The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds.

There is no fictional work that stirs my imagination like H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Phenomenal book. However, the radio broadcast offered by Orson Welles  resonates deeply within me, sparking my imagination and taking me back in time to when modern technology was fresh and women still wore hats affixed to their hair with pins.

As described on one web site, "The War of the Worlds was an episode of the American radio drama anthology series Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938 and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds.

The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual Martian invasion was in progress. 
Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a 'sustaining show' (it ran without commercial breaks), thus adding to the dramatic effect. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated. In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage. The program's news-bulletin format was decried as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast, but the episode launched Orson Welles to fame.

Welles' adaptation was one of the Radio Project's first studies."

I love the old radio broadcasts. I think my father fostered that appreciation in me. The spoken word and few sound effects was enough to paint a vivid picture for the mind's eye. It was how people connected. It was how news was broadcast, music shared and stories spun. It was all done live. The world was a gentler, more-trusting place.

I read the H.G. Wells story as a child. I absolutely loved it; It absolutely terrified me. I then heard a radio broadcast (they played it every year in L.A.) and it unsettled me. However, my affair with the story began one fateful afternoon when the TV was on, Mum was busy on the phone, and I was left to my own devices.

This movie scared the shit out of me, and there really isn't any better way to phrase it. It was an absolute crapper moment. My eyes were glued to that old Zenith floor model as the alien ship sailed over the trees and scorched itself deep into my memory.

I was far too young to be watching it. To begin with, I wasn't potty trained yet. My toddler's mind later convinced me that the top of that damn space ship would somehow come out of drain if I flushed the toilet, ergo I would flush and run back to my room, vault onto my bed and pull covers or my pillow over my head. I did not want to die by horrible red sparks and I knew with every tender fiber of my young being that the camera part of that spaceship could get through any crack and enter my room soundlessly.

Years later the movie was remade and I love it even though it does not match the original movie or radio broadcast. Perhaps it is because the newer movie capitalized on those ships? They ceased to be flying tanks and became true instruments of violation; nothing was sacred, they moved just as silently as before, and death and terror were turbulent in their wake.

There are transcripts and recordings of Welles' broadcast. They are not played on Oct 30 anymore but I still hunt them down every year and listen. These are best listened to after the house has gone quiet for the night. Turn off the television, lower the lights and step back in time.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

Part Six

Part Seven

People were deeply frightened by this program. Some had tuned in late and did not realize it was fiction. Others were caught up in the story execution and their disbelief was momentarily suspended. It created an uproar.

It even pissed off the Canadians!

In the end, people were reassured that the world was not coming to an end. A monument was erected to honor the moment and life went on.

It's fitting that the radio broadcast should end with Welles speaking the following:

"This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be: the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying "Boo!" Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember, please, for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian -- it's Halloween."

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