Asked to compile a list of the ten most famous science fiction novels ever written, one might include 2001: A Space Odyssey by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Dune by Frank Herbert, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth - and no fewer than three works by H.G. Wells: The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon and The War of the Worlds.
While most of the above have been filmed, The War of the Worlds has to date spawned two major motion pictures, a number of radio dramas – one of which launched the career of HGW’s near-namesake Orson Welles, a TV series and one of the most successful concept albums of the 1970s.
It has inspired numerous other dramatisations including the 1980s miniseries “V” (which picked up on the idea of humans as a food source for aliens) and the 1996 movie Independence Day (in which the aliens are defeated by a computer virus rather than earthly bacteria). Even Dr Who’s arch-enemies the Daleks can probably trace their origins back to the Martian tripod fighting machines and their tentacled occupants.
The novel opens with the famous line “Nobody would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s”. Nobody would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century just how many times that line would have to be updated.
The original novel is actually set at the beginning of the last century, a few years ahead of the time it was written. The unnamed narrator is what would now be known as a popular science writer who lives with his equally nameless wife in Horsell near Woking in Surrey. They apparently have no children.
The narrator meets the renowned astronomer Ogilvy at his observatory in Ottershaw and observes a disturbance on Mars which turns out to be the launching of a Martian projectile. In all, ten projectiles are launched at almost exactly 24 hour intervals. (This would not in fact result in them all landing in the same place, as both Earth and Mars are in motion around the Sun.)
Wells followed Jules Verne 35 years earlier in using a space-gun to travel between worlds though for his later (1903) novel The First Men in the Moon he sent his travellers to the Moon in a spacecraft using a “Cavorite” anti-gravity screen, and was roundly criticised by the by now elderly Verne for so doing!
Some time later, the first Martian projectile lands on Horsell Common and attracts a crowd of curious onlookers, including the narrator. But the cylinder unscrews, tentacled creatures emerge and blast an approaching delegation, including Ogilvy, with a heat ray. The narrator hires a horse-drawn vehicle from a local publican and takes his wife and their valuables to stay with relatives in Leatherhead. Unfortunately he has to return the carriage and before he can return to Leatherhead he is caught up in the invasion as the Martians have now deployed tripod fighting machines and have broken though army units surrounding their projectile. The narrator meets up with an artilleryman whose unit has been wiped out and learns that more Martians have landed at Addlestone, making a return to Leatherhead impossible.
The narrator witnesses a battle at Shepperton, during which one Martian tripod is destroyed and a second is damaged by artillery fire. During the battle the narrator is separated from the artilleryman. The Martians regroup and change tactics, flooding areas where artillery batteries may be concealed with a chemical weapon known as Black Smoke.
As more projectiles land across South East England, the first signs that things are awry are seen during the Sunday afternoon as people on day trips to the suburbs begin returning by train unusually early and a few refugees are seen in Oxford Street. However panic breaks out early on Monday morning and millions of Londoners flee the Martian advance, including the narrator’s brother, a medical student, who together a woman named Mrs Elphinstone and her sister reach the coast and board a paddle steamer bound for Ostend.
Off the Essex coast they witness the battle between the warship HMS Thunder Child and the Martians. The Thunder Child goes to the aid of a ferry being menaced by a group of Martian tripods and destroys two of them before succumbing herself. The ferry escapes.
Thunder Child is described as an “ironclad torpedo ram” by Wells. The Royal Navy only ever had one ship of this type, HMS Polyphemus – a coastal defence ship armed with torpedoes, a ram and machine guns. She had no armaments capable of engaging a Martian fighting machine.
It was common practice at the time to equip warships with rams, but the tactic was little used after the Battle of Lissa in 1866. In 1893 - in what was probably the most spectacular own goal in naval history – the battleship HMS Victoria was sunk in a collision with HMS Camperdown as a result of a botched manoeuvre ordered by Vice-Admiral Sir George Tryon. Camperdown’s ram inflicted fatal damage on the Victoria, which foundered in a matter of minutes. Tryon was among the 358 who lost their lives in the disaster. Rams were abandoned thereafter. It seems more likely that Thunder Child was an armoured cruiser or a battleship. She is indeed depicted as the latter on the album cover of the Jeff Wayne musical version, more of which anon.
The battle between HMS Thunder Child and the Martians concludes the first part of the novel.
