In 1897, the seminal sci-fi classic “The War of the Worlds,” by H. G. Wells, was serialized in Pearson’s and Cosmopolitan magazines, before being published as a novel a year later. The story concerned an invasion of Earth by Martians piloting massive tripod machines. This invading vanguard ravages the English countryside before other machines land across the globe, nearly ending human civilization. The invasion is only stopped in its devastating force by the simplest of terrestrial microbes, for which the invaders from Mars had no immunity.
The story was told using real names of lesser-known English towns and cities, as well as a first-person narrative (as Wells had done in other works, including “The Time Machine”). The book was a sensation. Wells’ story of alien invaders would be adapted multiple times in movies, TV shows and other media. It would also be homaged in movies such as “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956) and the 1996 blockbuster “Independence Day,” which updated Wells’ deadly virus with a human-made computer virus.
Arguably the most influential version of Wells’ story was the one that drove Americans into the streets in panic on the evening of Sunday, October 30th, 1938; “The War of the Worlds” radio play, performed by Orson Welles (no relation to H.G) and his Mercury Theatre company of radio actors, broadcasting live from New York City’s Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Building. Loosely adapted by Howard Koch from Wells’ original story into a then-contemporary New Jersey setting, the radio play also used real-life names of towns and cities, including Princeton University and Grover’s Mill, both located in New Jersey. The first act of the two act play would be staged through a series of simulated news bulletins, which frequently interrupted a program of dance music by ‘Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra,’ before the Martians emerge, forcing the military to take control of the transmission. The second act, which went largely ignored in the panic that followed, featured a more traditional dramatic format, as Orson Welles’ character of Professor Pearson wanders a devastated New Jersey in search of other survivors.
For Americans who tuned in late (missing an earlier disclaimer), it sounded as if the United States was under attack by an invading fleet from Mars! Understandably, this notion of warlike Martians set a jittery, pre-war America on edge (those war scares would become reality three years later). That first act arguably changed broadcast entertainment forever, and director/star Orson Welles would have to hold a press conference the following morning on Halloween, to apologize for unwittingly causing the ‘Great Panic’ that followed. Welles certainly seemed contrite, yet skillfully avoided direct responsibility, arguing that radio was a new medium, and that its parameters were still being charted. Welles also maintained he wasn’t sure what kinds of legislative safeguards, if any, could’ve prevented such panic, since public disclaimers were broadcast beforehand.
A semi-fictional accounting of that night was recreated as a TV-movie, “The Night That Panicked America,” which was broadcast on Halloween night of 1975. I was not quite nine years-old at the time, and was busy trick or treating that night, but I do remember seeing the ad in the local TV Guide, which sparked my curiosity. I do remember catching the last few minutes of the movie, after returning home that evening. It was in adulthood that I would finally watch the movie (in full) on cable, and I appreciated its clever blend of fidelity and fiction (not too unlike various versions of the “Titanic” story).
“The Night That Panicked America” (1975).
Written by Nicholas Meyer (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, “Time After Time”) and Anthony Wilson, “The Night That Panicked America” was directed by Joseph Sargent (“The Taking of Pelham 123,” “JAWS: The Revenge”), who would direct another story of an ‘alien invader’ in Star Trek: The Original Series’ early episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver” (1966).
The story opens in New York City, Sunday evening, October 30th, 1938, at the CBS building. Harried producer Norman Smith (Tom Bosley) is haggling over some last-minute script changes with script writer Howard Koch (Joshua Bryant) regarding his soon-to-be-aired radio adaptation of “War of the Worlds.” Smith insists on a few changes mandated by their bosses, including deletion of CBS’s name from the script, as well as omitting the name of President Roosevelt from the story. Koch reluctantly agrees to the changes, though he’s concerned with the wrath of the Mercury Theatre’s enfant terrible director/star, Orson Welles, who is arriving in the studio as they speak. Everywhere at CBS, mild pandemonium ensues, as the sound effects crew are busy creating sound effects of massive Martian cylinders being opened (created by unscrewing glass jars over toilet bowls), as well as other aural oddities needed for the play…
Note: Actor Tom Bosley (1927-2010), who plays the amalgamate character Norman Smith, was already a star on ABC’s successful TV series, “Happy Days” (1974-1984), and had previously guest-starred (twice) in NBC’s paranormal anthology series, Rod Serling’s “The Night Gallery.”
