Halloween 2013 is only days away. And just in time for the country’s spookiest day of the year, PBS has released the latest documentary from its American Experience series, American Experience: War of the Worlds. Most audiences know the story of the Mercury Theater’s now infamous broadcast on October 30th, 1938. But how many people really know the full story behind the panic caused by Orson Welles and his cohorts? Now thanks to PBS, audiences will finally see the full story of what happened not just on that fateful night, but the long term fallout from it, too. The presentation, narrated by veteran actor Oliver Platt (Get Smart), shows how the story of that night didn’t end after Welles announced to audiences nationwide that they were just listening to a play. This is the most important part of what makes this documentary so successful. Just as interesting in this feature, is the fallout itself. It will leave audiences realizing the more things change, the more they stay the same. Making the documentary even more worth the watch is the inclusion of actual letters typed and written by listeners who both supported and criticized Wells and his cast mates. That and the actors that helped illustrate the view of those people put the finishing touch on this documentary. Everything assembled together, American Experience: War of the World proves to be a candidate to be one of the best documentaries of 2013.
The panic caused by Orson Welles’ broadcast of The War of the Worlds is the stuff of legend. It’s a story told every year from one generation to the next. But what isn’t told is the full effect of the broadcast. American Experience: War of the Worlds tells that portion of the story. It sets up the untold story with an in-depth introduction explaining what could have led up to the panic. The story leading up to the panic is just as interesting as the story that everyone knows. As Platt explains to audiences, a number of factors led to the panic. The main factor in that night’s happenings was that audiences at the time had become so familiar with breaking news flashes on the war in Europe. This was well before America entered the war. Just as important in the entire story is that that night’s broadcast by the Mercury Theater was part of a larger programming block on CBS radio. Allegedly, the result of this was that many audiences had not heard the early portion of the broadcast noting that the “Martian attack” was in fact just made up. These two factors together ultimately led to the panic that would later ensue across the country that night.
The full story behind the Mercury Theater’s performance and the ensuing panic is just part of what audiences will find interesting in this program. Just as interesting is the fallout from the performance. Platt discusses how both officials with CBS and even the federal government got involved in the case. Their kneejerk reactions happened because of the fact that people believed the broadcast. There were injuries and even suicides in reaction to that belief. That too, is something about which most audiences don’t know. Looking back at this, one can’t help but think the more things change, the more they stay the same. A clear comparison would be the reaction of the media and viewers to Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at Superbowl XXXVIII. It’s a different situation. But the fact that the government would get involved as a result is the same reaction. It’s something subtle. But it’s just as important a part of the documentary as the feature’s primary focus.
Welles’ “Halloween prank” as many listeners called it (according to the letters, it was called much worse) and the overall reaction to the play was eye opening to say the least. That is because the revelations made in this documentary are ones that few people have ever known about Welles’ now infamous radio broadcast. The revelations are made even more eye opening thanks to the inclusion of actual letters written to CBS Radio, the Mercury Theater, and even to Welles himself in reaction to the play. There are also newspaper articles used as visual aids to help move the story forward along with actors who portrayed some of Welles’ audience. This is the crowning touch in this program. The black and white video effect at first will fool audiences up to a point. Even when audiences finally realize that the individuals are just actors, their segments are still as enjoyable an addition to the overall presentation as the newspaper articles and letters that were included. They make the overall story that much more worth watching whether one is a media history buff or just a fan of Welles’ classic radio play. American Experience: War of the Worlds will be available Tuesday, October 29th. It can be ordered online at http://www.shoppbs.org/search/index.jsp?kwCatId=&kw=american%20experience%20war%20of%20the%20worlds&origkw=American+Experience+War+of+the+Worlds&sr=1. More information on this and other programs in PBS’ American Experience series is available online at http://www.facebook.com/AmericanExperience and http://www.pbs.org/americanexperience. To keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news, go online to http://www.facebook.com/philspicks and “Like” it. Fans can always keep up with the latest sports and entertainment reviews and news in the Phil’s Picks blog at https://philspicks.wordpress.com.