Uncle Matthew (Lewis Martin) is a pastor in Linda Rosa, California. He lives a life of quiet faith, preaching to townsfolk and running weekend square dances. Maybe he served in World War II, maybe not. His niece, Sylvia (Ann Robinson) is one of nine children from a large family based in rural Minnesota and lives nearby while working as a library science instructor at the University of Southern California. She did her thesis on, uh, “modern scientists,” so she’s immediately smitten when the charming Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Berry) shows up to investigate a strange glowing meteor that landed just outside of town. Uncle Matthew approves for his niece and tells her as such in the last moments of his life before being painfully disintegrated while testing the limits of his devotion to God.
You see, the meteor was actually a delivery device for a Martian flying saucer capable of disintegrating humans and their meager civilization with unbeatable magnetic rays. They’re in the market for a new home, and Earth just got listed.
God works in mysterious ways.
The War of the Worlds, the pinnacle of 1950s science-fiction, hits the Criterion Collection this month. Everything about it has long become iconic. Dr. Forrester, the shockingly attractive steel-jawed academic who isn’t afraid to bust an alien’s face when it messes with his girl. Sylvia, who screams at the smallest stimuli unless she find a few eggs in the abandoned farmhouse they take refuge in — which she’ll prepare for Forrester with a smile. Uncle Matthew, the doomed priest. An invading alien force of inhuman monsters whose groundbreaking sound design give them an added layer of unforgettable horror. Cheesy? Sure. Terrifying? Still.
Overly emphasizing the last line of H.G. Welles’ classic novel — “and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth” — as a way of capturing the overwhelming cultural emphasis on church during that age? You fucking bet. The final sequence in the story is set in the crumbling Los Angeles as Dr. Forrester runs from church to church to find Sylvia, whom he has lost in the ruckus. Flying saucers mercilessly blast the city overhead. Fires burn the City of Angels to the ground. Forrester finds those who didn’t evacuate huddled, begging for God’s mercy, which is finally delivered at the last second immediately after Sylvia is located. Uncle Matthew’s confidence in a compassionate God was apparently misplaced. In this story, the big man is enjoying some Old Testament kinda fun.
Producer George Pal was the brains behind the operation, taking advantage of the story’s re-popularization by Orson Welles after his classic 1938 radio broadcast that allegedly caused panic among its listeners (the recording, as well as a documentary about it, are featured on the Criterion release). It’s a good recording and a lot of fun, although its direct impact on its listeners is long disputed. Some might think the story about it causing panic was an urban legend created to further the careers of those involved, but its use as a cautionary tale about the power of media had value for a few decades. Quite a few. Now we’re electing QAnon believers into Congress, so who could blame a few people for freaking out about a radio broadcast? At least their mania was short-lived and made for some good guffaws later on. Now it’s just depressing.
The War of the Worlds is a stellar slice of truly visionary American science-fiction, with spooky atmosphere and cool special effects transcending the somewhat outdated 1950’s Post-War Godly Americana of it all. Criterion has loaded the disc with special features, including a film historian commentary track and several documentaries with famed sound designer Ben Burtt. For genre fans, this is one of their most exciting releases in years.