This is a strange movie. For one thing, the lead scientist (Gene Barry) is allowed to wear eyeglasses, which at the time was considered demasculinizing. For another, we don't emerge from the interplanetary conflict victorious. We don't discover that the Martians dissolve in salt water or are allergic to second-hand smoke or peanuts. They die alright, but not because of -- but rather despite -- our every effort to eliminate them, including a nuclear bomb. For another, in some way this is a rarity -- a film that's an improvement over the book it's based on.
H. G. Wells' novella had aliens landing all over England and building cylindrical walking tripods to use as "fighting machines." People were not just killed by their main weapon, "black smoke," but were eaten as well. And, as we should expect from a socialist like Wells, religion is just about absent from the book. The narrator DOES encounter a churchman but he goes mad and is eaten.
The film is smoother, splashier, and easier to follow for non-British audiences who might not know West Wokking from Stoke-on-Trent. And the flying -- or rather the GLIDING -- fighting machines are a vast improvement over Wells' giant, stumbling cylinders. These machines here are really creepy. And, although the Martians don't seem to eat anybody, they destroy everything and everybody in sight. We get barely a glimpse of them, just enough to know they are bipedal and bilaterally symmetrical, with suction cups on the ends of their three fingers, which, it has to be admitted, is a little outré. I mean, where do they live -- perched on smooth walls? Come to think of it, they lack a thumb too. That puts them in the same category as Mickey Mouse, doesn't it?
Gene Barry is the stalwart scientist. There is a girl in it for no particular narrative reason. When everyone is trying to escape Los Angeles before it is destroyed, two trucks and a bus are packed with electronic equipment that might be pieced together in such a way as to check the Martians' advance. Yet when the vehicles try to leave, they are confiscated by a hysterical mob. The mob throws out the scientists and their equipment and take off for parts far away. The mob members who knew what they were doing (if any of them knew) were in an interesting position called a "social trap." If you were in a position to save (1) all mankind or (2) your own lily-livered butt, which would you choose?
The religious element of the film probably has H. G. Wells spinning in his grave. Right off the bat, the beautiful young girl's uncle Mathew is a minister who tries to communicate with the creatures, tremulously approaches one of the machines, holding a Bible and reciting a familiar Psalm. ZAP. Barry's young girl friend was abandoned as a child and rescued by the Minister, who found her in a church doorway. There is a lot of ecumenical religious imagery in this film. In the end, with civilization being blasted away and falling down around their ears, the survivors hold each other inside a church -- just as the Martians begin to kick it. A holy choir swells up and the narrator, Cedric Hardwicke, tell us about the bacteria that "God in His wisdom" put upon the earth. I guess everybody would go along with much of that. I'd leave the bacteria alone instead of trying to kill them off by overusing antibiotics to make our cattle fatter and our chickens plumper for the short-term change.
At that, the General (Les Tremayne) who sees all military efforts fail, announces that they will now move to the mountains, establish a line of defense, and fight them from there. This is a smart move when a weak opponent faces a technologically superior one. What else can you do? It is what's called "guerilla warfare" and is waged by "freedom fighters" (if they're on our side) or "rebels" (if they're not).
I don't mean to suggest any solutions to these kinds of issues, or even that there ARE any solutions, but the movie itself, wittingly or otherwise, manages to raise them in model form. Wells was quite open about it. For him and his contemporaries, the behavior of the invading Martians is an analog of colonialism. Do we have the right to condemn the Martians when we ourselves move into a portion of another continent and claim it as our own? In any case -- ethics or no -- this is a good movie, full of zest and special effects. It's not a masterpiece. There are so few masterpieces, especially in genre movies. But the view is both cogent and satisfying. Watch it, if you haven't already.
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