"The War Of The Worlds": At The Movies, On Radio, And On TV

Herbie J Pilato

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Before it was remade as a television mini-series, and a 2005 feature film starring Tom Cruise, The War of the Worlds, first became a hit in 1953 on the big screen with the original sci-fi motion picture starring Gene Berry and Anne Robinson.

With a solid story and groundbreaking special effects the initial film, which was based on an H.G. Welles story about an alien invasion of Earth, has remained a favorite for everyone from director Steven Spielberg to actor Vince Vaughn.

The inter-mingled media mosaic of The War Of The Worlds remains fascinating in the history of popular culture.

On the night before Halloween, in 1938, a radio broadcast of the Worlds story, as narrated by actor Orson Welles (no relation to H.G.) was considered so realistic, millions of viewers assumed the invasion was real.

In 1973, director/writer Nicholas Myer (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn) helmed and co-penned a TV-movie, titled, The Night America Panicked, about the national trauma that followed the 1938 radio broadcast.

According to History.com, "As the clock struck 8 p.m. in New York City on the Sunday night of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles stood on a podium inside a Madison Avenue radio studio. The baby-faced, 23-year-old theatrical star, who had graced the cover of Time magazine months earlier, prepared to direct 10 actors and a 27-piece orchestra for the Columbia Broadcasting System’s weekly “Mercury Theatre on the Air” program."

But as further explained on History.com, "The fright that Welles put into America, however, was much greater than he thought. Although the program included a reminder at intermission that it was a dramatization, thousands of anxious and confused listeners believed it to be real. They besieged police departments, newspapers, and CBS with phone calls. In New Jersey, ground zero for the fictitious invasion, national guardsmen wanted to know where they should report for duty, and the Trenton police department fielded 2,000 calls in under two hours. In Providence, Rhode Island, hysterical callers begged the electric company to cut power to the city to keep it safe from the extraterrestrial invaders."

As documented on IMDB.com, "As an homage to Orson Welles and his famous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, on Sunday evening, October 30th, 1938, voice specialist Paul Frees appears on-screen as a radio reporter...and does his famous Orson Welles's vocal impersonation." [Frees would then go on to make an appearance in the 1953 feature film.]

Other bits of Worlds trivia may be also found on IMDM.com, such as the following:

"Gene Barry later admitted that acting in the film was very trying since he never saw the Martian ships while filming his scenes and had to react blindly to special effects shots that were added later.

"The sound effects of the Martian war machines' heat ray were created from three electric guitars played backward. The sound of the Martian screaming after Forrester hit it was a mixture of a microphone scraping along dry ice and a woman's scream played backward. The former set of sound effects became widely used stock sound effects after the film was released. They are still in use."

"Most of the soldiers in the movie aren't actors; they're actual National Guard troops going through real maneuvers.

"Originally, the Martian war machines were supposed to walk on visible electronic beams. This was attempted by having electrical sparks emanate from the three holes at the bottom of the machine. This was quickly abandoned for fear of it becoming a major fire hazard. The first two shots of the first war machine emerging from the gully have this effect. During filming, the actors were under the impression that they were dealing with the walking tripod machines of the book. This explains the farmhouse scene when Gene Barry's [character] says, "There's a machine standing right alongside us." However, the results of the walking can be seen wherever the Martian machines fly throughout the film, even though the sparking effect was no longer used."

Overall, in any form, and on every medium, be it radio, the big screen, or television, the H.G. Wells story of The War of The Worlds made an impact.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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