See It Soon: American Experience – War of the Worlds

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The latest from the PBS documentary series American Experience explores the genius of Orson Welles, and the visceral public reaction to his radio production of War of the Worlds on the 75th anniversary of its broadcast.

I try to avoid getting myself tangled up in heated conversations, but one debate I’m a sucker for is the question of best film of all time. To me, there’s no question that honor still belongs to Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane. While I could go on and on about how groundbreaking and innovative the film was from both a technical and narrative perspective, I usually just point people toward Roger Ebert and let him do the convincing.

I’m bringing up Citizen Kane because October 30 marks the 75th anniversary of the singular moment that made Welles an international name, and gave him the unique leverage and latitude to create that masterpiece that became Kane. I’m referring to Welles’ notorious radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ classic novel of alien invasion, War of the Worlds, which effectively captivated and terrorized an entire nation in less than an hour’s time. Commemorating that event is another fantastic installment from the PBS documentary series American Experience, “War of the Worlds,” which premieres on October 29.

Setting his version of the classic novel in the United States and using the universally-trusted medium of radio with all of its familiar devices for conveying emergency, Welles managed to accomplish something that no drama before or after has even been able to do: mimic reality so compellingly that it incited a visceral public reaction. With its deft use of regular broadcast interruption, a terrifying and contemporary script, and brilliant on-the-spot decision making by its director, the performance of Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air players is still a thrilling experience after all these years:

While the public reaction to Welles’ production has been well documented, the new American Experience doc brings to light some long-lost letters of praise and complaint saved by Mercury Theater member Richard Wilson, and donated by his estate to the University of Michigan in 2007. The letters were rediscovered by student A. Brad Schwartz, and used as the script for the entertaining dramatic reenactments that pepper the film. The letters reveal a public reaction that underscores how emotionally unstable the nation was at the time of the broadcast, and how reliant the public had already become on radio and media in general. “In an era when the public can still be fooled or misled by what is read online, in print, or seen on TV, War of the Worlds is a timely reminder of the power of mass media,” said executive producer Mark Samels. 

For me, the film also illustrates the source of Welles’ creative genius: his devil-may-care attitude. The true mark of any visionary artist is a constant willingness to take risks—a mantra that Welles lived by. That same attitude also precipitated his career’s premature demise, but not before he managed to make an indelible impression on every artistic medium he ever touched. 

American Experience: War of the Worlds premieres October 29 at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). 

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Christian Williams is editor in chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at and follow him on Twitter: @cwwilliams.

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