W. Joseph Campbell

‘War of the Worlds’ made boring: PBS documentary is tedious fare

In Anniversaries, Media myths, Media myths and radio, War of the Worlds on October 27, 2013 at 12:27 pm

The War of Worlds made dull.

That’s what PBS has accomplished in an hour-long American Experience documentary about the famous radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds, which aired 75 years ago and told of a deadly invasion of the United States by Martians wielding heat rays.

Welles, the day after

Orson Welles, 1938

The PBS documentary to be broadcast Tuesday is a plodding, disjointed program that provides some back story to the famous program, which starred and was directed by Orson Welles (left).

And it tries much too hard to make the argument that a war scare in Europe in late September 1938 had all of America still on edge four weeks later, when the radio show aired.

But its greatest flaw lies in embracing as a premise the dubious assumption that The War of the Worlds dramatization on October 30, 1938, provoked chaos and scared Americans out of their wits.

The documentary seeks to underscore its dubious premise through commentary spoken by actors in period clothing. The actors pretend to be sitting for interviews as they give voice to sentiments contained in letters written in 1938 to Welles, the Federal Communications Commission, and CBS, which aired the dramatization.

The actors aren’t convincing, their comments seem stilted and contrived, and the effect is cheesy, eye-rolling, and suggestive of so much filler.

The letters, drawn from a well-known archive of Welles material at the University of Michigan, were of course hardly representative of the public’s reactions to The War of the Worlds dramatization. But PBS makes no mention of that.

The documentary claims that upwards “of a million people” were convinced, “if only briefly, that the United States was being laid waste by alien invaders.”

But no explanation is offered as to how the makers of the documentary arrived at such a figure.

Not only is it unsourced, but the figure is surely exaggerated.

As I discuss in my media mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, most listeners, in overwhelming numbers, recognized the radio show for what it was — deliciously clever entertainment on the eve of Halloween in 1938.

The notion that The War of the Worlds program was so frightening that tens of thousands of people were sent into the streets in panic is, I wrote in Getting It Wrong, “a media-driven myth that offers a deceptive message about the influence radio wielded over listeners in its early days and, more broadly, about the media’s potential to sow fright, panic, and alarm.”

Had chaos and hysteria swept the United States that night long ago, “the trauma and turmoil surely would have resulted in many deaths and injuries,” I further wrote.

But no deaths and few injuries were conclusively linked to the program.

Indeed, there is only scant evidence that listeners acted on whatever fears they may have had. Many of them made the entirely rational decision to seek confirmation or clarification by calling external sources known to be usually reliable, such as local newspapers, police departments, and fire stations.

The PBS documentary, however, cites heightened call volumes as evidence of Americans being scared out of their wits.

Listeners that night also turned the radio dial to see whether other stations were carrying reports about an invasion from Mars.  None were, of course. The documentary ignores that reaction, too.

Discerning listeners, moreover, recognized that events in the radio play moved far too rapidly to be realistic. The pacing was such that within 30 minutes, the Martians blasted off from their home planet, traveled millions across space, landed in rural New Jersey, set up lethal heat rays, wiped out units of American soldiers, disrupted local and national communications, and forced declarations of martial law.

During the radio dramatization’s closing half-hour, the aliens marched on and destroyed much of New York City and took control of swaths of the United States before succumbing to the effects of humble earthly germs.

The documentary would have been far more compelling had it examined rather than swallowed whole the conventional wisdom about the radio play, had it raised searching questions as to whether the dramatization did provoke chaos and panic.

But the documentary makers took the easy way out and fashioned a program that dutifully and dully accepts the received wisdom without recognizing recent scholarship that has impugned what PBS took as a premise.

The radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds wasn’t panic-inducing. It was memorable and entertaining — neither of which can be said about the tedious fare that PBS will offer up in two days.


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