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The War of the Worlds is a 1953 science fiction film starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson. It was the first on screen depiction of the H. G. Wells classic novel of the same name. Produced by George Pál and directed by Byron Haskin from a script by Barré Lyndon, it was the first of several adaptations of Wells' work to be filmed by Pál, and is considered to be one of the great science fiction films of the 1950s. It won an Oscar for its special effects.


The story is updated to the 1950s for this film, and the setting is moved from the environs of Londonmarker to southern Californiamarker. Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a world renowned physicist, is on a fishing vacation in Pine Summit when a giant meteorite lands in the hills above the nearby town of Linda Rosa. Along with the residents, he goes to investigate. At the impact site, he meets Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin). Finding the meteorite too hot to examine closely, he decides to wait in town for the meteorite to cool down.

Later, after most of the people have gone home, the meteorite (actually a Martian spacecraft) unscrews and disgorges a machine. When the three men who remained behind approach in friendly greeting, it kills them without warning. Forrester and the sheriff are also attacked when they return, but survive. Amid reports of numerous other meteors landing throughout the world, a regiment of United States Marines arrives and surrounds the Martian ship. Three Martian war machines deploy. Pastor Collins approaches one of them in peace, but they kill him with their Heat-Ray without attempting to communicate. The Marines attack, but the Martians are protected by an impenetrable force field. The invaders use their Heat-Ray and disintegrator rays to vaporize most of the defenders and move out.

Forrester and Sylvia flee, along with the rest of the civilians. After their plane crashes, they take shelter in a nearby abandoned farmhouse. They are trapped in the basement when another meteorite crashes into the house. The couple comes in contact with a Martian when the creature leaves its machine to look around. They manage to fight it off.

The couple reach Los Angeles, eventually rejoining Forrester's co-workers, who are trying to find a way to defeat the aliens. With a sample of Martian blood and an electronic eye obtained from the farmhouse encounter, the scientists learn a good deal about Martian physiology; in particular, they learn that they are physically weak creatures.

They then leave to observe a United States Air Force YB-49 drop an atomic bomb on the Martians advancing on Los Angeles. When this fails to destroy the machines, the government initiates large-scale evacuations of cities in danger. Refugees head for shelters set up in the Rocky Mountains. However, widespread panic among the general populace scatters the research group and their equipment is wrecked. In the confusion, Forrester and Sylvia become separated.

All seems lost, with humanity helpless before the onslaught. Forrester frantically searches for Sylvia in the burning ruins of a Los Angeles under attack. He finally finds her with others awaiting the end in a church. Suddenly, they see an approaching Martian war machine crash. Upon investigating, Forrester realizes that the seemingly all-powerful invaders are dying. As in the book, they have no biological defense against Earth's viruses and bacteria.


* Not credited on-screen.


The film opens with a prologue in black and white and switches to Technicolor at the opening title sequence.

George Pál originally planned for the final third of the film to be in 3-D to correlate with the final attack by the Martians. The plan was dropped prior to actual production of the film, presumably being deemed too expensive.

World War II stock footage was used to produce a montage of destruction to show the worldwide invasion, with armies of all nations joining together to fight the invaders.

Wells had used the second half of his novel to make a satirical commentary on civilization and the class struggle. Lyndon did not write the satire into the movie, though he did add a religious theme (in contrast to Wells original novel), to the point that the Martians begin dying shortly after blasting a church.

The city of Coronamarker was used as the shooting location for the town of "Linda Rosa".

Special effects

A conscious effort was made to avoid the "flying saucer" look of stereotypical UFOs. The Martian war machines were instead sleek, sinister-looking constructs shaped like manta rays floating over the ground. Three Martian war machines were made for the film, out of copper. One was modified for use in the film Robinson Crusoe on Mars (which Byron Haskin also directed) and was supposedly later melted down for a copper drive. Forrest Ackerman owned one. It is believed that the third was destroyed in a fire.

Each machine was topped with a towering mobile eye, pulsing, peering around and firing beams of red sparks, all accompanied by thrumming and a high-pitched clattering shriek when the Heat-Ray was fired from the eye. The distinctive sound effect of the weapon was created by the orchestra performing the musical score, mainly through the use of violins and cellos. For many years, it was utilized as a standard "ray-gun" sound on children's television shows and the sci-fi anthology series The Outer Limits, particularly the episode "The Children of Spider County".

