In Southern California, an atomic scientist named Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is fishing on vacation when an object crashes to Earth near Linda Rosa. He examines the impact site and runs into USC Library Science instructor Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson) and her uncle, Pastor Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin). That night, a hatch on the object unscrews and opens. Three men guarding the site wave a white flag, but they are obliterated by a heat-ray.
The Marine Corps surround the site, while reports come in of identical cylinders landing all over the world and destroying cities. Three Martian War Machines rise from the site. Pastor Collins tries to make contact, but he is disintegrated. The Marines open fire but cannot penetrate the protective force-field. Retaliative fire with the heat-ray and other weapons forces the military to retreat.
Doctor Forrester and Sylvia, trying to flee in a spotter-plane, crash land and hide in an abandoned farmhouse. They are becoming seriously acquainted when another cylinder buries the house. A long tentacle with an electronic eye worms its way into the house, but Forrester cuts it off with an axe. A Martian enters the house and Forrester injures it with the axe, collecting a blood sample. They escape just before the house is obliterated and Forrester takes the sample to his team at Pacific Tech. The scientists understand how the eye works and notice that the blood is anemic.
World capitals begin to fall silent, and it is believed that World Domination by the Martians is only six days away. The US government falls back on the usual—dropping an atom bomb on the war machines—but the blast is not effective. The City of Los Angeles is evacuated as the war machines advance upon it. A panicked mob destroys the scientific equipment to steal the truck; Forrester and Sylvia are separated from each other. Forrester searches for Sylvia and guesses she would shelter in a church. He finds her praying with other survivors. As the war machines approach them, they begin to lose power and crash. One of the Martians dies crawling out of its machine. The Martians are succumbing to the bacteria of Earth. All the power of the Terran military was nothing compared to that microscopic threat.
The film was produced by George Pal, directed by Byron Haskin, and made by Paramount Pictures, based on the 1878 novel by H.G. Wells, though moved from Victorian England to modern California. It has become one of the most important SF movies and is kept in the Library of Congress. The pictures of the Solar System drawn by Chesley Bonestell appear in the prologue, which is narrated by Sir Cedric Hardwicke, to show why the Martians covet our lovely world. Interestingly, most of the descriptions of the planets are now obsolete. The third act was to be shot in the new technology of 3D, but that proved to be too difficult. It was shot in Corona, California and Los Angeles. Believe it or not, when the first alien ship crashes on Earth, Woody Woodpecker can be seen in a tree because Walter Lantz was a good friend of George Pal. The beautiful Northrop YB-40 Flying Wing appeared as a bomber in the Martian War.
Much was changed from the H.G. Wells story, besides changing the century and continent. Wells depicted the Church as cowardly; the film made the Pastor a hero. In the novel, the aliens fed on human beings and are 16-tentacled creatures. In the film, we barely see them. In the novel, the war-machines are towering tripods, and in the film are shaped like manta-rays with a goose-neck top and ray-guns shaped like cobras, which hiss like snakes. The rather terrifying sound they make has been used in many a science-fiction film since. Later, better film prints revealed the support wires for the ships, but they were not visible in the first screenings. The film won an Oscar for special effects, but it was the only one nominated that year.
The Wells family was so happy with the film that they let George Pal do The Time Machine in 1960. The war machines, made of copper, were melted down for a Boy Scout copper drive. Many of the sound effects were used in Star Trek. Actor Les Tremayne looked so much like an officer that real soldiers saluted him. Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version of War of the Worlds, with Tom Cruise, though also transported from Victorian England the US, was much more faithful to the book. They managed to make the tripods look like they could walk.