Wednesday, June 29, 2005

However, Orson's introduction may have been more accurate when he said that "thirty-two million people were listening in on '>radios."

The '>radio play, written by Mercury member Howard Koch (who later went on to a screenwriting career that included Casablanca) moved the scene of the invasion to New Jersey. The first Martian capsule landed on a farm at Grover's Mills, a conveniently remote location, also conveniently located near Princeton (not yet home of Albert Einstein, but of other scientists including the fictional Professor Pierson, who also sounded a lot like Orson Welles.)

Koch later wrote a book about the whole affair ('>The Panic Broadcast), which includes the script (and some inaccuracies in the introduction---the play was announced on the air as a presentation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, not Howard Koch's play.) He claims early on that HG's story supplied him with the basic invasion plot, and what the fighting machines looked like, and little else. That's not exactly accurate either. Koch borrowed a lot more, including characters, situations and entire chunks of dialogue.

But, following Orson's instructions, Koch wrote it as a series of news bulletins. And since network news reporters don't interview many ordinary people (except to make fun of them, as a reporter does of a farmer early in this play), the story is told through various authority figures: first the scientist, then police and military authorities. HG's "everyman" (who was more of a unassuming, suburban, well-educated essayist with a scientific bent) disappeared from the story.

Koch's book reproduces some news stories and columns commenting on the "panic" the broadcast caused when listeners believed, or acted as if they believed, that an invasion was underway---by Martians, Germans or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Some columnists deplored the Orson Welles tactics of presentation, others thought it was good practice for a real war emergency.

But later historians dispute the actual numbers of panicked people involved, their estimates varying from hundreds to tens of thousands. That some people believed they were listening to news broadcasts of an actual ongoing invasion is indisputable. '>Steve Allen, the late comedian and writer, vividly remembered being a child in the care of a relative who really did panic, and tried to take him to safety.

It did become a case study in the insidious persuasiveness of mass electronic media. Even after it was exposed as a "hoax," tourists visited the supposed site of the Martian invasion in Grover's Mill. (Of course, fans of '>The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai know that the invasion was real after all, but not by Martians---by Lectoids from the Eighth Dimension.)

I can personally testify to the effectiveness of Welles’ fake newscast technique. I was in junior high when I first heard of the Orson Welles panic broadcast, and I immediately wrote a script describing a Martian invasion, also told in news bulletins, but using the names of prominent television anchors and reporters of the time, like Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. I got some friends to act it out for my father’s clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder, complete with homemade sound effects. I later played it for my junior high class, and after a smattering of laughter as they recognized voices---of course we sounded nothing like the reporters we were saying we were---they listened in something like stunned silence. I was amazed at the effect---despite everything, they were on the edge of their seats.

One person who had no doubt as to the effect of the Mercury broadcast is said to be FDR. Five years later, when some people refused to believe the reports of Pearl Harbor, he called Orson and blamed their skepticism on him and his phony invasion.

Another person who was initially upset was H.G. Wells himself. He was angry about his story apparently being misused as a Halloween prank simply to scare people in times that were scary enough.

But his anger at Orson Welles, like a lot of his enmities, didn't last long. On his last trip to America in 1940, HG Wells and Orson Welles met for the first time, and were interviewed together---on the radio. HG gave Orson the opportunity to plug the movie he was working on, called '>Citizen Kane. After that movie came out, Wells cabled Welles to express his admiration of that film.

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