The broadcast begins, as director/star Orson Welles (Paul Shenar) takes his place at the head of the large broadcasting room, where various players on hot mics prepare to jump in with additional characters, music and foley effects such as footsteps, shuffled papers, etc. Off to the side, a small band recreates the music of ‘Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra,’ which will be deliberately interrupted by ‘reporter Carl Phillips’, aka actor Frank Readick (Granville Van Dusen) who conducts a series of interviews with Welles as Princeton University astronomer “Professor Pearson,” regarding fantastic outgassing explosions observed on the surface of Mars. The broadcast soon goes live to an imaginary farm in the real-life rural area of Grover’s Mill; a Mercury Theatre actor then plays a slow-witted farmer relating his story of a large “meteorite” that crashed near his property, moments earlier. Imaginary police and fire crews are then called out to the imaginary crash site, as the massive cylinder slowly unscrews, and a strange, wholly-imaginary tripodal machine emerges…
Note: While the scenes of the 1938 broadcast within this TV-movie faithfully use Howard Koch’s original script, an iconic pulsing sound effect from the 1953 “War of the Worlds” film is used for the sound of the Martian war machine. This is a bit of a cheat, since the actual sound effects from the original broadcast were much less sophisticated—sounding more like distant air horns, or door buzzers. This is one of several moments where the TV-movie homages both the radio play and the 1953 film, which were nearly synonymous to younger viewers (like myself) in the mid-1970s.
The radio play increases tension gradually, until the imaginary Martian war machine begins firing its invisible ‘heat ray’ from a large parabolic mirror. Welles directs the actors and technicians to cut the sound abruptly—simulating an unexpected loss of signal from the Grover’s Mill. Soon, other actors join in, some playing multiple characters, reporting the Martian machines advancing upon major cities, eventually reaching New York. Soon, a curiously FDR-sounding Secretary of State, voiced by one of the clever Mercury actors, makes a statement that the military is taking over the broadcast, and that martial law is being declared locally. Actor Howard Smith (Casey Kasem) plays a bomber pilot who sees the Martian machines emitting a thick toxic smoke, which kills upon inhalation. Overcome by the gas himself, the bomber pilot steers his plane directly into one of the Martian machines, in a desperate suicide run (“bombs and all!”).
Once again, director Welles uses abrupt silence, before a lone voice calls out to any surviving military units, to no avail. By this point, the panic outside of CBS—and over much of the United States—has already reached a fever pitch, with most listeners abandoning their radio sets in order to flee, completely missing the station identification break, which informed the audience they were listening to an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” By the time the more traditionally structured second act resumed, many listeners had already made a run for safety…
Note: Famed disc jockey/FM broadcasting legend Casey Kasem (1932-2014), who cut his teeth doing popular Top-40 radio shows (and would be forever remembered as the voice of “Shaggy” in the Scooby-Doo cartoon series) plays Mercury Theatre actor Howard Smith, who would voice the bomber pilot of the broadcast, along with several other characters. Having the pioneering Casey Kasem appear in a movie about the power of the radio medium was a savvy casting choice.
The telefilm continually intercuts between the escalation of the broadcast’s events with several groups of characters, acting out anecdotal and/or actual stories of events that allegedly transpired that night, with names/identities altered for dramatic purposes. Director Sargent lets the tension ratchet naturally, much as he did with “Taking of Pelham 123” (1974), showing an initial disbelief followed by listeners leaping into action. One of these fictionalized audience subplots concerns a young, college-age farmer named Walter Wingate (John Ritter, pre-“Three’s Company”) who wants to run to run up north in order to join the Canadian army’s fight against Hitler in Europe. Walter’s father Jess (Michael Constantine) objects, but fails to reach his headstrong young son. As they listen to the increasingly dire situation on the CBS broadcast, their roles soon reserve; with Walter telling his father they need to run for their lives, while the older man wants to stay and defend his country. Neither man hears the broadcast’s disclaimers…
Note: The notion of Walter running to Canada in order to fight Hitler is the reverse of what many young American men who fled to Canada in the late 1960s and ’70s were doing; avoiding the draft into US military service during the Vietnam war. President Jimmy Carter later drafted an unconditional pardon to those Americans who fled to Canada, in January of 1977.