The focus then switches back to the narrator, who takes shelter in a house in Halliford, accompanied by a curate. The building is almost destroyed when a Martian projectile lands close by and the pair are unable to escape for fear of attracting the Martians. They are able to see the Martians going about their business and see humans being drained of blood, which the Martians inject directly into their bodies for sustenance. The humans have been collected by fighting machines, some of which are equipped with baskets for the purpose. Thus the narrator learns what the future holds for humanity under Martian rule. The curate – already traumatized by the invasion and behaving erratically – begins making so much noise that the narrator is forced to kill him before his ravings attract the Martians.
The Martians leave after 15 days and the narrator emerges to find red Martian weed everywhere. He falls in with the artilleryman he met earlier. The artilleryman is delusional, believing he can singlehandedly rebuild civilization and retake Earth from the invaders. The narrator leaves him and makes for London, which is deserted and fully under the control of the Martians. But soon afterwards both the Martians and the red weed begin to die. They have no immunity to Earth’s pathogenic bacteria and viruses – “slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon the earth.” This is the only reference to God having anything to do with the defeat of the Martians.
The narrator learns that Leatherhead was destroyed by the Martians and believes his wife to have been killed but on returning to Woking, finds her alive and well in his house.
Speculation that the Martians may try again, but astronomers suggest they may have mounted an invasion of Venus.
Belief that Mars was a dying planet was widespread at the time. The then-prevalent model of the formation of the Solar System, put forward by Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1796, proposed that the planets had been formed from a contracting cloud of proto-solar matter. As the cloud contracted, planets condensed out of material, with outermost planets being formed first. Thus Mars was believed to be older than Earth, and probably dying; and Venus was younger and possibly habitable. The Laplace model had to be abandoned, because it did not account for the observed distribution of angular momentum within the Solar System, but not until the 1960s was the true nature of Mars and Venus revealed when they were first visited by unmanned US and Soviet space probes.
The War of the Worlds was influenced by fear that Britain would be invaded – like later versions, the original novel reflected contemporary fears.
Orson Welles notorious 1938 adaptation for radio was an episode of the American radio series Mercury Theatre on the Air, broadcast by CBS on October 30, 1938. It was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which led many listeners to believe that an actual Martian invasion was in progress, though the actual degree of panic has almost certainly been exaggerated.
The location was changed from South East England to Grover’s Hill, NJ and Welles plays the “famous astronomer” whose name is changed from the quintessentially English Ogilvy to Pierson. The Martians advance on New York City and are opposed by artillery and bombers. The gunners damage one tripod and another is destroyed by the bombers, but more Martian cylinders are landing all over the country.
A news reporter broadcasting from the CBS building describes the Martian invasion of New York City — machines wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River "like rats", others "falling like flies" — until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas.
Following an intermission, Professor Pierson describes the aftermath of the attacks, which ended when the Martians were killed by terrestrial pathogens as in the novel.
The broadcast and its attendant panic was itself the subject of the 1975 TV movie The Night that Panicked America.
The 1953 movie was produced by Hungarian-born George Pal, who had previously produced the 1951 doomsday epic When Worlds Collide. Screenplay was by Barre Lyndon. It starred Gene Barry, Ann Robinson (no relation) and Lewis Martin.
The film opens with an updated version of its famous opening sentence, spoken by Cedric Hardwicke. “Nobody would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century...” Hardwicke then describes the Martian deliberations as to where they could go to escape from their dying world as they consider the Solar System’s other planets, accompanied by memorable art-work by Chesley Bonestell. For some reason, though, Venus is not mentioned.
The location this time is southern California. What is at first believed to be a meteorite lands near Linda Rosa, near Los Angeles, and is investigated by physicist Clayton Forrester (Barry) and local residents including Sylvia van Buren (Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins (Martin). The object is too hot for an immediate investigation, so Forrester decides to return to the town while it cools down.
Three men are left by the local sheriff to guard the object, but it unscrews and deploys a Heat Ray device which kills the men as they approach it. The blast also brings down pylons, plunging Linda Rosa into darkness and starting fires. Everybody’s watch stops. Forrester returns with the sheriff to investigate and discover the remains of the three men. Their driver panics and drives off without them – but is blasted by the Martian heat-ray. A second inbound Martian spacecraft is seen passing overhead.
