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Revisiting ‘War Of The Worlds’

by Leonard Maltin
October 28, 2013 4:27 PM
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Orson Welles-microphone-b-350

One vintage radio show remains vibrantly alive in the American consciousness: Orson Welles’ Halloween eve broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds from 1938. This week marks its 75th anniversary. To commemorate that milestone, an NPR station here in Los Angeles, KPCC, is offering a vibrant, impeccably researched audio documentary called War of the Welles. (Full disclosure: I am an interviewee, but I had nothing to do with writing or producing the show.)

The show’s creators, R.H. Greene and John Rabe, had two goals: to torpedo the many myths that have grown around this notorious broadcast, and to frame the history of the show in a broader context by talking about the medium of radio and the people who helped Welles bring this indelible drama to life, including producer John Houseman, writer Howard Koch and the talented players from the Mercury Theatre. Excerpts from a variety of radio shows and a wide range of interviews over the years (including some with Welles himself) make for great listening. You can listen to the 48-minute program, hosted by George Takei, HERE.

If you like what you hear, I would encourage you to follow up with Airborne: A Life in Radio with Orson Welles, an equally compelling documentary by R.H. Greene about Welles’ wide-ranging radio career with an emphasis on the lesser-known works, including his political commentaries. Click HERE.

Orson Welles-microphone-350

And if you get hooked and want to hear even more of Welles on radio, you’ll find an imposing selection of complete shows at this SITE.

I should also note that PBS’ American Experience is airing a War of the Worlds documentary this week—not an especially good one, I’m sorry to say. I took a dislike to it from the start, when I was confronted with phony black & white footage of actors reciting the words of eyewitnesses to the panic that Welles’ broadcast inspired. The artificiality of this device, along with an over-reliance on generic stock footage (including some from the television era) kept me at arm’s length from this perfunctory chronicle of the famous radio show. Too bad.

The man who made Citizen Kane will always be celebrated for his work on film, but whereas that medium presented numerous roadblocks and frustrations, he was able to realize many of his most innovative ideas on radio. If you’re unfamiliar with his broadcasts, you’re in for a treat.

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  • Peter | October 31, 2013 6:59 AMReply

    In the 1970s there was a made-for-TV movie about it called, "The Night that Panicked America." I remember watching it and liking it, but I haven't seen it since.

  • DBenson | October 31, 2013 4:26 AMReply

    The Welles broadcast was referenced in "Buckaroo Banzai", the idea being actual unearthly visitors arrived during the broadcast and eyewitness reports were dismissed as part of the radio show panic. One of the movie's characters remembers Welles as the guy from the wine commercials.

  • Brian | October 31, 2013 12:18 AMReply

    For the 40th anniverary of the broadcast, at the height of the music chart success of Jeff Wayne's "War of the Worlds" album with Richard Burton, the top rating rock radio station 3XY here in Melbourne, Australia 'restaged' Orson Welles' original broadcast in between then current top 40 songs, instead of the original orchestrated music used in the original broadcast. They nearly got away with the whole concept too as practically none of the young audience had ever heard a second of the original broadcast -- except when the host (radio journalist Derryn Hinch) switched back to Orson and co, the surface noise of the original recording made it obvious that it wasn't live -- but still, it nearly worked, and I think word of this got back to certain people.

    The same radio station soon put together a radio documentary on another surreal subject unknown to it's young audience -- the writings and predictions of Nostradamus. It was a huge success, repeated a few times and eventually broadcast throught Australia -- this led to it being made into a television special, which was a ratings hit. This special was remade a year or two later in the US as a movie -- hosted and starring Orson Welles....

  • Cheeznado | October 30, 2013 12:11 AMReply

    A Slate article states that the supposed panic was extremely small and it was hyped up by newspapers after the fact.

  • Norm | October 29, 2013 8:32 PMReply

    If you can control the media , you can control the content...In the 1930's there were limited outlets, while in the 1990's there were many more. Whether the "Big " lie theory works or media being used for propaganda purposes, the results are the same, skew reality for your own purpose...
    When the "lies"come tumbling down,so do the Leaders...

  • Peter | October 31, 2013 7:04 AM

    Depends on which version you choose to believe. Check out this link on Mental Floss:


    Three-quarters of a century ago, Martians attacked Earth. But was the real prank of War of the Worlds the fact that everyone listening in 1938 was fooled? Or that almost nobody was fooled? These two articles have very different takes.

    Read the full text here:
    --brought to you by mental_floss!

  • John Bengtson | October 28, 2013 11:43 PMReply

    Radio Lab on public radio did a very interesting show about the original broadcast, putting it into context, as Edward R. Murrow's live war reports from London "interrupting our regularly scheduled broadcast" were a recent phenomenon. They also tell of a disastrous re-creation of the broadcast in Ecuador in the 1940s, and the psychology of wanting to believe horrible things are true.

    www dot radiolab dot org/story/91622-war-of-the-worlds/

  • Nat Segaloff | October 28, 2013 11:18 PMReply

    Let me put in a good word for the 1994 version of "Invasion From Mars" (the actual title of Koch's script) that we recorded for LA Theatreworks on KCRW in Los Angeles with a "Star Trek" cast, followed by an original sequel, "When Welles Collide" that I wrote with John de Lancie. In the sequel, we extended the story by having all the actors portray themselves while REAL Martians invaded and the world really did end. The ironic contrast was that, in 1938, there was no invasion and yet people believed the media, whereas, in 1995 nobody believed the media any more because the media was all full of the OJ trial and other trivia.

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