With the Halloween season in full force (despite the Christmas items the stores are already foisting on us), some movie buffs have favorite scary movies they like to watch on Halloween. My tradition is to pull out Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater radio recording of his very special version of “The War of the Worlds.”
Probably most of us know by now the story had its origins in the H.G. Wells novel published in the 1890s. The famous radio broadcast of October 30, 1938 is often called the “Martian Hoax” broadcast that caused a panic, but it was never a hoax. It was excellent drama, using the new medium of radio at its most imaginative.
The upshot is, the Orson Welles version took the novel and turned it into first-person experience (at least the first half of the show. The second half returns to traditional narrative storytelling). It was drama as intimate as good stagecraft, but the unique properties of radio gave it a reality it would not have had on film or on stage.
From the start, there were the standard announcements inviting listeners to stay tuned for “The War of Worlds," and several normal commercial breaks. The panic came from people who didn’t listen to the Mercury Theater on CBS. They were listening to the Chase and Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy over on NBC. When the first commercial came on, they channel surfed over to CBS. By then, the “The War of Worlds” program had already started, with screaming announcers describing what sounded like the end of the world.
One can’t entirely blame Mr. Welles for the channel surfers’ assumptions, nor can the channel surfers be ridiculed for their panic. These were the good old days of the Munich Pact Crisis when madmen were carving up Europe and we had constant bulletins about it on the radio. These were the good old days when one of the worse hurricanes that ever hit the US, hit where it wasn’t supposed to…New England, and killed nearly 700 people who had not the faintest clue it was coming. (More on the Hurricane of 1938 on my New England Travels blog: part 1, part 2, and part 3). Let’s just say, it had been a bad five or six weeks. And then October 30th, and Orson Welles goes, “Boo!”
The movie The War of the Worlds was made in a different era, a bit more sophisticated (as the film points out, we had developed the atom bomb in the meantime), but this film still reeks of a warm innocence.
Instead of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, as in the radio version, the beleaguered community is in California. Except for cameos by the Orson Welles’ script characters of Professor Pearson and reporter Carl Phillips, all the others are new characters.
Gene Barry plays a scientist on vacation near the town where the Martians land. Ann Robinson is a young teacher who at first hero-worships him because of his reputation in his field, and then spends the rest of the movie either in his arms being comforted or just plain running away from the Martians. They bond quickly.
We are shown a lot of good-natured yokel types who investigate the site of what they think is a meteor, and then some of them are evaporated by heat rays from the Martians. The yokels cheerfully hollered, “Welcome to California” moments before, wanting to make peace. These may be square-dancing type folk, but they’ve been around. They know that Martians visit occasionally, “Happens every 18 or 20 years, they say.” Best to stay on their good side.
Before long, the military gets involved trying to stop the invasion. Gene Barry spends a good deal of time at first looking bored and slightly amused by everything, until he’s running for his life. Ann Robinson’s uncle, the Pastor, played by Lewis Martin approaches the Martian capsule reciting the 23rd Psalm (King James Version), but they blast him anyway.
Interestingly, he explains his desire to get closer to them because he considers them “nearer the Creator” because they are a more highly advanced species. One wonders if this sounded at all blasphemous to the more conservative audiences then, but it’s a remarkable take on aliens from outer space.
We get rocket launchers and bazookas, tanks, and that spectacular Flying Wing, but the creatures are immune to shellfire. They are not, however, immune to germs, and so we all know how it ends for our Martian guests.
Just as Orson Welles’ version was set in his time and reflected it by use of the radio, just as author H.G. Wells’ original story reflected London of the 1890s, so too, this film gives us a glimpse of the early 1950s, our innocence and our sophistication, our atom bomb and our Martian eye that is “an electric eye like a television camera.”
Paul Frees, whose voice you may remember from zillions of cartoons, is a radio reporter on the spot for the dropping of the atom bomb on the Martians. He speaks into a reel-to-reel tape recorder strapped to his hip. If you think that’s corny, take a look at the spectators hiding behind clumps of dirt to avoid the bomb blast and radioactive fallout.
We are in the Cold War, and we snuggle up to the A-bomb to protect us from the strangers. Better the devil you know.
It is also the era where the first UFO sightings were reported.
One of the fun things about this film is the cars. There are, of course, traffic jams on the new freeways, and all through this movie we get a good look at many cars from the era. It’s a classic car buff’s dream.
Also look for cameos by Ned Glass as a looter, and Alvy Moore as a yokel, who we last saw in a larger role in 5 Against the House (1955) here.
Especially good are the scenes of Gene Barry stumbling through empty city streets, littered with trash and debris, while the battle rages just outside of town. His isolation may give us more discomfort than the death rays, because isolation is real.
It is a very imaginative film, as good science fiction must be, but when you compare the radio version and the film version of this story, you see that the film must bring to life the imagination of the writers and director, and artistic director, and cinematographer. Your imagination doesn’t come into it. And that’s the thing about good science fiction. It needs you to make it real.
Turn out the lights and listen to the CBS Mercury Theater production of “The War of the Worlds.” It’s October 30, 1938. Let your mind, and your imagination, run wild.
And if you see a hideous Martian somewhere in the dark, just cough on him. Spread those germs.
(You can download the program free to your computer from Internet Archive.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.