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Sunday, October 30, 2011

What We Learned About Ourselves From Orson Welles' 1938 "The War of the Worlds"

On Halloween Eve, October 30, 1938, CBS radio broadcast an episode of its program “Mercury Theatre”. That night’s production was an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds.” This version was written by Howard Koch and Orson Welles, and directed by Welles. It was written and performed to sound like a real news story about an invasion from Mars.
This famous story is actually quite simple. An aggressive Martian life form comes to Earth to conquer it. Humans have no defense and are on the verge of defeat when the aliens succumb to the Earth’s microorganisms for which they are unprepared. The Martians all die and the Earth is saved.
The beauty of the story is more in its telling. Welles’ radio play was nestled in between the original Wells story (1898) and two motion pictures, one in 1953 and the other Spielberg’s 2005 special effects version.
The Radio Play
The plot of the Mercury Theatre radio play tells of a huge flaming metallic object crashing near Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This is followed shortly by alien creatures climbing out of the craft. A pitched battle between National Guardsmen and aliens looked as if the invaders would be defeated. But then an alien “tripod fighting machine” emerges, quickly killing six thousand soldiers, then marches on toward New York City. Poison gas is released by the advancing Martians. Casualty and damage reports continue coming in.
At this point in the program, an actor who is supposed to be the Secretary of the Interior is interviewed. There was great effort to make his voice sound like President Roosevelt, and many listeners believed it was FDR.
The character played by Orson Welles makes his way on foot to New York where he meets a man planning to fight the aliens from underground in a guerilla style war. Most of the city is in flames when all of a sudden the aliens’ machines begin to falter. Their occupants have been killed by unseen microbes that are lethal to them, but do not affect humans because of our evolutionary immunity.
Many of the listeners didn’t wait for the end of the program to react.
Near the end of the program, panic ensued. Police departments and newspaper offices were swamped with phone calls. People across the country, especially in the northeast, fled their homes or loaded their weapons to defend themselves. Some asked authorities how to flee the city or how they could protect themselves from alien gas attacks.
In a few places, people reported that they could see the aliens. This was simply a misidentification of other events such as an isolated coincidental power failure or telephone outage. But some historians estimated that still about two million people were completely frightened.
It took until the next day, Halloween, to restore order in many towns.
Below is a short newsreel showing Orson Wells answering questions about his radio broadcast the next day. It was supposed to be an apology, but sounds more as if he were surprised by some listeners’ lack of sophistication. After all, the novel had been published 40 years earlier. Welles even said that, “it was our thought that perhaps people might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable.”

So, how did Orson Welles fool so many listeners?
Welles’ formula to fool the public was simple. (1) Have a routine, regularly scheduled broadcast, Mercury Theatre, (2) interrupt it with breaking news, (3) cut to a live reporter on the scene, (4) have experts comment on the situation, and (5) follow up with alarming news bulletins. To all this was added the fact that Mercury Theatre had no commercial breaks.
Only three times did Welles announce that the program was a theatrical production and not a real news story. And these were carefully planned to maximize effect. The first time was a short introduction at the start. But many people didn’t hear the introduction. They were tuned to the more popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour” on a rival network that was featuring Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. Welles knew that the competing program would go to a musical interlude about 10 minutes into the show and listeners might take this opportunity to search around the dial. There was a good chance they would find the Mercury Theatre program, and would never have heard the first disclaimer.
A second disclaimer was purposely delayed until about 40 minutes into the 60 minute play. By that time, a large number of listeners could have realistically believed that the events being portrayed were actually happening. The final disclaimer was at the conclusion of the program, but by then the ruse was over.
Why did people believe such a fantastic story?
Our course the clever presentation was the primary reason but beyond that there were three basic psychological/cultural reasons. All three have become well established lessons about contemporary culture.
Political or economic crisis makes people edgy and ready to believe almost anything, especially bad news.
When a peoples’ stress level is high, they are more ready to believe what they hear, especially from normally trusted sources. In 1938, the world was on the brink of World War II. Fear of invasion by totalitarian forces was real to most Americans. Some listeners heard only that bombs were falling and assumed they were coming from Hitler.
Mass hysteria can be self-sustaining and spreads rapidly.
The phenomenon of mass hysteria, fueled by the power of imagination, grows rapidly. Orson Welles knew how to use radio’s imaginative possibilities, and he was a master at blurring the lines between fiction and reality. Many believed that they heard the invaders were German, not Martian.
At that time dangers were in fact lurking all around. It was a short step to have them materialize from outer space. No special effects were needed, only the listeners imagination. Panicked listeners packed roads, hid in cellars, and loaded their guns.
People tend to be too trusting of electronic mass media.    
People tend to be too trusting of what is presented to them via mass communications. Media has established itself as a source of truth far beyond its actual performance. For rural listeners, who depended on radio as their link to the outside world, the effect was even stronger.
The hoax worked, in part, because the broadcast simulated how radio really worked in an emergency. Welles had revealed how the power of mass communications could be used to create illusions and manipulate the public.
Afterward, newspapers sought to prove a point about the irresponsibility of radio broadcasts. This was quite hypocritical in the age of “yellow journalism.” Some historians believed it was print media’s revenge for being scooped by radio so many times.
The Aftermath
Years later Orson Welles appeared on British television explaining his motivations and intentions for the broadcast. He also admits that he was not completely innocent of trying to manipulate the public. He expresses his concern and warns that people should not take whatever radio and television tells them without question.

In 1940, two years after the Mercury Theatre’s production, Orson Welles and author H.G. Wells met in San Antonio and were interviewed together on the radio. Author Wells was 74 years old, director Welles was 25. They not only discussed “The War of the Worlds” but also the upcoming “Citizen Kane.” Below is a rarely heard recording of that interview.

“The War of the Worlds” has been resurrected again through the years. Sometimes in film and sometimes on the stage. It was made into its first feature film in 1953. The trailer for the 1953 Film is below.

In 2005, a major project was released by Steven Spielberg that used state-of-the-art special effects. The funny thing is, even with their superior technical effects, the public reacted to both films with much less apprehension than they did to the 1938 radio broadcast. Have we become cynical or bored with threats from the skies? Or, have they become a too real news story in the post 9-11 world?
Listen to the 1938 Broadcast
It’s still fascinating to listen to. Even though the music and manner of speech now seems a bit dated, you can still sense how listeners could have reacted, as many did, to the unfolding story.

There are a lot of recordings of the 1938 broadcast available on youtube.com. Most have commentary interspersed between the story’s scenes. To get a sense of the intended impact, listen to a video that just plays it straight through without comment. Also, try turning the lights out and your monitor off for maximum effect.
Below is the best I have found.

On the 50th Anniversary of the broadcast, the folks in Grover’s Mills erected a plaque to commemorate the event that put their town “on the map.”

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