Forrester recommends calling in the military and a force of Marines surrounds the impact site. The Martians deploy three fighting machines.
The tripods are replaced by sleek copper-coloured manta-ray like machines, which float above the ground on beams of electromagnetic force. They are armed with a heat-ray mounted on a cobra-like projection, and wingtip-mounted secondary weapons shooting green bolts that cause their targets to disintegrate.
The curate of the original becomes Sylvia van Buren’s kindly uncle, Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins, an altogether more sympathetic character who goes out to meet the Martians, Bible in hand, reading the 23rd Psalm. He is promptly blasted with a heat-ray – to Sylvia’s predictable horror, and setting a strongly religious tone for the rest of the movie.
The Marines open fire, but their concentrated bombardment is completely ineffective. Unlike Wells’ original fighting machines, which could be taken out by early 20th Century weaponry, these machines are seemingly invulnerable.
Forrester and the distraught Sylvia van Buren flee in a light aeroplane, ahead of an attack on the Martian nest by the USAF. They fly too low in order to avoid the incoming bombers, clip a tree and crash. They are unhurt and take shelter in a deserted farmhouse. Meanwhile the Martians destroy the force of bombers.
A Martian spaceship lands near the farmhouse, partially destroying it. While Forrester and van Buren hide, a Martian – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Spielberg’s ET – investigates the farmhouse. A remote camera spots the pair. Forrester hacks off the camera and the pair flee the farmhouse just before the Martians blast it. They also have a sample of Martian blood. They make it back to LA safely and rejoin their colleagues. The blood turns out to be anaemic, suggesting the Martians might be rather less mighty than their machines.
But by now the Martians are causing devastation on a global scale with all attempts to halt them ending in defeat. A decision is made to use nuclear weapons. A flying-wing aircraft nukes the group outside LA, but the fighting machines are not damaged. Forrester realise that mankind’s only hope is to fight the Martians, not their machines.
The Martians begin to move towards the city. Forrester’s colleagues evacuate in a bus with Forrester following with the vital blood samples in a pickup truck. They are attacked by panicky residents trying to get out of the city. Forrester tries to find Sylvia. He remembers that as a child her uncle, Matthew Collins, once found her hiding in a church, and he figures that’s where she’ll be.
The Martians have by now entered Los Angeles, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake and blasting the iconic City Hall. Meanwhile the churches are doing a roaring trade, packed out with Los Angelinos praying for deliverance. Not until the third one does Forrester locate Sylvia. By this time the Martians are close at hand. A heat-ray takes out a stained-glass window and part of the building collapses. But suddenly the attack halts. The fighting machines begin falling to the ground. One of them opens up, but when Forrester investigates he finds its occupant dead.
Hardwicke’s voice-over explains that the Martians had no defence against earthly bacteria, but the ending, with its church bells and hymns, implies that that it was God who really deserved the credit and that the attack on a church was the last straw that convinced Him to put the boot in on the Martians.
Like the original, this movie was strongly influence by contemporary fears and its religiousness is undoubtedly a Cold War reaction to the atheism of the USSR. (In addition there was an obvious connection between Communists and hostile beings from the Red Planet!)
It is often said that the 1953 movie bears little resemblance to the original novel but common elements can be recognised: Forrester is a conflation of the narrator and Ogilvy; in both versions a delegation of three men try to make friendly contact and are wiped out; military surround the initial landing site; and both versions have a scene in which the main character is trapped in the basement of a building partially destroyed by the landing of a Martian projectile.
A quarter of a century later, in 1978, rock musician Jeff Wayne released a musical version, a double album that was narrated by Richard Burton. It remained in the UK album charts for 290 weeks and remains popular three decades later, with a live tour in 2006.
A TV series of The War of the Worlds appeared in 1988. Intended as a sequel to the 1953 movie, it was hamstrung by the ludicrous idea that due to a government cover-up and a condition known as “selective amnesia”, nobody could remember the invasion of 1953, despite the devastating attacks on Los Angeles and other cities around the world. The aliens – who it turned out were not from Mars but a distant planet called Mortax – had merely been put into suspended animation by Earthly bacteria. Why nobody noticed this in 1953 is among the many things this series left unexplained.
