Monday 3 March 2008

George Pal's War of the World - A Film Criticism

Title: The War of the Worlds
Year: 1953

Director: Byron Haskin
H.G. Wells (novel), Barré Lyndon (screenplay)

Studio: Paramount Pictures
ilm Stock: Color (Technicolor)

Run Time: 85 min.

George Pal's The War of the Worlds was a film that brought terror, from the hearts of people living in a post World War II era, onto the big screen in such a way that it has been reported that people fled from the film screaming. That terror was an experience that would stay with the movie viewers, and is one of the
reasons the film is a cult classic today. How was that terror created? What was its purpose? In this essay we will examine the creation, use and purpose of terror in The War of the Worlds and how religion was used to both create and then help dispel that fear.

First Jesuit writers and media specialists John Pungente and Monty Williams wrote that viewing a film was a liturgical act; they state: "So when we watch a film, what we feel depends on our basic commitment. The film shows us who we are. This is a profoundly spiritual act, but going to a movie is also a liturgical act. Going to the cinema is public prayer; watching a DVD or video with friends or alone can be communal or private prayer. That prayer is an encounter with an "otherness" that helps us define ourselves." The opening sequence of this film, consisting of real news footage and film clips, from World War II and nuclear testing, though only 40 seconds in length would have put a 1953 audience on edge. The viewers have come to be entertained and are reminded of the horrors that the world has just gone through. Now the viewers are intimately connected to the film and to the people on screen. The first large group shot on screen is centered on Rev. Dr. Matthew Collins. The reverend would be recognizable by every viewer in the United States in 1953, and most would associate him with their pastor. So when he approaches the aliens in faith praying, trying to make contact, they would be associating Matthew's actions with the actions of their own priest, pastor or minister. The screen shot of Rev. Matthew praying, with his Bible raised, in words almost all Americans in 1953 would have recognized as Psalm 23, is essential to the religious tones in the film. Then, when he is killed by the aliens, the audience would have been devastated. How could they not be!

The terror is
created in many ways in this film. First aliens land and attack without provocation. Second is Reverend Matthew's death, described above. Third all of man's defenses are for naught. Our weapons, our science, our military strength cannot even dent the alien machines, let alone stop them. The scientists, who had the equipment that might be able to help, have been hijacked by a mob; they have no equipment, and are scattered. All hope seems to be lost. However, faith comes back into the film. Yet there is the lingering question of the scientists, if their convoy had not been attacked by the mob could they have found the answer? Could science have solved this problem if they had the resources and the time. The film hits at the fact that the alien blood sample could lead to a scientific solution. It is a question that lingers and leaves us seeking a scientific solution, man relying upon his intellect.

Then later after science has failed, Dr. Clayton Forrester, who is in search of Sylvia, begins looking in churches. As he journeys through three churches, we see different denominations and their reaction to this calamity. We pass from an Episcopal, to a Catholic, to an Evangelical church, where he does find Sylvia. This is the only church physically attacked by the aliens and the aliens die just as they do so.

At the time of this film, religion was a mainstay in the American home, and central to the American family life. The film ends with words "God in his divine wisdom…" and all is well on earth again. The film can be seen as an attempt to find balance between religion and science, particularly in an age when the Roman Catholic Church was still very against the scientific method and scientific revolution; that was a large part of modernity. This film sets science and religion on parity, the two pillars of the country.

The film used terror to drive people back to the church and to trust in science. It does so in a few specific ways. First it tries to put religion and science on an equal footing presenting them as parallel pillars to American life and society. This is done through the introduction of characters like Rev. Matthew and Dr. Forrester. It is also done through the filming of shots and Sylvia's progression as a mediator between the religious and scientific elements in the film. Dr. Cowan states: "Screenwriter Barré Lyndon completely reversed the understanding of religion in Wells' novel, and used it instead to reinforce the intimate connection that existed in post- World War Two America between strong faith and a determined resistance to communist aggression." The film used terror to draw people back to religion, to foster a trust in science, and to be used as a tool to help motivate the American people in facing the 'alien' threat of communism.


  1. Cowan, Douglas E. - Lecture September 10th 2007 Renison College
  2. Williams, Monte SJ & Pungente, John SJ Finding God in the Dark, Novalis, Toronto, 2004 p.17
  3. Cowan, Douglas E. (2007) Course Lecture RS 266, Renison College
  4. Cowan, Douglas E, "Intellects Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic: Religion, Science and The War of the Worlds." Forthcoming. (Course Notes Page 17)

Cowan, Douglas E,
"Intellects Vast and Cool and Unsympathetic:
Religion, Science and The War of the Worlds."

Pungente, John SJ Finding
God in the Dark
& Williams, Monty Novalis, Toronto, 2004

Pope Pius XII Apostolic Exhortations to
Representatives of the Cinema
Vatican, 21st June 1955

(First Written for RS266 Religion in Popular Film Fall 2007.)

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