Religious themes in War of the Worlds

George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1952) was an adaption of the H.G. Wells novel about Martian invasion of Earth updated to the 1950s.  The issue of appeasement was raised in a different manner.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

George Pal’s War of the Worlds (1952) was an adaption of the H.G. Wells novel about Martian invasion of Earth updated to the 1950s.  The issue of appeasement was raised in a different manner.  In one scene, three men approached a Martian ship, while one waved a white flag.  The group was blasted to bits by the invaders.  In The Thing, there was conflict between scientists and the military, in War of the Worlds the scientists and the military, in War of the Worlds the scientists were shown to be in concert with the military.  Their attempts to use nuclear weapons failed badly, but it was their failure which showed the power of God.

The religious faith of the people was the ultimate defence against invaders.  In the final scene, people prayed in churches for divine intervention as the Martian war machines that moved inexorably towards them blasting everything to rubble.  The priest led the prayers saying:

… Deliver us from the fear which has become upon us, form the evil that grows even nearer, from the terror that soon will knock upon the door of this our house … Oh Lord, we pray, grant us the miracle of thy intervention.[1]

The words in this speech are interesting.  The Martians are ‘the evil’, ‘the terror’, and ‘the fear’, they are not seen as an invading army.  When the Martians finally fired at the church, they were struck down as the earth’s bacteria and viruses began to take hold.  The voice over says:

After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were defeated by the littlest thing that God in his wisdom had put upon this earth.[2]

God would intervene where everything else had failed, just as it was hoped that God would intervene to save America if needed.  It was a message of reassurance.  The world was in ruins, but they had survived.  Even the strength and technology of the Martians was no match for the power of God.

Scenes of destruction were quite common in alien invasion films.  In Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956), the attack on Washington reminded the audience of the destructive potential of an all-out Russian nuclear attack.  The film was released at the time of the Sputnik launch and it had a resonance far greater than its makers and probably realised.  Stephen King remembered the impact it had on him as a child.  Just before seeing the film, it was announced to the audience that the USSR had launched Sputnik.

Scenes of destruction were quite common in alien invasion films.  In Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956), the attack on Washington reminded the audience of the destructive potential of an all-out Russian nuclear attack. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Those greedy, twisted monsters piloting the saucers are really the Russians; the destruction of the Washington Monument, the Capitol dome, and the Supreme Court – all rendered with graphic eerie believability by Harryhausen stop-motion effects – becoming nothing less than the destruction one would expect when the A bombs finally fly.

And then the end of the movie comes.  The last saucer has been shot down by Hugh Marlowe’s secret weapon, an ultrasonic gun that interrupts the electromagnetic magnetic drive of the flying saucers, or some sort of similar agreeable foolishness.  Loudspeakers blare from every Washington street corner, seemingly: “The present danger … is over.”  The camera shows us clear skies.  He evil old monsters with their frozen snarls and their twisted-root faces have been vanquished.[3]

For King, the paradoxical trick of cinema had worked.  The horror had been taken in hand, and used to destroy itself.  The deeper fear of the threat of the Russian Sputnik had been excised.[4]

In a time of fear, audiences were drawn to films with monsters with incredible powers.  The defeat of these monsters in the film was an important psychological victory for the audience.  In horror films, it was vital that the monsters were gruesome, powerful and dangerous.  The more gruesome and the more dangerous, the better.  For if these monsters could be destroyed, then the United States could face the worst horrors created by the Russians.  The horror element of science fiction films was crucial to their success as it provided the momentary release from people’s fears.  As the 1950s progressed, the aliens tended to be more and more belligerent.  This may have been due to the influence of studios wary of any taint of liberalism in their films.  But that would be unlikely, as science fiction, like westerns and musicals, were seen as simple entertainment, and provided there was no overt political message, the writers and directors could do pretty much as they pleased.  It was more likely that audiences of the 1950s wanted scary aliens and they got them.


[1] War of the Worlds, (d) Byron Haskin, (w) Barre Lynon.

[2] War of the Worlds op cit.  The line was from the original H.G. Wells novel War of The Worlds.

[3] King Danse, pp. 25-27.

[4] Ibid., p. 28.

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