Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast of a radio performance of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has become the thing of legend. But it’s also the kind of legend that’s spread so wide and lived for so long that it’s evolved into fantasy status. Surely the amount of people that tuned in their radios that evening and believed Earth was under attack from Martians was exaggerated, right? It didn’t actually cause terror and panic in households, right?
It did. And here’s the proof: A seven-minute video of a very young-looking Welles (he was 23 at the time) addressing an onslaught of press members on October 31, 1938, the day after the broadcast. It’s fascinating how this footage captures a bewildered storyteller, one who would soon go on to become one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, defending his artistic intent and who is genuinely shocked to learn of the kind of impact that his experimental Halloween broadcast — which told Wells’ alien invasion story as news bulletins reporting on events happening in real time — was taken as anything but a creative way to experience the story.
Even more, it’s great how Welles actively isn’t trying to revel in the instant fame thrust upon, pointing out that he wasn’t the first person to ever tell a story in such a way, and that he can’t imagine his little radio play having such far-reaching consequences, such as making these types of productions illegal. It’s a tremendous thing to watch, and as if there weren’t already plenty of reasons to stand in awe of the man who made Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil, this provides quite a few more.
By Peter Hall
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