Thursday, October 30, 2008

Buckshot: War of the Worlds

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.

Seventy years ago tonight, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air scared the living crap out of a good portion of the country with their adaptaton of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. In honor of that anniversary, I've compiled some interesting links to help celebrate the night Welles & Co. "...annihilated the world before your very ears..."

I have an unabashed love for this radio drama, and have it on a CD I managed to find for $5 when I was in junior high. I listened to it again while working the other day and damned if it doesn't hold up seven decades later. It's easy to see how the public was fooled. If you listened from the very beginning, you knew it was a regular radio play, and there's a break at the halfway point that reminds you you're listening to the Mercury Theatre. But let's be honest. If you tuned in late and only heard the horrified words of Carl Phillips as the Martians unleashed their heat ray, you wouldn't be sticking around to hear that reminder that it's not real. You were packing up Mabel and the kids, loading your shotgun, and heading for a safe haven.

I took a science fiction course last spring as part of my graduate studies, and the professor played roughly the first half of the recording. I was surprised (and a bit disappointed) by how many giggles I heard. Then I realized that these kids weren't listening to it simply to enjoy it; they were looking for signs that it was all a hoax. And yes, if you listen and pay attention to the timeline, it's pretty obvious that things, while chaotic, were happening almost too fast. Nevertheless, Welles and his troupe made radio history that night, and I never get tired of listening to "the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo!"

Oh, but The War of the Worlds didn't end in 1938...

1949: Quito, Ecuador

Eleven years after the Welles broadcast, the staff of Radio Quito decided to try their hand at re-creating the famous invasion. Was it a success? Well…sort of. It was a success in that it scared people; probably scared them a little too much though. People bought into the broadcast so heavily that they were running to the churches to confess their sins before the Martians arrived to kill them, and a local military unit was seen racing through town to fight off the invaders.

When the station realized the panic they had wrought, they came clean that it was a dramatization and issued a plea for calm. Unfortunately, the citizens of Quito didn’t see it that way and a large mob stormed the radio station. In the ensuing chaos, six people died and the station itself burned to the ground. Radio Quito’s art director (and architect of the event) Leonardo Paez allegedly fled the country never to return.

Sadly, no audio recording of this infamous broadcast survived.

1968: Buffalo, New York

For the 30th anniversary of the Mercury Theatre’s broadcast, WKBW in Buffalo decided to do a modern version of the invasion, with more of a newsroom feel to it. And you’d think that people would have realized it was a hoax…but no. Local police and other authorities were flooded with calls, and there are reports that Canada sent military units to border bridges to repel any Martians that set their eyes on our neighbors to the north. To its credit, WKBW did mention several times during the broadcast that it was a dramatization.

In 1971, they did a revised version that cut the length from 90 minutes to roughly an hour. This is the version that’s most readily available online. I’m not sure a copy of the 1968 broadcast has survived to this day, at least not in a wide circulation.

So how is it? Well…if you can get past the God-awful DJ at the beginning who interrupts his rockin’ Halloween night broadcast to bring you news of explosions on Mars, it’s not too bad. In particular, there are a couple of sequences where they’re supposed to be broadcasting directly from the newsroom that are very well-done, as you hear the chaos of phones ringing and people shouting to each other in the background trying to figure out just what’s going on. I like the structure, and the fact that you see it solely through the eyes of the broadcasters; they don’t hand control of the station over to the National Guard like the 1938 version did. But in my opinion, the original by Welles and Co. is simply a better performance.

War of the Worlds in other mediums:

H.G. Wells' story also inspired many film adaptations. The best of those is probably still the 1953 version by producer George Pal, if only because you get the amazing bit where a priest approaches a Martian war machine, bible raised in his hand, and gets atomized. (I imagine that was a little edgy for the 1950s.) But I think the Spielberg/Cruise joint from 2005 is pretty good, if not great. If nothing else, you have to respect how good it looks for being completed in less than a year, considering all the visual effects work.

Not to be outdone, in 1978, there was even a musical version produced by Jeff Wayne. It's supposed to be great, though I haven't had a chance to get my hands on it yet.


The Mercury Theatre on the Air (Here you can download the entire broadcast as an mp3.)

Daevid MacKenzie does something interesting here: He attempts to re-create what many people actually heard on the night of October 30, 1938. A large portion of the audience was actually tuned in to The Chase and Sanborn Hour, only to switch over to the Mercury Theatre broadcast right around the time the Martian cylinder opens. MacKenzie blends audio of both shows to give you an idea of how it might have sounded to suddenly tune into a Martian invasion.

The Glowing Dial is an Old-Time Radio podcast, and this entry from 2003 has it all. Not only do you get the 1938 broadcast, but there’s a snippet from the press conference Orson Welles gave the next day, a brief interview between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells from 1940, and the 1971 WKBW broadcast. The hosts have kind of a groan-inducing sense of humor, but the amount of material they put together is very impressive.

Radiolab is a show broadcast on NPR that featured War of the Worlds this past March. They discuss the 1938 broadcast, as well as the subsequent versions. It’s a bit better analysis of the phenomenon than you get from The Glowing Dial.

Here you can listen to the 1938 and 1971 broadcasts in-browser if you don’t want to download them.

More War of the Worlds links:

War of the Worlds: The Complete War of the Worlds Website This site has everything you could ask for. Information on every incarnation of WotW from the original novel to radio and film adaptations and beyond.

Wikipedia entry on the broadcast.

Another comprehensive WotW website.

Wars of the Worlds - A load of links and chronology of other WotW broadcasts.

The full transcript of the 1938 broadcast can be found here or here.

And to close, I can't think of any words better than those spoken by Welles himself at the conclusion of the broadcast:

So goodbye everybody, and remember 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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