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The American Experience: War of the Worlds

Directed by Cathleen O’Connell

Narrated by Oliver Platt

8 out of 10

By Vic

“The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.”   – Intro to Broadcast drama of “War of the Worlds” / October 31st, 1938

“We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…”   – Welles’ intro, an excerpt from the novel by H.G. Wells

Actor Oliver Platt (Lake Placid, X Men: First Class) narrates another very interesting, thought-provoking and often times humorous episode of The American Experience from PBS. This go around the team covers the famous (or maybe infamous?) “War of the Worlds” radio drama incident involving Actor/Director Orson Welles (Citizen Kane). It was also known as “The Panic Broadcast” back in 1938.

The whole affair was a bit of a historical footnote that seemed to dissolve, over the years, from the public consciousness. O’Connell’s Doc explores not only the brilliant “behind the scenes” machinations between Welles, John Houseman and writer Howard Koch, to bring the classic HG Wells novel to life on radio. It also explores the unique aftermath that ensued right after it’s airing.

She does this by dissecting various reactions by citizens and radio listeners from one end of the country to the next. She also provides plenty of historical anecdotes and observations from historians and even the daughter of Welles, herself. The movie analyzes the broadcast using montages of newspaper articles and headlines. The first re-collections are provided by actors dramatizing actual interviews that were done right after the broadcast. These little snippets into the minds and motivations of these everyday people are pretty funny to behold as each person appears to have their own individual idiosyncrasies and outlook regarding the event. Some are very casual, some are downright angry and one lady is quite hilarious as she describes heading to a pub in Manhattan to wait for the “end of the world” while getting plenty drunk with her girlfriend.

The Doc is entertainingly thorough and very informative. It delves into what was done prior to the broadcast by Welles and company as they prepared to go on the air. The film discusses the creative workflow involved by Welles as he displays his prowess and perfection. The Doc always paints Welles in a very good light and the historians (and some regular folks,too) all agree that Welles was on to something here. Except, that maybe he did it all too well, perhaps. Using news footage, they discuss how even Welles himself, was astounded by the events during and after the radio broadcast. But being an actor and a very young auteur, Welles ate it all up and he used this turning point (according to his daughter) in his career to his advantage.

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The Radio play used very real methods of the day, like news breaks and bulletins, to explore the outlandish sci-fi story by HG Wells. According to the historians, the way Welles dramatized the story, the true to life reports and descriptions played into the very fears and pre-conceived notions the people of the United States harbored. I found this exploration very interesting as the psychology of the reactions by panicked people was scrutinized.

Why did they react the way they did? Why does the brain default fears to things that we are familiar with? One historian theorizes that everyone who had reacted to the radio drama easily translated the term “Martians” or “Aliens” to “Germans.” Obviously because of the volatile climate that Hitler was creating in Europe and we here in the states were fearful of becoming involved in some capacity with the war machine.

All of these examinations make this entry of TAE a great watch. The comparisons made regarding The Hindenburg first hand accounts and the re-creation of the way the reporter in the radio drama reacted was very accurate. In turn, it was this verisimilitude that Welles used, to make his play visceral, that was quite ahead of it’s time. Despite the detractors, many others reacted well as if a prank was pulled and no harm was done. Some, though, were not that kind but Welles was the one to remain unscathed at the end. The gullibility and ignorance of the listeners is also looked into and it does not paint a very positive picture. The public was indeed duped and in some circles some may feel that the joke was “on them.” Quite literally.

On a more serious note, there were attempted suicides, fleeing to the hills, panic in the streets and police stations inundated with calls as a result of the Radio play. I think Welles would have not wanted it any other way. Check out this entry of “The American Experience,” that sports humor and has realistic and credible narration by Oliver Platt. It’s goofy in parts but remains to the end very engaging, informative and creative study of a strange Halloween “prank” pulled on un-suspecting listeners by a young, lucid and uncompromising talent named Orson Welles. Recommended!

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Here is another great short about the “War of the Worlds” broadcast named: “The Night America Trembled”

Some footage from this Doc was used in “The American Experience” entry reviewed above. Enjoy!