- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

“It came to me that I was upon this dark common, helpless, unprotected, and alone. Suddenly, like a thing falling upon me from without, came — fear. With an effort I turned and began a stumbling run through the heather.”

This apprehensive passage from H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds,” first published in 1898, is about to be echoed and updated in a science-fiction spectacle directed by Steven Spielberg. The widely anticipated film’s protagonist, a divorced New Jersey dockworker played by Tom Cruise, will be on the run with his two estranged children while struggling to escape the colossal invasion force of some malevolent extraterrestrial species.

It remains to be seen how much quoting from the Wells prototype would be deemed appropriate to a dramatization made a century later. There was quite a bit in the 1953 version produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin.

Their movie never transcended B-movie limitations, but it did recruit an authoritative voice as narrator, Sir Cedric Hardwicke. He did justice to such durably haunting and sinister rhetoric as the following: “Across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

The Pal-Haskin partnership also provided the studio with a modest hit that won the Academy Award for best visual effects. I recently refreshed my memory of the 1953 version, available in a DVD edition from the Columbia House video club. By and large, nostalgia was in for a letdown. Given the resources at his command, Mr. Spielberg is likely to leave this predecessor in the dust. He has been fond enough to add the original leads, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, to the supporting cast of his own film.

Born in Hungary, George Pal (1908-1980) became an animator of puppet cartoons at Paramount after finding his way to Hollywood. He branched off into adventure fantasy in the 1950s. Soon after completing “The War of the Worlds,” he and Mr. Haskin collaborated on an enduring cult favorite, “The Naked Jungle,” in which killer ants try to devour Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker.

Mr. Haskin (1899-1984), a native of Portland, Ore., exchanged a distinguished career as a cinematographer and special-effects supervisor at Warner Bros. for a mediocre one as a director. One of his last features, “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” circa 1964, contrived to pay a visit to the source of the calamities in “The War of the Worlds.”

There are still illustrative elements worth savoring in the Pal-Haskin movie. At that time, the filmmakers still thought it was feasible to defer to Wells and identify the invaders as Martians. That notion will disappear from the Spielberg update, also primed to enlarge on the scale of the weaponry that confronts amazed and overmatched earthlings.

Although clearly inspired by Wells’ descriptions, the 1953 menaces look rather dinky and toylike in retrospect. They’re also more mechanical than vividly, gruesomely organic.

The invaders like to irradiate humans with hovering artillery pieces. Slow but lethal, they have long necks and heads like cobras, out of which devastating green pulses or red and yellow heat rays are projected onto vulnerable citizens and buildings in the Los Angeles area. Even then, parochial Hollywood preferred to keep calamity in the immediate vicinity.

The other major alien prop was a probe with three colored panels (red, green and blue) that later resembled the keyboard on the Simon toy, with one color missing. The colorful aspects of this Martian hardware stand out even more vividly now against the cliched expendability of the endangered humans.

Eventually, schools of left-wing revisionism made it PC gospel to interpret the Pal-Haskin version as an ill-concealed allegory of anti-communist panic. This typical specimen appeared in a story about the Spielberg production on the cover of last weekend’s edition of the supplement USA Weekend: “At the start of the Cold War, audiences saw George Pal’s 1953 movie and thought one thing: The commies are coming to get us!”

One thing? Get real. Even if the Soviet threat lurked in scattered imaginations, it was an echo from the source material; Wells’ most knowing readers probably detected allusions to imperial Germany, which was more than an idle threat. The Cold War had been going strong since about 1946, and it is always more satisfying to take science-fiction fear-mongering literally.

I first saw the movie when I was 11, and the consensus in my peer group was that it had some neat alien assaults every so often. It was much too easy to get impatient waiting for this “good stuff.” Everyone felt a bit deflated when the invaders just fizzled, succumbing to an anticlimactic swoon borrowed from Wells: The atmosphere on Earth proves toxic to the fiends in a matter of days.

Of course, the fact that Mars was known as the Red Planet made it ridiculously easy to confuse this nickname with the Red Menace. The invaders inspired a good deal of red tinting in the 1953 film; evidently, this pictorial motif will return in the Spielberg version.

What is thematically interesting about the 1953 adaptation is its emphasis on faith. One of the first victims is a minister who foolishly approaches an alien cobra while displaying a Bible and reciting the 23rd Psalm. Scratch one peacemaker.

The most sympathetic refugees are those huddled in houses of worship, a civilized contrast to the mobs who impede Gene Barry and the impression of total desertion created by shots of empty, trash-strewn city streets. Moreover, the church sanctuaries seem to play an elusive, mystical role in causing the alien armada to conk out miraculously. It’ll be fascinating to observe the PC fallout if this pious element rears its head in the new “War of the Worlds.”


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