In a more urban part of New Jersey, we see the small apartment of the Muldoon family; husband Hank (Vic Morrow), his wife Ann (Eileen Brennan), along with their three young children, who are going to bed. A bitter Hank is experiencing a midlife crisis, and is packing to leave his family, coldly telling his wife that having kids wasn’t his “idea.” With the radio on as background noise, Hank’s plans are interrupted, as the events of the Welles’ broadcast unfold. “News” of the invading Martians stops him in his tracks. Believing Martian war machines to be advancing on major cities, Hank and his family make the decision to wake the kids and leave together, even taking along an elderly neighbor, who grabs his beloved pet birds in their cage…
Note: Vic Morrow (1929-1982) was an underrated character actor (“Combat”) who specialized mainly in TV roles until his untimely death–along with two young children–on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1982). The horrific circumstances of their deaths (from a crashing helicopter) on set led to a lengthy trial, in which director John Landis and several pyrotechnics technicians were charged with involuntary manslaughter, before their eventual acquittals in 1987. A subsequent civil liability suit was settled for an undisclosed amount afterward. Morrow’s actress daughter, Jennifer Jason Leigh, has had a long, fruitful career in movies and TV, as well (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” “Hateful Eight” “Atypical”).
We also see the story of two young lovers, Steven (Cliff De Young) and his fiancee Linda (Meredith Baxter), who want to get married, but are stymied by her father, Reverend Davis (Will Geer) who forbids his Protestant daughter to marry a Catholic boy. Left without the reverend’s blessing, they talk about eloping, until they too, listen in on the Welles’ broadcast against the noisy backdrop of their own personal drama. In an anger-fueled moment, Steven takes his car and drive off in search of these alleged alien invaders….
Note: Lots of future TV star power in this movie. In addition to John Ritter, who would explode into popularity two years later with “Three’s Company,” we also see Meredith Birney, who was a staple on TV’s “Family” and would later star as mother Elise Keaton on NBC’s popular sitcom “Family Ties”; the series that effectively launched the career of a young Michael J. Fox (“Back to the Future”). Playing the Reverend Davis was longtime character actor Will Geer, who played the grandfather on TV’s then-popular series, “The Waltons.”
A more comedic subplot sees a country yokel in a bar only known as “Tex” (Burton Gilliam), who, after striking out with a pretty young woman, listens to the Welles’ broadcast and completely loses his cool, to the point of stealing a car—in full view of the police—in order to escape the imaginary Martian menace…
Note: “Tex” is played by longtime veteran character actor Burton Gilliam, who made a career out of playing slow-witted country boys in many movies and TV shows, including “Back to the Future Part 2” (1989). Most famously, he appeared as one of the bigoted henchmen in Mel Brooks’ absolutely hysterical western parody, “Blazing Saddles” (1974); a groundbreaking, daring upending of racism which could never be made by today’s highly risk-averse, crowdpleaser-only movie studios.
Another comedic subplot involves a high society party on the west coast in San Francisco, where the WASPish attendees are discussing the perfectly ‘reasonable’ option of appeasing Adolf Hitler, while a younger woman at the party simply wants to dance. Tuning the radio to the hilariously dreadful dance music of Ramon Raquello’s orchestra, she and the other partygoers don’t realize the music is part of the Welles’ broadcast. The music is frequently (deliberately) interrupted by the imaginary Martian invasion unfolding at the farm in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Only the wily butler (Byron Webster) and maid (Hanna Landy) seem to have heard the earlier disclaimer that the broadcast was a radio play adaptation of “War of the Worlds,” but they are rudely dismissed by their employer whenever they try to explain. Quietly observing as the arrogant, ignorant partygoers devolve into panic, the butler offers them a snarky piece of parting advice; perhaps the Martians will be open to appeasement…
Note: No stranger to impending disasters, actor Byron Webster also played the ship’s purser in producer Irwin Allen’s 1972 cruise ship disaster epic, “The Poseidon Adventure.” Irwin Allen, was of course, the same producer who shepherded such sci-fi TV projects as “The Time Tunnel,” “Land of the Giants,” and, perhaps most famously, CBS’s “Lost in Space” (1965-1968).
As the action cuts frequently from story to story, each subplot eventually reaches a resolution. After Jess and his father flee from their farm, they stumble across several other armed farmers when Jess fires his rifle at a water tower, which, in the dark, Jess mistakes for one of a tripodal Martian war machine. Walter admonishes his trigger-happy pa for his foolish mistake, as the older man apologizes to the land owners. Afterward, Walter catches the second act of the Welles’ broadcast on their truck’s radio, and finally realizes that the entire incident was only a radio play.
