REVIEW OF PBS DOCUMENTARY
ON ORSON WELLES’ ‘WAR OF THE WORLDS’
By DAVID CRUMM, Editor of ReadTheSpirit
“I think suits should be filed against Mr. Welles and the Columbia Broadcasting System for their wrongdoing! Welles’ performance on the radio was a clear demonstration of his inhuman instincts and his fiendish joy in causing distress and suffering all over the country. He is a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performers and he should make amends for his consummate act of assininity.”
Judge A. G. Kennedy, Union, South Carolina
AS WE approach Halloween, we also approach the 75th anniversary of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast orchestrated by Orson Wells on October 30, 1938. If we recall anything about that incident, we may smile at the panic Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air caused across the U.S. that night and conclude: Oh, that was all about “the stupidity of the masses!” In fact, in 1938, one woman actually drew that conclusion in response to the radio drama.
Well, I’m urging you to tune in for an hour of PBS’s American Experience documentary series on Tuesday night—and you will discover that there’s a lot more we need to know about that celebrated broadcast. (Learn more about the PBS documentary: Here is the American Experience home page for War of the Worlds.)
Among the many lessons we learn in this fascinating hour-long film:
“SURFING” IS NOT NEW: We tend to think of Americans’ split-second attention span for media as something new. In fact, as this new film demonstrates, radio-station surfing in 1938 caused the biggest damage among terrified listeners. Those dial-spinners missed the opening credits that clearly identified the radio drama. Instead, they dropped into the midst of a terrifying broadcast without that crucial information about the fictional nature of the production.
FEAR BUILDS ON FEAR: President Franklin Roosevelt was correct in his judgment that, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” One reason the radio broadcast had such a dramatic impact was that Americans had been conditioned to expect terrifying news: from stories about the 1929 stock market crash, through shocking headlines about banks going out of business, breaking news bulletins about natural disasters and, by 1938, “the drumbeat of war” in Europe. Many listeners who dropped into the middle of the War of the Worlds later reported that they thought it was a news broadcast about German forces attacking in the U.S.
BAD SCIENCE BUILDS ON ITSELF: These days, we understand the power of bad scientific reports—ranging from poorly conducted research to politically motivated scientific claims. These claims can sway millions of Americans and result in either bad policies or delays in taking positive actions. Well, as this documentary shows: Countless Americans had seen scientific and even governmental reports in the 1930s concluding that Mars did, indeed, have a living population. Stories about Martian landings seemed natural to many listeners.
HYSTERIA SPREADS IN A VISCERAL WAY: Panic can become so overwhelming that it tricks our senses. Earlier in the 1930s, researchers found men and women across one region of Virginia reporting—over a year-long period—attacks of toxic gas being pumped into their homes. In fact, researchers documented, this was entirely a case of mass hysteria. Of course, many other incidents of mass panic have been documented over the past century. Welles’ production ranks among the first major examples of a media-driven panic. It was so effective that many Americans experienced it on a visceral level. As in the case of the Virginia “toxic gassings,” many radio listeners swore they could smell the black smoke produced in the Martian attack.
CONGRESS IS SILLY: No, craziness didn’t break out in Congress with the advent of the Tea Party. Congressional leaders have been silly for a long, long time. The Congressional response to the radio broadcast was ridiculous—and, thankfully for Welles and CBS, eventually faded away.
APOLOGY IS POWERFUL: In the end, Orson Welles called it one of his greatest public performances. The documentary shows how masterfully Welles threw himself onto the mercy of the American people after the broadcast. Beyond the art in his public appearance, there also was a sincere apology. And, in the end, that may be the most important lesson in that brush with the War of the Worlds.
(This review is originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)