Film Review: The Night That Panicked America

The recent spectacle of a meteor shower tracing fiery trails across many parts of the UK’s night skies brought to my mind another group of meteors crashing into Earth in that wonderful H.G.Wells story, ‘The War of The Worlds’. This in turn induced me to seek out and listen to the original radio broadcast from 1938 (isn’t the Internet an amazing resource?), when Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air created history with their dramatisation of the story.

Now, I’m sure the majority of us have seen either the 2005 Spielberg blockbuster starring Tom Cruise or the much cooler (in my opinion) 1953 movie featuring Gene Barry. Of course, it goes without saying that neither film compares to Herbert George’s 1898 novel – for me, one of the most significant science fiction stories ever written – however, the earlier film benefits from being simpler and less overblown but no less impressive visually. It also tapped into that whole ‘red (communist) scare’ thing that was gripping America at the time of its release.

To really allow the genius of Wells’ writing to stir up your imagination though, turn off the TV, switch off your phone and lay back in a darkened room and listen to the radio broadcast that went out on CBS on the eve of Halloween almost seventy five years ago. It was such a spellbinding play that of the approximate six million who tuned in to the broadcast, over a million believed it to be a true Martian invasion and many of them actually fled from their homes in hysterical abandonment. And this brings me rather neatly to the film I’m recommending this time round – The Night That Panicked America.

Made in 1975 for the ABC Television Network this TV movie, starring Vic Morrow, Tom Bosley and Paul Shenar, recounts in docudrama style the broadcast from the point of view of Orson Welles (Shenar) and his Mercury Theatre associates as well as from several fictional groups of listeners from varying locations and social classes who all believed the broadcast to be a real Martian invasion.

The depiction of the broadcast itself makes this film worth watching just to see how radio professionals put together a show – actors in front of mics reading lines from pages of script while foley artists use the tools of their trade (and often some clever improvisation) to create the sounds to bring the story alive. To witness each and every one of them coming in right on cue is a pure joy. And once the broadcast is under way, then we get to see the poor, misguided listeners, the believers, those who had missed the broadcast’s opening line announcing the evening’s dramatisation of a novel. If they had heard this, they would have realised it was not real news bulletins they were listening to. There’s no doubt that the ‘on-the-spot’ reporting style of the radio play helped convince many that an invasion was actually happening and together with fact that in 1938, Americans were living in an atmosphere of tension and anxiety as Adolf Hitler steered the world towards its second global conflict, the play’s frightening premise simply fuelled the paranoia that was already running high in the country’s stream of consciousness. Indeed, some listeners thought the invaders were the Germans on a vanguard attack.

While this TV movie may exaggerate some of the panic (for entertainment’s sake, you understand), it’s not difficult to imagine just how wildly people might have reacted on that night. Remember, this was a time when news wasn’t as instant as it is today and with the radio being the only source of finding out what was going on in the wider world, hearing (never mind seeing) was believing. So, when we see a pair of farmers arm themselves with shotguns and head out into the surrounding countryside in search of the invaders and a wealthy household flee their dinner party with the family silver we can pretty much understand their actions even though we know they’re mistaken.

Another note of consequence – the Mercury Theatre on the Air was an unsponsored show at the time, and therefore there were no advertisement breaks during the play. The audience would have heard an uninterrupted report of a Martian invasion in real time with no clue that they were listening to a work of fiction. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the CBS studio started receiving calls from concerned listeners but the switchboard operators simply couldn’t believe that people thought that what they were hearing was real.

In the days following the broadcast, CBS was on the receiving end of a fair amount of flack over the incident with several newspapers and public figures describing the play’s ‘news-bulletin format’ as cruelly deceptive. The network was sued by many listeners claiming ‘mental anguish’ and ‘personal injury’ but all suits were dismissed save for one – a man from Massachusetts claimed for a pair of shoes he had bought to escape the Martians. Orson Welles apparently insisted the man be paid.

All in all then, this is an interesting little film made all the more remarkable for being a true story. The fact that the story revolves around one of the greatest sci-fi tales ever written, makes it, while not quite a classic, most definitely worth watching.