The comatose aliens were stored in metal drums in various army bases around the world; in the case of those in United States these drums happened to be stored near some radioactive waste that was released when the base was attacked by terrorists. This killed off the bacteria and revived the aliens, who far from being the puny, anaemic creatures of the movie possess considerably more upper-body strength than a human. Rather more worryingly, they can also take over human bodies. They start with the six terrorists.
The government form a group to tackle the threat, headed up by Dr. Harrison Blackwood (Jared Martin), adopted son of Clayton Forrester. The top-secret Blackwood Project also includes microbiologist Suzanne McCullough (Linda Mason Green), her daughter Debi (Rachel Blanchard), wheelchair-bound computer wizard Norton Drake (Philip Akin) and Native American military man Lt. Col. Paul Ironhorse (Richard Chaves). Ann Robinson made special guest appearances reprising her role of Sylvia van Buren.
The aliens were led by a ruling triumvirate known as the Advocacy, whose catch-phrase was “To Life Immortal”. Early on, they established a base of operations in the Nevada Desert, where radiation from bomb testing kept earthly bacteria at bay. Their objective was to continue their 1953 mission of eliminating humanity, to make way for three million colonists en-route from Mortax.
The series was notable for its level of violence. Discarded human hosts would simply disintegrate into a mess of steaming slime and episodes frequently dwelt on the terror of human captives – the equivalent of Star Trek’s “redshirts” - waiting to be used as hosts or in one of the Mortaxans’ fiendish experiments. Rarely did this add anything to the story; one exception was when Blackwood fell in love with a woman who had (temporarily) escaped the Mortaxans’ clutches.
Blackwood and his team rarely came out on top, though they did succeed in thwarting every attempt by the aliens to recapture their fighting machines. Three of these had been stored at Area 51; another was buried at Grover’s Mill after the abortive 1938 invasion (Orson Welles’ broadcast was part of a government cover-up); and an earlier tripod model had been left on Native American land. To deal with the latter, Blackwood called on the aid of a shaman, who used supernatural power to destroy it.
For the show’s second season, the format was changed considerably. After a battle with the aliens that left Lt. Col Ironhorse and Norton Drake dead, the Blackwood Project was disowned by the government and the survivors were forced to go underground, where they were joined by John Kinkaid (Adrian Paul). Meanwhile, a second group of Mortaxans (the Morthren) arrived and began executing the first lot, who passively accepted their fate despite outnumbering the newcomers at least ten-to-one. The Morthren cloned humans rather than take over their bodies as their predecessors had done.
Innumerable loose ends from the first season remained unresolved – these included the fate of Quinn, a duplicitous survivor of the 1953 invasion who was immune to infection; and that of the Synth, a sexy punk female android who zapped Mortaxans at will, but only to preserve humanity as a source of food. Also unexplained was how the world had apparently deteriorated into a post-apocalyptic society overnight.
Towards the end of the second season, the show was cancelled and a concluding episode had the majority of the Morthren killed off in various battles, and the remainder suing for peace and agreeing to work with mankind to restore Earth.
The most recent outing for H.G. Wells’ now venerable tale was the 2005 movie by Stephen Spielburg, which starred Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin and Tim Robbins. Morgan Freeman speaks the opening voice-over, now updated to “the early years of the 21st Century”. The definite article is dropped from the movie title.
Although again set in the US, this version is truer to the original novel, following an ordinary man and his family trying to survive the invasion. Spielberg has however worked in elements from both the 1938 radio broadcast and the 1953 movie. The movie makes extensive use of Spielberg’s trademark lighting effects and a Hitchcock-like soundtrack (by John Williams) and draws on his earlier works involving (considerably more friendly) aliens. Those familiar with the 1953 version will recognise several lines of dialogue lifted from it. Early in the movie a van Buren Street is seen (albeit presumably named for President van Buren) and Gene Barry and Ann Robinson from the 1953 movie make cameo appearances.
Like the novel and the 1953 movie, this version plays on contemporary fears – in this case those of America a little under four years after 9/11.
Ray Farrier (Cruise) is a dock worker from Newark NJ (the 1938 Martians also landed in New Jersey). His young daughter Rachel (Fanning) and rebellious teenaged son Robbie (Chatwin) are staying with him for the weekend, having been dropped off for the weekend by his ex-wife Mary-Anne and her husband Tim, with whom he remains on reasonably good terms. Mary-Anne and Tim are going to Boston for the weekend to stay with the former’s parents (Barry and Robinson).