The machines also fired a green ray (referred to as a "skeleton beam") from their wingtips, generating a distinctive sound and exposing the interior of its target (in the case of humans, their skeletons became briefly visible) before disintegrating it. This latter weapon seems to have been substituted for the chemical weapon black smoke described in the novel. The sound effect was reused in Star Trek: The Original Series, accompanying the launch of photon torpedos.

Much effort was put forth to recreate the tripods of the novel; but they proved problematic for various reasons and it was eventually decided to make the machines float on three invisible, electronic legs instead. To show their existence, rays were to be shown directly under the hovering Martian war machines as they move along – however, in the final film, these only appear when the military and Dr Forrester first see one of the machines. It proved too difficult to mark out the invisible legs when smoke and other effects also had to be seen beneath the machines.


The War of the Worlds had its official premiere in Hollywood on February 20, 1953, although it did not go into general theatrical release until the fall of that year. The film was both a critical and box office success. It accrued US$ 2,000,000 in distributors' domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals, making it the year's biggest science fiction film hit.

The New York Times review noted the film was "an imaginatively conceived, professionally turned adventure, which makes excellent use of Technicolor, special effects by a crew of experts and impressively drawn backgrounds...Director Byron Haskin, working from a tight script by Barre Lyndon, has made this excursion suspenseful, fast and, on occasion, properly chilling". "Brog" in Variety felt it was "a socko science-fiction feature, as fearsome as a film as was the Orson Welles 1938 radio interpretation...what starring honors there are go strictly to the special effects, which create an atmosphere of soul-chilling apprehension so effectively audiences will actually take alarm at the danger posed in the picture. It can't be recommended for the weak-hearted, but to the many who delight in an occasional good scare, it's sock entertainment of hackle-raising quality".

Cultural relevance

  • The 1988 War of the Worlds TV series is essentially a sequel to this film, and employs several elements from the film, including having Ann Robinson reprise her role as Sylvia Van Buren in three episodes. Robinson also quasi-reprised her role in two later films, first as Dr. Van Buren in 1988's Midnight Movie Massacre and as Dr. Sylvia Van Buren in 2005's The Naked Monster.

  • In Independence Day (1996), the aliens (not from Mars) are defeated in part by infecting the mothership with a computer virus. There are also several other references to the 1953 film, such as the failed attempt to use an atomic bomb by a flying wing, but this time the bomb is dropped by a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber; a downed streetlight twisted into the shape of the gooseneck of the original war machines; and Captain Hiller being based in El Toro, which Dr. Forrester mentions as the home of the Marines who make the first assault on the Martian war machines. Director Roland Emmerich added a scene in which three helicopters are destroyed while attempting to communicate with a city destroyer.

  • Tim Burton's 1996 Mars Attacks! was a more humorous treatment, loosely based upon the original story, but more directly adapted from Topps' famous 1962 trading card series. The film primarily spoofs 1950s alien invasion films, including The War of the Worlds. In this version, the Martians are repelled not by germs, but by Slim Whitman's yodeling, which causes their heads to explode.

  • Steven Spielberg's 2005 adaptation, though not a remake, does feature several references to the original film. Gene Barry and Ann Robinson had cameo appearances, and the aliens kept their three-fingered hands, though they became reptile-like tripods.

  • The name "Pacific Tech" ("Pacific Institute of Technology") has been referenced in other films and television where directors/writers/producers wanted to depict a science-oriented university without using a real institution's name, including Galactica 1980 and Real Genius.

  • On the Commentary track of Ann Robinson and Gene Barry, on the Special Collector's Edition, they point out that the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker is seen in the tree top, center screen, when the first Martian meteor crashes through the sky at the beginning of the film. Woody's creator Walter Lantz and George Pál were supposedly close friends and George tried to include the character out of friendship and good luck, in many of his productions.


  1. Warren, Bill. Keep Watching The Skies Vol I: 1950 - 1957, pgs. 151 - 163, McFarland, 1982. ISBN 0-89950-032-3.
  2. Rubin, Steve. Cinefantastique magazine, Vol 5 No. 4 (1977), "The War of the Worlds", pgs. 4 - 16; 34 - 47
  3. Gebert, Michael. The Encyclopedia of Movie Awards (listing of 'Box Office (Domestic Rentals)' for 1953, taken from Variety magazine), St. Martin's Paperbacks, 1996. ISBN 0-668-05308-9. "Rentals" refers to the distributor/studio's share of the box office gross, which, according to Gebert, is normally roughly half of the money generated by ticket sales.
  4. "Brog". Review from Variety dated April 6, 1953, taken from Variety's Complete Science Fiction Reviews, edited by Don Willis, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985. ISBN 0-8240-6263-9

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