On Watching ‘The War of the Worlds’

Last Saturday night I watched The War of the Worlds with my sons. This was the 1953 George Pal version, not the recent Spielberg remake. The boys were very excited. We had prepared a little cinema in the living room, dimmed the lights. I even allowed them to eat chocolate while they watched, an unheard-of luxury. My younger son’s glasses had been slightly mangled in a sword fight with his brother earlier in the evening, so they rested dramatically askew on his nose as if he was posing for a Picasso portrait.

I’ve been enthusiastically sharing—and consequently, rediscovering—my love for science fiction with the boys as they get older. It’s tremendous fun to share with them some of my favorite flicks, especially the classic B movies I used to watch every Saturday and Sunday afternoon as a kid: Earth versus the Flying Saucers, When Worlds Collide, Destination Moon and The Day the Earth Stood Still, which to this day remains one of my most beloved films. I even turned them on to The Prisoner, the cult 1960s British spy series, which used to be on PBS late at night after Monty Pythons Flying Circus when I was I teenager.The War of the Worlds is a truly awful film. It is filled with all the romantic and jingoistic cliches of the 1950s without any of the veiled anti-McCarthite symbology. The hero is as stiff as a board, and the heroine never appears without screaming or bursting into tears. But I’ve always loved the film because of the devastating death ray and those sleek, elegant Martian spaceships (of which I am reminded every time I see an art deco Paris metro station), and because it occasioned my first real confrontation with authority.

I was in the second grade at a Catholic primary school, so I was about eight years old. (The same age at which I discovered aphorisms in Reader’s Digest.) I had just seen The War of the Worlds on television, and somehow the subject came up in Sister Edmunda’s class. I was terrified of Sister Edmunda. She was a mean and unpredicatable teacher. She was very elderly and would often repeat things in class or contradict something she had just said or teach us things that even we as eight-year-olds knew were wrong. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that she was senile. I just knew that she was a bit crazy, really scary and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.

Anyway, somehow The War of the Worlds came up in class and Sister Edmunda asked: Why did the Martians die? My hand shot up immediately because I had just seen the film and that final image—the dying Martian’s moist green limb, with three suction cups for fingers, creeping from the spaceship and then falling still—was so vivid in my mind. But Sister Edmunda called on someone else, and that person offered meekly: Because of prayer? Yes! Sister Edmunda announced. Because God answered the people’s prayers. This didn’t sound right to me, though, so I tenatively raised my hand and Sister Edmunda acknowledged me with a slight nod. I think the Martians died because they were poisoned by something in the atmosphere, I said. Sister Edmunda’s face darkened. She strode toward my desk in her stooped way and fixed me with her furious, baleful gaze. No, she barked, glowering above my chair. The Martians died because of prayer. Then she went on to lecture me on how God is all-powerful and all-loving and how he vanquished those nasty Martians for us. She then made me stand facing the corner in the front of the classroom as punishment for my heresy.

But I knew she was wrong. The climax of the film comes as the defeated humans cower in a church praying for a miracle, but the Martians died because their immune systems couldn’t withstand our earthly bacteria. That’s a preposterous oversight for a race so technically advanced, but there you have it. The narrator does say at the very end that God in his wisdom provided these bacteria for just such a purpose, but I didn’t believe it. They died because the bacteria got them, and that was it. I never forgot or forgave Sister Edmunda for the humiliation she put me through for saying what I knew to be true. It makes me think of Henry David Thoreau’s dictum:

Say what you have to say, not what you ought.

Nobody, especially kids, should ever be taught anything else. When I asked my sons what they thought of the film, I was very glad to hear them say they thought it was great but a little too “holy.”