Never before have I seen humankind almost destroyed in such glorious color. The human stars are Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, but the real stars are the special effects. The Martian war machine you see above was made of copper, and forty-two inches across. There were three of them. Great big monsters. A love story slowly evolves between Dr. Clayton Forrester (the character played by Gene Barry) and Sylvia van Buren (the character played by Ann Robinson). The dialogue is steeped in language that says this film is from the fifties. “Gee whiz” and “Holy Cow” aren’t said that often, but when you hear either one of them you’ll know roughly when this film was made.
In the early fifties, while producer George Pal was working on his second live action film (When Worlds Collide), he was looking for an idea for a third film. He came upon a large pile of unproduced movie scripts for a film called The War of the Worlds. He was enthralled by the story, but was wise enough to know that to set the film set the film in Victorian England would be courting fiscal disaster. He had the idea to move the Martian invasion to modern day California. Pal hired Barre Lyndon to write the script. The fact that Barre Lyndon loved H. G. Wells, and the original story was a extra little bonus. Lyndon poured his heart and soul into the script, and really wanted to do justice to Wells and his idea.
To bring bring the picture to the screen Pal hired Byron Haskin. George Pal knew the film would be dependant on the special effects, and Haskin used to be in charge of the effects department at Warner Brothers, so Haskin was a perfect choice.
He was involved in every stage of the films production. He produced concept drawings, storyboards of almost every shot in the film, and most importantly he designed the awesome Martian war machines. Originally Pal wanted them to walk on tripod-like legs. This was achieved, and can be seen when the Martians rise out of the pit, but was discarded as too costly, and a potential fire hazard. This effect can only be seen for about five seconds. Alterations were not made to the script after this change, and some of Gene Barry’s dialogue reflects this. During the film he can be heard to say “There’s a machine standing right next to us.” The actors still thought the Martians would walk in the finished film.
Three large models were created for close-up shots. Smaller models were constructed for shots of the machine from a distance. Multiple camera exposures were needed when the Martian War machine fired its heat ray which was in reality sparks from a welders torch. The “skeleton ray” came from the wing tips of the war machine.
144 individual matte shots were created, and weeks spent, to create an effect that might last ten seconds. When the skeleton ray was used it was always accompanied by a sound effect that found itself used in countless kid shows. This sound effect was used to great effect in Star Trek in the sixties. Whenever the USS Enterprise fired a photon torpedo you heard the effect, and the sound of money falling into the coffers of Paramount Studios, who owned the effect.
Al Nozaki not only created the Martian War Machines, and the Martian camera, but he designed the Martian used in the film. ‘Pink’ as it was known, was originally planned to be over six feet tall. When it made its first appearance it became obvious to all that saw it that it simply wasn’t menacing enough. The suit was made by Charlie Gemora and his teen aged daughter Diana. ‘Pink’ went home with Charlie and Diana. Over night they constructed the Martian you see on screen. Diana Gemora, who assisted during the filming, disclosed after the films fiftieth anniversary that building the Martian that appears on screen was a rush job. It was made over night, from chicken wire, latex rubber, and rubber tubing. She also disclosed that if you watch the “Martian sequence” frame by frame you’ll see tape start to unravel, and an arm almost fall off.
When you see the film Gene Barry throws some debris at ‘Pink’. The plan was for the Martian to ease itself out of the scene. But that’s not what happened. Charlie Gamora was kneeling inside the Martian suit which was on a little trolley. People off stage said they could see ‘Pink’ starting to come apart, and wanted to get Charlie out. Off stage musclemen pulled the rope that was attached to the trolley a little too vigorously, and Charlie nearly fell out the back of ‘Pink’.
‘Pink’ not quite ready for his close up
The film was made utilizing three strip Technicolor film. Each camera was
gigantic. They also had the habit of being deafening. So the cameras were encased in a special muffling blanket so the sound of the camera would not be recorded. This process was first utilized in 1932 for the production of a ‘short’ or a film of short duration. Memorable films that used this technique were Gone With The Wind, The Wizard Of Oz, The War Of The Worlds, and The Caine Mutiny. Films made with three strip method have sharp vibrant colors. In researching this particular post I learned that George Pal planned to film the final thirty minutes in 3-D. This idea had to be scrapped because of the cost involved.
When George Pal presented the first draft of the script to the Paramount office a major character did not yet exist. Dr. Clayton Forrester had recently become a widower. The Martians had killed his wife and child. The head office thought this was too much for the audience to handle, and ordered Pal to create “a love interest”. Under great stress and growing objections Pal wrote in Sylvia van Buren.