survive our planet because Earth should be getting another surge of death.
But everyone on that mountain is giving thanks to God. The Catholic in me wants to sing for joy that such a movie exists. Ten years ago me is screaming the same thing. I don't deny the urge within me to embrace this message. There's a part of me that sees The War of the Worlds as a ministry. It's what I wanted all of my secular media to be. I wanted things to be stories first and sacred as something that was just part of the human experience. It's the same reason that I got really excited for the "Kill the Moon" episode of Doctor Who. But then there is also the other problem. There's the intellectual hole that fills my soul. It's where the faithful claim that the devil finds his power and that's in the knowledge that God also created the Martians. God, the all-powerful, could have made Martians unable to exist on Earth whatsoever. Heck, Mars has no air. Why not see Earth as this toxic place from moment one and avoid the mass carnage that runs rampant throughout this movie. I mean, The War of the Worlds has it mostly right. It's tempting to accuse God of manslaughter when we should be grateful for the salvation he provides. But it is still this really messy message that 2023 Tim has a really hard coming to grips with.
I don't mean to rail against religion and I really believe I'm not. I just don't like overly simplistic religion and faith messages. I was going to rail against Sylvia as the poster child for 1950s women. Sylvia is ground zero for most of this stuff going on. She's completely aware of Dr. Forrester's complete line of work (by the way, the irresponsibility of 1950s doctors, completely publicly speculating on how these aliens work and being right most of the time). She knows more than most of the population. Yet her role in this movie to be both hysterical and serve coffee. If a scream is needed, they bring in Sylvia Van Buren. If someone needs to disappear into a sea of human chaos and not face things head on, welcome Sylvia Van Buren. There was one moment where I thought, "Hey, it's something that isn't demeaning", she fails at that too. I'm talking about the fact that she's driving the bus full of scientists and equipment. But she crashes that bus too and then hides out in a church, emotional as ever. I know. I'm covering well-examined ground here. It's just very blah.
But where The War of the Worlds swings for the fences is its contempt for the downfall of society. There's a part in the movie where humanity confronts the Martians and fails. It's the best of us and we have failed. But I do love that we should have lost The War of the Worlds. There's a plan. It's not a perfect plan to stop the Martians, but it is definitely a plan. All of the scientists have to drive to this place with a bunch of equipment. It's not the Martians who take out these scientists. That would be depressing and say nothing. It's humanity. It's people throwing other people off of buses and trying to buy ways to survival. That's what's rad. I think the Tom Cruise version kept this stuff in because that's the telling. Honestly, The War of the Worlds might be kind of forgettable if it wasn't for this stuff. Sure, I like a saucer crashing into a farmhouse (Forrester has both the best and the worst luck by the way. Big open field, saucer crashes into house). But the stuff that sticks is people ripping other people out of cars and causing their own downfall.
I enjoy this movie. I do. I wish the religious propaganda was probably handled with a touch more subtlety. It's not that I want it out of the movie because I'm both a Catholic and acknowledge that film should have a message. It's just...you know, hamfisted and doesn't quite work.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.