'War Of The Worlds' (1953) film screening and talk at Royal Observatory Greenwich // Words: Maxamillian John
The Royal Observatory Greenwich continued their Alien Season with a screening of Byron Haskin's 'War Of The Worlds' from 1953. Not what you'd call a close adaptation, it appends a religious theme onto Wells' original novel and moves the action from Victorian Britain to 1950s California.
There's lots about this 1950s adaptation that won't stand up to 21st century sensibilities, most notably the saturation of stereotypes which look at best naïve and at worst misogynistic: the women are shrieking and hysterical, the men are brave but foolhardy. These are products of the time, however, and writer Barré Lyndon does elsewhere display awareness of cliché, especially in a witty reversal of the 50s sci-fi stereotype of Martians as 'little green men'.
His use of Cold War fears of radiation and EMPs to draw a parallel between the Martians and the threat of Soviet invasion is likewise anachronistic, but does add another layer to the film and would probably have felt relevant to contemporary audiences. I doubt they would've been comforted by his allegory of a failed nuclear counterattack, but maybe they would've been more receptive to the terminal subtext that God will always save them.
Of all the changes and anachronisms in the adaptation, the religious component is the hardest to swallow. The deus ex machina of HG Wells' ending is given an extra 'deus' when the narrator reveals that God 'in his infinite wisdom' put the bacteria on Earth that defeated the Martians, replete with ringing church bells. While it doesn't affect the movie until the final scene, which leaves the bulk of the story intact and keeps it sci-fi, the fact that you get jumped by it as the movie ends makes it feel even more incongruous.
But hey, all these criticism are in the discourse of whether 'War Of The Worlds' would make a good modern film. Does it matter? As a piece of pulp sci-fi from the past it's hugely entertaining. The Royal Observatory Greenwich put together a fantastic night, screening a ropey but fun film and presenting a talk by one of their astronomers on the subject of aliens and the Solar System.
It was a shame that more people couldn't make it out to the screening, because where else are you going to see cult sci-fi projected onto an actual planetarium? As a venue, the Peter Harrison Planetarium is - sorry to drop critical register here - it's kickass, and the talk was a great chance to ask sci-fi questions of a working scientist who’s eager to elucidate his work to the public.
Next month the Royal Observatory are screening 'It Came From Outer Space', another 1953 cult classic, and tickets are again available from only a fiver. It should be a night well worth climbing up the massive Greenwich hill for.
Find more info and purchase tickets via rmg.co.uk.