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You’ve all heard the story: Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds unintentionally convinced people all over the country that it was real. Was that what really happened? Was there actual mass hysteria, or were such things exaggerated? This made-for-PBS documentary, also titled War of the Worlds, takes a closer look at what happened that night, and how it changed the way we think of the media.
It was Oct. 30, 1938, when twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles took to the air as performer, director, and co-writer of that night’s episode of CBS’s Mercury Theater on the Air. That night’s episode, the sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds, was presented as a faux news broadcast. Stories of what happened next vary, even on this documentary, but the gist of it is that some listeners didn’t catch the start of the show, and ended up calling their local police stations or newspapers to ask what was going on. Word eventually reached the CBS studio, where producers demanded that Welles calm listeners down with a station break. He did, but not until after stringing the audience along for just a little while longer. In the days following the broadcast, Welles made a public apology, which, the documentary tells us, was every bit a piece of theater as the Martian invasion. Although he’d been a success in the New York theater scene, Welles became a household name thanks to the radio show, and a lucrative career in Hollywood soon followed.
The documentary, part of PBS’s American Experience series, lays out all the basic facts of what happened, beginning with the creation of the script and Welles’ involvement, to the recording of the broadcast, the public’s reaction, and the fallout. The best stuff are the anecdotes of what really did and didn’t happen that night, from a coincidental freak blackout that occurred in one town at the time of the show, to Welles’ daring “the show must go on” attitude in the face of producers attempting to break the tension. The various historians interviewed do a great job of painting a “you are there” picture of that night. Filmmaker-turned-film-historian Peter Bogdanovich is interviewed, of course, because he magically appears anytime someone says the name “Orson Welles” three times in front of a mirror.
At other times, though, the doc gets hokey. A bunch of modern-day actors get dressed up in 1930s duds to read letters and diary/journal entries from the night of the broadcast. These scenes are really cheesy, often with over-the-top comedic accents. I get what they’re going for, but it’s a distraction. Every time one of these recreations starts, you’ll just want them to get back to Welles.
Tech specs are decent: A clean widescreen picture and clear 5.1 track. Extras mostly show us the making of the recreation parts, with behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes.
At only 60 minutes, War of the Worlds packs in a lot of info for an enjoyable watch. Give it a spin if the subject matter interests you.