Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Harry Kreisler 

War of the Worlds, Then and Now


Movies are dreamlike and when well made, they reflect the times and provide a window into a world view revealing the assumptions of screenwriters, directors, and producers as they shape our dreams and nightmares on the big screen. From this perspective, movies hint at what these elites think audiences are thinking and feeling and offers the occasion to shape that thinking and feeling. For a little insight into how U.S. thinking about the world has changed in fifty years, my wife and I watched, on a recent Sunday afternoon and evening, one after the other two films-- War of the Worlds (2005) (directed by Steven Spielberg) and War of the Worlds (1952) (directed by Byron Haskin).

Both movies rework H.G. Welles’ novel. The 1952 version was made in the dark years of the Cold War; the 2005 version was made three years into the War on Terrorism. The adversary in both movies—creatures from outer space—resemble each other in physical form and in vulnerability. These aliens scare us because they remind us of the real enemies we faced then and now. In 1952, the "evil empire" of Soviet Communism was on the march and armed with atomic weapons. In 2005, Islamic terrorist fundamentalists are our enemy, and they aspire to restore a medieval Caliphate through violence. In both cases, there is a real enemy to scare the audience even before they enter the theatre. Despite these similarities, there are important differences in the two films that tell us how we have changed as we confront the enemy. Here is what a side by side viewing reveals to an analyst of U.S. foreign policy who also has a passion for the movies.

Leadership. In 1952, we had leaders and the driving force of that leadership is the scientific community. The film’s hero, a bespeckled Gene Barry, is a scientist. He and his colleagues are shown analyzing problems. They make a concerted effort to find and use evidence to understand the aliens. The scientists ask: Who are these creatures and what do they want? If they fight, why do they fight and how can we stop them. The focus is on a collective response with science and the military leading the fight. (Sometimes this has unfortunate consequences as when a nuclear device is used.)

In 2005, alas, we only have only Tom Cruise to save us. The actor is a working stiff whose immaturity and irresponsibility has shattered his family. Driven by passion, impulse, and an instinctual need to save his family, the Cruise character leads us from scene to scene where he is witness and then combatant. The focus here is on the heroic individual and his decisions as he confronts the destruction of his middle class way of life. The story is personal with Cruise learning to love his children even as he fights both domestic terrorism (in the form of Tim Robbins as troubled, savvy survivalist with a perverse liking for little kids) and international terrorism (in the form of sleeper cells from outer space). In a key scene, Cruise almost single-handedly rises up from a Holocaust like setting of his captivity within the bosom of the monster and successfully demolishes one of the aliens with a grenade. He is assisted in his escape from the belly of the monster by his fellow prisoners. Ironically, Cruise’s most important decision is to let his son become a walk on for military units in their tactical engagement with the aliens. Interestingly, the Cruise character gives hints of being anti war when his son chooses to go fight.

The Role of Community. In both films, when the going gets tough, everyone is on the run. The 1952 film, however, is organized around community response. We see the initial attack from the perspective of a small town where the hero happens to be on vacation. There is even a square dance at the beginning ala John Ford. Before the military is brought in, we learn that the first line of defense is the small town. In the 2005 movie, the starting point is a broken family with its ritual of the children’s weekend visit to their father. Unlike the 1950 depiction, the fight against the enemy in 2005 is not about strategy, tactical maneuver, or collective purpose but depends on heroic individualism and family therapy. When the world falls apart, we learn from both films that there is social anarchy and the individual stands alone very much in the way depicted by Rod Serling in his Twilight Zone television series.


The Idea of a Community of Nations. In the 1952 version, the focus is on the United States. However, at turning points in the movie, we are made aware through images that the aliens are also attacking the major cities of the world. (In the 2005 film, these references are verbal only.) That this is a calamity for all is visually important only in the earlier film. Elsewhere in the 1950 film, we see how different parts of the world are working to confront the enemy in their own way. The 1950 film conveys the idea that the U.S. is what matters but in the context of a world in which other countries are attempting to meet the challenge in different ways. In the 2005 film, there is not one image of either the suffering of other nations or the idea that another nation is putting up a fight though Tim Robbins tells us that the Japanese have killed a few of the aliens in his monologue on the need for resistance. In 2005, our only hope is Tom Cruise who often stands side by side with a diverse set of Americans though not one person of color or woman stands out for her actions or thoughts with the possible exception of the prisoner in the belly of the monster who leads the rescue of Cruise. In the 1952 movie which contains no diversity, the most moving statement of loneliness and religious solace comes from the heroine played by Ann Robinson. In the 2005 movie, Cruise’s young daughter takes no heroic action and is the source of no insight; however, her therapy seems to be working to control her hysteria.

The Role of Religion. In the 1952, religion plays a surprisingly important role. The heroine recounts her story as one of fear and loneliness in which she is saved by her uncle who is a clergyman. The uncle finds in his religion a message of peace to guide his actions and his understanding. He attempts to talk to the enemy before the war begins and he is killed. Interestingly, when all the efforts to destroy the enemy fail, both scientific and military, the hero, Gene Barry, in search of the film’s heroine, seeks her out in the churches of Los Angeles. On the other hand, religion and the search for spiritual meaning has no place in the 2005 version.

Narration In both films, the magisterial voice of the narrator (Sir Cedric Hardwick) (1952 version) and Morgan Freeman (2005) fills in the details and tell us what it all means. Sir Cedric Hardwick has the better script. His words tell us why the creatures have come. Both Hardwick and Freeman tell us that the aliens did not have the immune system to make a go of it on our world. Through the films’ codas and their narration, we learn the limits of technology and the power of biological processes. However, the 1952, links victory to the divine plans of the creator and suggests that the ultimate victory was a miracle. . In 2005, god’s role in saving the planet deserves a passing mention by the narrator Morgan Freeman in his reference to god’s biological design.

Conclusion If literally and figuratively we are in a war of worlds--civilizations if you will-- for control of our planet, then the U.S is different this time around in the real world and on the big screen. While establishing Spielberg as a cinematic Brughel in the depiction of the horrific consequences of armed terror, the new film is also a compelling statement of U.S. assumptions about the world and about the preferred course of action for survival.

What can we expect the future to bring then? I know, because I saw it at the movies--hero driven unilateralism without community or spiritual purpose, an impulse driven leadership without strategy, and a willingness to try anything—even summary execution-- in the quest for survival in the face of overpowering terror. Sound familiar?

Harry Kreisler is Executive Director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkley. He is also Executive Producer and Host of Conversations with History.

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.