No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s yet as mortal as his own: that as men busied themselves about their affairs they were being scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water...
With these awesome words, H. G. Wells began his most famous book; Orson Welles began the world’s most famous radio drama; and George Pal began one of the most stunning movies made up to that time—The War of the Worlds.
I devoured the book first, and was awed by the images it conjured of the tripedal war machines marching through the English cities, destroying all before them with their death rays.
All three possess the breath-taking suspense as the hatch unscrews and the first traces of the invaders are seen, H. G. beginning with typical cool observation.
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of their appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of chin beneath the wedge-like lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon group of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement, due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth—above all, the extra-ordinary intensity of the immense eyes—culminated in an effect akin to nausea. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of their tedious movements unspeakably terrible. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.
No doubt about who the bad guys are. But if the Martians were terrible, they were nothing without their monstrous war machines. Striding on their giant legs, their death rays destroying all in their path, they soon rush to a stunning victory over humanity. But if all that wasn’t enough, Wells managed to bring it all to a remarkable ending, one worthy of a Jules Verne scientific twist.
It would be several decades before I actually got to hear the Orson Welles broadcast but I knew all about it because everyone was talking about it. I knew how Welles presented a music program that was constantly interrupted by increasingly panicky news reports of the invasion of the Martians and how it was done so convincingly that innumerable silly Americans believed it and ran for their lives.
Much more immediate was the movie. Unable to get his war machine models to walk on three legs, George Pal instead opted having them suspended on a force field, but that did not diminish the effect. Neither did its transportation of the story to middle America—in fact, under the circumstances, it seemed appropriate. I liked best the scene where the slimy Martian hand touches Ann Robinson on the shoulder—she wasn’t much of an actress but she sure was one hell of a screamer.