The War of the Worlds has had a long and difficult journey to the screen. The rights were first purchased in 1926 by Paramount, allegedly by Cecil B.
DeMille, but in fact, there is no convincing evidence that he had anything to do with the project. Instead, the first attempt was helmed by Arzen von Cserépy, Hungarian by birth, but a mover and shaker in German movie circles. Cserépy had moved to America in 1926 and along with Paramount secured the rights to The War of the Worlds, but the project never got much beyond some breathless publicity.
Others came and went, including the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, but the fact that Wells had sold the rights in perpetuity to Paramount did not help the situation. In the 1930’s, even Alfred Hitchcock, (who was unconnected with Paramount) failed to persuade Wells to let him make the film, partly because of this restrictive arrangement but also because Wells thought his story was past its prime.
Not unsurprisingly, when in 1939, Orson Welles arrived in Hollywood fresh from his triumph with his War of the Worlds radio broadcast, there were those at the RKO studio who felt that he should immediately start work on a film version. Welles was not averse to the idea but was adamant that this should not be his first picture.
This, of course, was to be Citizen Kane, but it is a heady thought to imagine what he might have engineered had he thought differently. Citizen Kane was a stupendous special effects movie, pioneering numerous new techniques, so Welles certainly had the visual flair and imagination to pull off an incredible science fiction film. Of course, RKO would have first had to have levered the property away from Paramount, so perhaps it was just not to be.
Meanwhile, at Paramount, scripts came and went, with upwards of 5 produced under the auspices of various personalities at the studio. In 1949, and independently of Paramount, the legendary filmmaker Ray Harryhausen even shot a short test sequence of a Martian emerging from a cylinder. Alas though Harryhausen went around the studios with it, he could not raise any interest, though George Pal did see it.
He declined the opportunity to work together, though in reading accounts by Harryhausen of this period you do have to wonder if it rankled that Pal was planning his own film at the time, though he was apparently in stiff competition with producer Robert Fellows, who had been planning a film version for two years.
Pal won the battle, and this of course resulted in the seminal 1950’s science fiction invasion movie, a stupendous Technicolor adventure starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson as the damsel in distress. Pal’s 1953 War Of The Worlds has deservedly gained an unassailable reputation for its effects, which introduced the world to the incredible flying Manta war machines, which Pal had to resort to when it became clear that the Tripods were impossible to do.
(Though surely Harryhausen’s stop-motion techniques would have easily handled this?) However, the War Machines in the Pal movie are suitably menacing, and even made a return appearance in the little known (and technically unrelated) 1964 movie, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which was actually directed by Byron Haskin, who had previously directed War of the Worlds for Pal.
Prior to this, in 1957, America television produced an incredible one-hour drama for the well-regarded Studio One series. The Night That America Trembled took a sober look at the events of 1938 when Orson Welles had terrified the nation with his War of the Worlds broadcast.
This was not to be the only time that the story would be dramatised. In 1975, a young director called Nicholas Meyer, (who would later gain fame as a director of two of the very best Star Trek movies) directed the made for TV movie, The Night That Panicked America. Both versions are well worth seeking out.
That same year, 1975, the world was almost treated to the return of the George Pal Martians, this time in the form of a proposed War of the Worlds television series. Pal set up offices and hired designers, notable among them, former Star Trek art director Matt Jefferies and Lee Vasque, who had worked with Pal on the original movie. Little is known of this intriguing endeavour, though test footage was shot.