War of the Worlds and the Blockbuster Legacy of George Pal

A new look at sci-fi classic, War of the Worlds and its visionary producer, George Pal.

The original The War of the Worlds, the 1953 movie based on the classic novel by British science fiction writer H.G. Wells, is now on Netflix, meaning that it’s a good time for you to fire up the streaming service (or request the DVD if you still like these things the old-fashioned way) and give it a spin. That’s not a suggestion; that’s an order. The War of the Worlds is worth your attention in these days of short memories because it is a) one of the finest science fiction films of its time, b) still a gripping and exciting experience with 60-year-old special effects that hold up pretty well and c) it’s perhaps the crowning achievement of filmmaker/producer George Pal.

Pal took a lot of liberties with Wells’ book, including changing the time and place from late 19th century London to contemporary (for the movie) California, but the basic idea — a global invasion of the Earth by alien attackers from Mars looking to colonize their thriving neighbor — remained intact and was given the kind of large-scale, spectacular treatment that wasn’t really reserved for sci-fi pictures at the time. While not faithful to Wells’ novel in many details, the film (which starred Gene Barry and Ann Robinson) was certainly true in spirit, capturing the terror of seeing human civilization laid to waste and the sense of powerlessness in the face of an enemy so technologically advanced that it seemed invincible.

The War of the Worlds was in the vanguard of a new age of sci-fi cinema that brought intelligence, wonder and much deeper themes to the genre than it had previously featured. Films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Magnetic Monster (1953), Gojira/Godzilla (1954), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and Forbidden Planet (1956) stretched sci-fi on film past its space opera beginnings, just as the literature had transcended its pulp roots a few years earlier. The War of the Worlds was right in the thick of that, and so was George Pal.

Born Gyorgy Pal Marczincsak in Hungary on February 1, 1908, Pal began making short films and cartoons in 1928, working in Hungary, Prague and Germany before fleeing the latter country as the Nazis rose to power. After a short stint in England, he emigrated to the U.S., became a citizen, and went to work for Paramount Pictures. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Pal created films starring his patented Puppetoons. Unlike standard stop-motion animation, in which a single puppet is moved one frame at a time, the Puppetoons films used a different, hand-carved wooden puppet for each frame of film, necessitating the use of thousands of individually carved figures.

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Pal won an Oscar for his Puppetoons in 1943 but moved into live-action films seven years later, producing a comedy called The Great Rupert that utilized his Puppetoon techniques to create a dancing squirrel. It was that same year (1950) that Pal began producing a run of sci-fi and fantasy films, starting with Destination Moon, which established him as one of the most dedicated and often great genre filmmakers of his time. Pal’s movies aimed high — within the budgetary and technological restrictions of the era — with big ideas, epic visuals, and sweeping narratives that today are the domain of James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Christopher Nolan.

Each of those men have always strived to put things on screen that audiences have never seen before, and Pal was the same. Although he was primarily a producer and only directed five of the fourteen live-action films he produced, they all bore the Pal stamp. Destination Moon was followed by the disaster epic When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), Tom Thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961) and several more.

The latter three were directed by Pal himself, while four of his films — including The War of the Worlds — were directed by Byron Haskin, an interesting figure in sci-fi cinema and TV in his own right. Haskin was an early special effects pioneer who made the jump to directing in 1948. In addition to his work for Pal, Haskin directed 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars and six episodes of the classic early 1960s TV series The Outer Limits, including what many consider the show’s finest segment, “Demon with a Glass Hand.” Haskin also worked as a consultant on the first Star Trek pilot, “The Cage,” earning a co-producing credit. While Pal was the primary creative force behind his films, Haskin was probably the closest he came to a true partner — probably the main reason why The War of the Worlds may be Pal’s most satisfying and complete film.

After several fantasy outings, Pal returned to sci-fi in 1968 with the little-seen and underappreciated thriller The Power. Pal’s final live-action film, 1975’s Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, was a critical and commercial failure, and found Pal struggling to keep up with the special effects advancements of the time. His unfinished and/or abandoned projects included a sequel to When Worlds Collide and adaptations of Olaf Stapledon’s sci-fi novel Odd John and Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes. He also developed a film version of Logan’s Run and a War of the Worlds TV series, although both were later realized by different producers.

Pal died of a heart attack in May 1980. While not all of his movies hit the mark, his best known films all marked significant moments in the development of sci-fi cinema. Destination Moon was the first American film to deal with space travel on a realistic level; When Worlds Collide provided a template for movies dealing with global destruction; and The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine brought some of the greatest works by the father of sci-fi literature to the screen. When Worlds Collide, The Power, and Doc Savage were also based on novels, while Destination Moon was partially written by sci-fi legend Robert A. Heinlein — Pal clearly had an affinity for published science fiction that informed and elevated his films.

Sure, his movies are products of their time in many ways, but if you watch The War of the Worlds now via Netflix (the film has, astoundingly, yet to hit Blu-ray), it remains a powerful and often haunting experience. Not only can it be compared favorably to the 2005 version helmed by Spielberg — who probably watched the Pal version as a child — but it still stands as one of the key films of sci-fi cinema’s first true golden age, brought to you by one of its first real visionaries.

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