Orson Welles Versus the People: The War of the Worlds, 80 Years On

Updated on May 22, 2018
Lynsey Ford profile image

Lynsey is a Film and Media Graduate from Birkbeck College. A multimedia journalist, she is a contributor to The Culture Trip and The Spread.

Welles Radio Studio 1938
Welles Radio Studio 1938 | Source

Terror on the Airwaves

On October 30, 1938, CBS Network broadcast the 17th episode from The Mercury Theatre on the Air at 8pm to mark the occasion of Halloween. The radio drama, directed and narrated by 23 year old actor and Director Orson Welles, took inspiration from the H.G Wells 19th century sci-fi novel The War of The Worlds. Originally set in London, the 60 page script was developed by Howard E. Koch, beginning with a prologue from Welles. Adopting the format of a musicale, proceedings were interrupted by 'live' news flashes, describing unexplained explosions occurring on Mars. Orson Welles performed the part of imminent (fictional) astronomer Professor Pierson of Princeton Observatory, who observes large gas explosions on Mars through his telescope.

Further news flashes alert American households to an unidentified falling object resembling a rocket cylinder; described as 'a huge flaming object... a meteorite' which lands on a farm in Grovers Mill, Princeton, New Jersey. The reporter confirms to listeners that the cylindrical object contain martians, who turn on the local reporter with their deadly heat rays, dramatically cutting off his news report. The journalist (played by Welles) warns of alien invasion upon New York City, discussing poisonous smoke upon the atmosphere and the descent of martian war machines on tall metal tripods, which are eventually defeated by microbes. A venomous martian is described in gruesome detail; the 'eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.'

CBS censors approved content from The Mercury Theatre Company in advance of the one-off recording, ensuring that any real names and places were erased from the script. However, the unfolding tension was made all the more realistic because the Mercury Theatre Stage Company did not have any third party sponsors breaking up the Halloween production, only breaking half an hour into the broadcast. For the musical soundtrack, Bernard Herrmann led many musicians from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, providing solo piano pieces between standard classics including Stardust and La Cumparsita. Incorporating sound effects by engineer Ora Daigle Nichols, The Mercury Theatre left no stone unturned with its attention to detail; from the sound of the martian's 'door hatch' coming apart from the spacecraft, to the long periods of 'dead air' to play on unfolding developments between martians attacking New York City - which all served to create suspense in the dramatisation. Martians are described as sweeping through crowds on long metal tripods, killing innocent civilians including 7000 National Guards Men, police officers and soldiers.

Mercury Theatre Radio Rehearsal 1938
Mercury Theatre Radio Rehearsal 1938 | Source

Media Frenzy

It was estimated that 12,500 articles were generated in the first month after the broadcast, with the media building on the fear, paranoia and hysteria of the public in the wake of Hitler's invasion across Eastern Europe. Wiith bold captions emblazoned upon a variety of national publications, it catapulted Welles into notoriety;The New York Times screamed out at the debacle, claiming it caused 'A wave of mass hysteria', whilst the Daily News slammed the broadcast with the headline 'Fake radio 'war' terrorises N.Y'. But the reality was different; whilst it was estimated that 1.2 million listeners tuned in to the broadcast, only 2% of U.S households admitted that they tuned into the broadcast, and no fatalities were listed across any local hospitals. Telephone operators did however report a high percentage of locals offering to provide blood donations.

Welles nevertheless faced the eye of the storm, caught in the glaring spotlight as the mischief maker, swamped by film crews and assorted journalists, who were keen to grill him in a lengthy conference as the brains behind the production. CBS for their part, attempted to confiscate the scripts in the aftermath of Welles' interrogation by the media, just half an hour after the broadcast ended at 9pm. In the wake of the broadcast, The FCC - Federal Communications Commission launched an investigation, working on codes of conduct and Welles & CBS faced lawsuits amounting to $1 million. Eventually all legal threats were dropped.

Orson would later have a direct connection on radio KTSA San Antonio with H.G Wells on October 28, 1940. Orson and H.G revelled in each other's company, with H.G remarking “Are you sure there was such a panic in America or wasn’t it your Halloween fun?” Welles was lifted by H.G's lightheartedness over the incident: “I think that’s the nicest thing that a man from England could possibly say about the man from Mars.'

Orson Welles, War of The Worlds, 1938
Orson Welles, War of The Worlds, 1938 | Source

Orson Welles Apology To The Public

When Welles Met Wells


Orson Welles delighted and infuriated the Hollywood elite in equal measure, going on to produce the controversial 1941 Oscar winning film Citizen Kane, starring Welles as magnate Charles Foster Kane (based on William Randolph Hearst). Sharing the Best Original Screenplay with Hermann J Mankiewicz, Welles would continue to have a colourful career both as a Hollywood player and mercurial maverick. Branching out into Hollywood blockbusters (The Long Hot Summer, Touch of Evil), Welles would perform large scene stealing cameos in the sixties (Casino Royale, Man For All Seasons), in order to help fund his independent film projects across Europe throughout the sixties and seventies including the unseen six year project The Other Side of The Wind (1970-1976) with partner Oja Kodar. For his contribution to film, Welles was awarded the honorary Oscar in 1971 by John Huston, later receiving the AFI Lifetime achievement in 1975 before his death in 1985. The War of The Worlds would later be adapted into an acclaimed 1978 musical version by Jeff Wayne with actor Richard Burton as the chief narrator.

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    © 2018 Lynsey Ford


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