“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same.
No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.”
-H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Rights for a film adaptation of H.G. Wells’s seminal 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, were first acquired in 1926 by Paramount Pictures. Several years later, after Welles’ radio broadcast, Ray Harryhausen first attempted to create a film based on the novel — as early as 1942. To sell his idea to film studios, he produced test footage portraying one of the Martians — animated with stop-motion — emerging from the cylinder spacecraft (a scene directly taken from the novel), as well as several paintings of proposed scenes for the film. The footage and paintings were shown to George Pal at Paramount — who, unbeknownst to Harryhausen, was already working on adapting The War of the Worlds as a producer. Pal admitted the fact only several weeks after that meeting.
“I think everyone expected to see a man emerge–possibly something a little unlike us terrestrial men, but in all essentials a man. I know I did. But, looking, I presently saw something stirring within the shadow: greyish billowy movements, one above another, and then two luminous disks–like eyes. Then something resembling a little grey snake, about the thickness of a walking stick, coiled up out of the writhing middle, and wriggled in the air towards me — and then another. […]
A big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps, of a bear, was rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder. As it bulged up and caught the light, it glistened like wet leather.
Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively. A lank tentacular appendage gripped the edge of the cylinder, another swayed in the air.
Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth–above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes–were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.”
-H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
George Pal and director Byron Haskin hired artists Hal Pereira and Albert Nozaki (already Pal’s art director on When Worlds Collide) to conceive the Martians and their war ships. Nozaki was inspired by Wells’s original description of the creatures, but decided to take ample creative liberties — and ultimately conceived an entirely new configuration for the Martians. Ultimately, the film design bears no resemblance to Wells’s original idea. Nozaki envisioned a creature with octopus-like skin and “with a single cyclopean eye” bulging from the center of its head, which was barely distinguishable from the wide torso.
Charles Gemora — veteran gorilla costume maker and make-up artist for films — was hired to construct Nozaki’s design and bring it to the screen. The Martian, seen in the iconic farmhouse scene, was one of the first — if not the first — movie Monsters to be brought to the screen as a performer in a suit. Gemora’s own short stature was providential, as he himself could perform in the elaborate suit.
Working alone, Gemora produced a single Martian suit — intended for a 6′ tall performer — which was initially approved. Only a day before the scheduled filming of the farmhouse scene, the art director realized that the suit was too large to work on the set he had devised for the scene. Gemora thus had to rebuild the entire alien creature — in smaller proportions — with less than 20 hours available for the task.
Working with his own daughter Diana — 12 years old at the time — Gemora started construction of the new Martian by salvaging certain portions of the old suit. The recycled parts were the creature’s peculiar three-lensed eye and the arms — which, unaltered, caused the proportions of the Martian to change. The suit was built from the lower body up, and never intended to be shown from the waist down.
Poultry netting was first specifically positioned over a wood armature to establish the shape of the head and torso, with the arms and the “headlight” eye roughly attached. The arms had been built with wood armatures, rubber sheeting inner layers, and vein-shaped bladder systems that could be puppeteered with tubes and squeeze bottles to create the illusion of pulsating veins. The Martian’s fingers could be operated through cables with ring-shaped grips: by pulling the cables with his own fingers, Gemora could maneuver the Martian’s. The back of the creature was left open in order for Gemora to enter the suit more easily.
Rubber sheeting was applied over the preliminary forms of the head and the torso — and sculpted into shape to create an inner structural layer for the suit. “The rubber sheeting for the Martian head was pre-made,” Diana Gemora recalled. “Charlie had gotten down a technique for gooey globs of rubbery stuff. He [could] make it translucent with veins showing distinctly, or opaque with clusters of cloudy veins like a hemorrhage or dye or paint it any way he [wanted].” Portions of the creature were also reinforced with plaster bandages applied over the rubber. The creature’s skin was created by applying foam latex over the inner layer.
Given that the Martian’s proportions had been shrunk, the electric wiring to light the eye had to be positioned on its upper torso — above where Gemora’s head would be — to increase the suit’s mobility. As “a last-minute addition,” in order to camouflage the wires on the upper portion of the creature, Gemora added sculptural veins — as well as vein-shaped bladders parallel to those that had been applied to the arms. “Impromptu should have been his middle name,” Diana Gemora said. The last touches on the skin included adding thin layers of latex over the eye to create the eyelid. The air tubing system to puppeteer the veins on the torso and arms was then run along the torso and the arms. Two bladders on either lower side of the torso were also included to simulate the creature’s breathing. “The throbbing of the veins [was] going to be accomplished by what is called the Venturi Suction Effect,” Diana Gemora said. “The air tubing in the arms and head [ran] to both the pressure and vacuum sides of an air compressor. Operating the compressor with a ‘hand clicker’ [caused] the tubes to pulse like veins.”
The Martian was painted with “studio blood” and glycerin. Once the suit was completed, it was brought onto the set — it had to be moved very carefully due to its fragility — where Gemora put it on. Once on set, the last touch to the Martian included further paint details and final applications of vaseline to achieve a wet, organic effect — also aided by the foam latex skin, which had not dried yet. At 5’3″, the artist had to kneel in order to fit inside the 4′ tall Martian; in such position, Gemora could not move around the set on his own. The suit was thus mounted on a dolly — and could be moved by two crewmembers through wires. They once pulled so strongly that Gemora risked falling over and thus irremediably destroy the suit — something that ultimately did not happen. During filming, Diana was under the floor of the elevated set, pumping air into the vein bladders — with tubes and empty squeeze bottles.
Although the Martian is most clearly seen in the farmhouse scene, the climax of The War of the Worlds features one of the dying Martians as it attempts to crawl out of one of the fallen Tripods. As scheduled, the scene would only show the arm of the creature — as such, Gemora was able to use one of the arms from the suit as an insert effect, and puppeteer it from above. The vein bladders were operated by Gemora by blowing air from a tube. As the Martian dies, the pulsation becomes slower, until it eventually stops.
Although the director was partially disappointed with the final Martian suit, Diana Gemora fondly remembers the work with her father. “The wet, unfinished look gave the Martian a slimy, living appearance,” Diana said. “Watching the scene, you see how the body movement is kind of ‘teetery.’ I still can’t watch the end of that scene — the Martian running away from Gene Barry and Ann Robinson — without remembering those funny off-camera prop guys giving Charlie such a yank that he almost fell backward! My single letdown is that the Martian is only on-camera about 15 seconds, and it’s difficult to see the great vein action on the head created by my feverish clicking. To this day, when I see The War of the Worlds, I still wish for ‘Just a little more time – please!’ But what really struck me, watching the movie for the first time in a theater 50 years ago in 1953, was that I actually was scared to death. Believe it or not, even though I knew the entire process involved in making that Martian, the effect was so incredible and intense that to this day I still get the same feeling that I had when I was a child. All the reasons I thought Charlie’s War of the Worlds Martian wouldn’t work turned out to be the things that made it one of the classic movie Monsters.”
For more images of the Martian, visit the Monster Gallery.