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Science, Religion, and The War of the Worlds

My personal story in terms of involvement with the fantastic goes back to a viewing of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) on television. I was probably six or seven at the time, but this experience hooked me in terms of fascination with science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Soon after watching this program I began surfing the television dial in the 1970s (when my parents weren’t home), and I discovered classic science fiction films, one of which became a favorite of mine, The War of the Worlds (1953). Still later I would encounter the infamous 1938 Orson Wells radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells story, which in its various incarnations has served as a frequent source of enjoyment of the years.

I enjoyed such films as a child, and on into my teenage years, with a combined sense of fear, fascination, and wonder. But as an adult I’ve had the opportunity to watch these films again in order to discover new facets of these cinematic delights, and to try and understand why I and so many other people find these things important. This process has resulted in the discovery of different levels of meaning within the films, some of which were not even noticed in previous screenings, or at least not as appreciated as elements of the films as they should have been in earlier screenings.

One facet of The War of the Worlds that has been the focus of academic discussion is its treatment of science and religion. This is the focus of Douglas Cowan’s article “Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic: Science, Religion, and The War of the Worlds” that appeared in the Journal of Religion and Film in two installments, Vol. 11, No. 1 (April 2007) and Vol. 11, No. 2 (October 2007). This post serves as an introduction to this interesting topic and Cowan’s helpful exploration of it, an exploration that will be of benefit to sci fi fans interested in adding another layer to their interpretation of George Pal’s classic film.

Cowan begins his essay with a recognition of the diverse ways in which religion has been treated in this story, from its original literary context in the 1898 novel, to its treatment in the 1953 film. It is no secret that Wells was antagonistic to religion, and this is revealed most dramatically in his portrayal of a Christian clergyman which the narrator of the story meets as the two hide from the aliens in the ruins of a house not far from a church. Cowan discusses the clergyman’s physical description as depicted by Wells that is less than inspiring, and his behavior in the wake of the alien onslaught fares no better at Wells’ hands as he struggles to construct a plausible theodicy in the wake of an unlikely theological foe.

But despite the negative portrayal of religion in the original source material, it is treated far more favorably in George Pal’s cinematic treatment of Wells’ story. While this might be expected in a film coming out of the social and cultural matrix of 1950s America, Cowan notes that critics, commentators, and scholars have been quick to dismiss the religious aspect of the film. Cowan offers a contrary perspective and argues that the depiction of religion in Pal’s film is “anything but extraneous, implausible, or unsophisticated.” He goes on to state that this is “because of the interplay between the time in which it was released and the vast differences that exist between the film” and Wells’ novel.

To make his case, Cowan describes the characters of Rev. Dr. Mathew Collins (played by Lewis Martin), and Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry). As the movie unfolds we are introduced first to Rev. Collins who symbolizes a conservative and traditional form of Christianity which is introduced as a significant underlying element for the townspeople in their responses to the alien invasion. Shortly thereafter we are introduced to Dr. Forrester, a scientist from “Pacific Tech” who obviously symbolizes the film’s treatment of science. The reactions of these characters to the prospect of alien invasion tells us quite a bit about how 1950s America viewed religion and science, and for the most part, each enjoys a favorable treatment in the unfolding story.

For the most part, religion and science enjoy a parity in this film. As the film reaches its climax, however, the alien invasion and destruction of humanity seems sure in the wake of the failure of the military and its technology. Here, religion finally triumphs over science as the aliens are destroyed by microscopic organisms that humanity has developed an immunity to, placed within the cosmos as a result of divine order. Pal’s film seems to be in keeping with the attitudes of the time period in its depiction of religion and science. As Cowan argues about 1950s America:

“There was an unmitigated trust in both science and the military option, exemplified most completely in the atomic bomb. On the other hand, though, this was also a period of significant church expansion, and to be a good American meant that one was also a good (Protestant) Christian.”

If this is indeed the case, then why have critics and commentators largely dismissed religion as a serious and significant element of The War of the Worlds? Cowan concludes with his assessment:

“By ignoring he social context in which the film was produced, and failing to note the vast difference between the film and Wells’ novel, commentators have long dismissed the profoundly religious elements in George Pal’s The War of the Worlds. A closer reading reveals that it is significantly more than just a science fiction metaphor for a Soviet invasion. In it, he and screenwriter Barre Lyndon complete reversed the understanding of religion in Wells’ novel, and used it instead to reinforce the intimate connection that existed in post-World War Two American between a strong faith and a determined resistance to communist aggression. Rather than experience that he left audiences wonder if the attack would come that evening, Americans could leave the theatre secure in the knowledge that the manifest destiny of humanity was secure.”

What Doug Cowan has done for fans interested in a deeper appreciation of horror through an academic exploration of horror films in his forthcoming book Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen (Baylor University Press, October 2008), he is in the process of doing for science fiction fans as well as his essay on this classic sci fi film demonstrates.

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