The fighting machines of the invaders revert to tripods, but instead of arriving from out of space they were buried in the ground thousands of years ago and are activated by freak electrical storms occurring all over the world. It later emerged that the storms were energy discharges produced by pods containing the aliens being inserted into their fighting machines.
The invaders’ homeworld is never revealed. At the start of the movie, a shot of Earth seen from outer space fades to a red disk, suggesting Mars – but it then turns out to be a red traffic light. Some have taken this to mean Mars but I’d take it to mean the opposite, deliberately rejecting a connection with Mars.
Electro-motive pulses from the storm causes Ray’s vintage Omega to stop – a double reference to the 1953 movie where watches were found to have stopped and that the watch itself (a gold manual wind chronograph) dates to the 1950s. In fact a watch from the pre-quartz era is probably one thing that would not be affected an electro-motive pulse. Also it would take rather more than changing the solenoids (as Ray advises a mechanic) in any car more recent than 25 years old to get it going again.
With Tripods blasting everything in sight with heat-rays, Ray and his children steal the re-energised car, now the only one in the neighbourhood that is working, with the intention of making for Boston. They stay overnight at Mary-Anne and Tim’s house in Bayonne, NJ. During the night a jumbo jet is shot down and crashes nearby. After an encounter with a TV crew they continue on to Boston, but Robbie is increasingly anxious to join soldiers who are fighting the invaders.
Near Athens, NY, they are attacked by a mob which seizes the car. They press on on foot. Everywhere posters of missing people have been put up – recalling New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In a dramatic sequence a train burning from end to end hurtles through (how it is still going isn’t clear). An uneasy crowd is waiting to board a Hudson River ferry. Rachel notices birds fleeing and a glow on the horizon. It is clear the tripods are close at hand. Ray, Rachel and Robbie board the ferry just as Tripods appear over horizon.
Cars are tipped off the ferry to make way for more people – reminiscent of the helicopters that were dropped overboard from aircraft carriers during the final frantic US retreat from Saigon in 1975. Thus the scene references two occasions when the most powerful nation in the world was reduced to impotence.
The Hudson Ferry scene echoes the scene in original when HMS Thunder Child destroys two Martian tripods and permits a ferry to get away, but in this version help does not come. The ferry is attacked by a submerged Tripod, which begins scooping people out of the water. However Ray, Rachel and Robbie swim to safety. They witness Tripods pursuing crowds of panicked humans, blasting them with heat-rays.
In Massachusetts, the Marines are trying to keep the Tripods at bay long enough to permit refugees to get away. At this point Robbie runs off to join the battle. But the Marines have no more luck than their 1953 counterparts and Robbie is believed to have been killed. A man named Ogilvy (Robbins) beckons to Ray and Rachel and they take shelter in his cellar. The man is a conflation of Ogilvy, the curate and the artilleryman from the original novel. The Tripods are broadcasting Red Weed, fertilized with human blood. Ogilvy flips and Ray has to kill him, as in the novel.
Ray and Rachel leave but are threatened by a Tripod which scoops up Rachel and puts her in a basket with some other humans. Ray finds some hand grenades abandoned in the heat of battle and hurls one at the Tripod, without effect. Ray is then scooped up himself. An arm periodically grabs humans and transfers them to the interior of the machine for processing. Ray is grabbed but the others pull him back – not before he leaves behind a couple of hand grenades, which detonate, destroying the Tripod and freeing the captives.
Ray and Rachel reach Boston where the red weed is apparently dying. The Tripods are also behaving erratically. Birds are circling near the hoods of one the machines, suggesting its shields are no longer operating. Ray urges a group of Marines to fire on the machine. They do so, taking it down. In another reference to 1953 a hatch opens and an alien hand reaches out. Instead of Forrester, it is greeted by gun-toting Marines, but it dies almost immediately.
In an ending that echoes the book, Ray finds Robbie and his ex-wife alive and well at the home of his former in-laws.
The defeat of the invaders is given as a more or less verbatim reading by Freeman Morgan the original novel, against a backdrop of the devastated Boston, but without the strongly religious undertones of the 1953 movie.
The DVD release references many chapter titles from the original novel.
The movie was actually one of three released in 2005 based on The War of the Worlds; the other two were both made for DVD. One of these, by Pendragon Pictures, was set in the UK at the time envisaged in the novel.
© Christopher Seddon 2008