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American Experience: War of the Worlds

4.4 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

American Experience: War of the Worlds. The night began as any other peaceful Sunday evening, with millions of listeners tuned to their radios. Yet the outward calm hid a nation tense with apprehension: the Great Depression refused to let up, and the threat of war in Europe loomed larger every day. Then, at 8:15 p.m., there was a report on the radio that Martians had landed in New Jersey. Almost instantly, people listening in responded to the shocking news. Newspapers were flooded with calls from worried listeners; many feared that New Jersey had been laid to waste and that the Martians were heading west. In cities and towns throughout the country, people stopped a moment to pray then grabbed their loved ones and fled into the night. What began as a broadcast performance of H.G. Wells s fantasy, The War of the Worlds, turned into one of the biggest mass hysteria events in U.S. history. AMERICAN EXPERIENCE examines the elements that together created this frenzy, including our longtime fascination with life on Mars; the emergence of radio as a powerful new medium; and the creative wunderkind Orson Welles, the twenty-three-year-old director of the drama and mischief-maker supreme.

Review

3 stars out of 4 - Recommended. --Video Librarian

Product Details

  • Actors: .
  • Directors: .
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, Dolby, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: PBS (DIRECT)
  • DVD Release Date: October 29, 2013
  • Run Time: 60 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B00DUX2908
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #96,969 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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There are a few factual errors here that someone even casually familiar with the event will catch. For instance, the decision to frame the broadcast as a series of news bulletins was part of the idea from the beginning, according to Howard Koch's account of working on the script. The fake-documentary style wasn't adapted only three days before air, as reported here.

What really grated on me, though, were the amateurish recreations of listeners reporting their experiences. These are shot in distressed black and white (like "News On The March" footage), but you know instantly that they're contemporary, over-the-top, rather dinner-theatre-ish performances (with one exception at the end), not remotely convincing as period footage. This is in lamentable contrast to the event being celebrated, in which actors like Frank Readick and Ray Collins really managed to sound like non-actors, to sensational effect.
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This is the story of one of the most famous radio broadcasts in history, perhaps the most famous. It is an essential look at a crucial period in Orson Welles' life, the time between his theatrical accomplishments and his later departure for Hollywood. The 1938 broadcast of the play and subsequent controversy would make Welles an overnight celebrity. The film makes for a very good companion piece to the 1996 documentary called The Battle Over Citizen Kane.

The film is well done. I especially appreciated all the old film footage and still photographs. However, I did not much care for the actors who read letters written at the time, though they all did a fine job. In my view, simple voice-overs would have been equally effective, if not more so. Despite that, the film offers a great deal of information regarding a signal event in broadcast history. It is also an important part of the story of the man who would go on to create one of the most influential movies of all time, Citizen Kane.
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I wish the DVD had the full recording of the radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds." It is still a good documentary about how a radio drama based on a science fiction story and presented as a live real time news report could produce a panic. Mostly people who tuned in after the show had started heard only the parts where the Martians were attacking New Jersey and they missed the introduction to the show that explained that it was just a radio drama. The public reaction after it was realized that it was only a radio play ranged from praise to rage. The DVD only deals with the events in the United States late in 1938.

This was not the only radio dramatization of "The War of the Worlds," there are others not mentioned on the DVD. The more infamous example was the broadcast during February, 1949 in Quito, Ecuador. It created a mass panic among the citizens of Quito! When they learned that it was a radio play, they were not amused.
Reportedly a mob formed and a riot broke out. The building where the radio station was located in was set on fire. Tragically, a few people were killed as a result. For more information about this incident, you might enter terms like Quito, "War of the Worlds, and "radio hoax" into the search engine of your choice.
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I first heard Orson Welles' WAR OF THE WORLDS when I was in elementary school. Even then, I couldn't understand why people thought that the Martian invasion was real.

I watched this PBS AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary on Tuesday, October 29, 2013, on Washington, D.C. affiliate WETA - the eve of the 75th Anniversary of the original broadcast on the Columbia Broadcasting System (not "Service," as the documentary claims). I received the DVD on November 1, 2013.

The documentary is a fine behind-the-scenes look at the documentary and the panic it caused. There are interviews with Welles' daughter, Chris Welles Feder, director Peter Bogdanovich, and several others, along with recreations, played by actors, of reactions of people who heard the broadcast.

Not much in the way of extras, except for a few outtakes, a brief "making-of" segment, and some of the letters written to Welles.

A good documentary, though I think 2 hours would have given it justice.
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The DVD contains the one-hour program plus a few extras. The extras mostly have to do with the making of the program itself. I was hoping for more historical extras on the DVD; at the very least a recording of the broadcast.

The program includes dramatizations of comments sent in by listeners at the time. These are somewhat interesting since they are first-person accounts from people who were seriously frightened by the radio show. The presentation is a little strange since they are shot as interviews in period dress, on a period-furnished set. I was a bit confused at first until I realized that they had to be present-day actors. Some of them chew the scenery a bit, which seems over the top. I guess not even PBS is immune from the pressure to put these staged re-enactments into documentaries that in former days would only use historical material.

Overall, though, this is still worth watching if you are interested in this episode and/or Orson Welles.
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