Note: The incident with a trigger-happy person mistakenly shooting at a “Martian water tower” was based on an actual incident that occurred at the real-life Grover’s Mill, New Jersey location, where panic over Welles’ broadcast understandably reached a fever pitch, since it was ‘ground zero’ for the fictitious invasion. In the rural darkness of that Sunday evening, a water tower on the property was fired upon, as it seemed to match the tripodal silhouette of a giant Martian war machine. That same water tower is now an historic Halloween landmark at Grover’s Mill.
Meanwhile, Steven drives back to Linda, who is looking for her father, whom they both find in his church, apparently suffering from a nervous collapse. His faith shattered, the old man is gently guided to Steven’s car, as they come to learn that the Martian invasion wasn’t real. The old man’s attitudes have now softened, following Steven’s heroic behavior. The reverend realizes that perhaps this compassionate Catholic lad is an alright match for his daughter, after all (so good of him, right?). Nothing like fictional Martians to resolve religious squabbling…
Note: Despite Will Geer’s lovable role as Grandpa Walton, it’s really difficult to sympathize with his character in this movie, as he’s little more than a religious bigot—using his ‘faith’ to justify a lifetime of prejudice against Catholics. Also of note, finding Reverend Davis in his church is another nod to the 1953 film version of “War of the Worlds”, which featured Ann Robinson as the devoutly religious librarian, Sylvia van Buren, who also sought solace in an L.A. church after the unceasing Martian offensive, which is finally ended when the Martians catch the common cold and die, en masse. I met Ann Robinson five years ago, at WonderCon 2017 in Anaheim, and she is a delightful lady, with an impish sense of humor.
The Muldoon family, along with their elderly neighbor, flee into the streets, eventually making their way into a surprisingly deserted Lincoln Tunnel, which connects New Jersey with New York. Thinking that the end is near, the older neighbor prepares to release his caged birds. The group then sees bright red lights approaching from the end of the tunnel. In their panic, they see only the red lights of advancing Martian war machines. However, the red lights belong to a simple, terrestrial police car, as the exiting cop asks why the group is huddling together in the middle of the road. As Hank tells the cops about the invaders from outer space, the officer assures him they’re safe. Once again, Welles’ Martian invasion has acted as family therapist, bringing the estranged Muldoons closer together.
Note: I assume the tunnel was meant to be the Lincoln tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York, but since this TV-movie was shot in Southern California locales, it most likely was Observatory Tunnel in Griffith Park, Los Angeles; a popular location used in many movies and TV shows, including “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and “Back to the Future, Part 2.”
Meanwhile, the broadcast winds down in the largely unheard second act, which features Professor Pearson, played by Orson Welles, encountering a crazed militia man who dreams of stealing a Martian war machine for his own personal ambitions of power. Pearson leaves the “stranger” (an amalgam of the novel’s Artilleryman and Curate characters, both of whom lost their minds following the Martian invasion). Welles paints vivid word pictures with his narrative, as he plays Pearson’s final scenes with the same intensity he’s had from the start. Not realizing his radio play—a harmless ‘Halloween scare’—has caused a serious panic, Welles is oblivious to the chaos outside.
Note: While actor Paul Shenar (“Scarface”) looks absolutely nothing like a 23-year old Orson Welles, his performance is spellbinding, as he absolutely nails the voice and authority that the prodigal Welles commanded, even at that young age. Welles would find his greatest fame directing such classic movies as “Citizen Kane” (1941), “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) and “Touch of Evil” (1958). I am also a fan of his lesser know adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial” (1962), starring Anthony Perkins.
As CBS switchboard operators assure multiple panicked callers that it’s only a radio play, press and police enter the studio at the end of the broadcast to escort the Mercury players safely outside, shielding them from the uproar and chaos (even reported suicides) that their broadcast unwittingly caused. The greatest Halloween prank in the history of American broadcasting is over. Welles and company would later face the music at a press conference the following morning.
Summing It Up.
With a cast packed with TV stars of years gone by (a few of them even before their big breaks), “The Night That Panicked America” is a powerful warning of the influence mass media has on public thinking. Joseph Sargent’s TV direction is clean and spartan, with less visual flourishes than he used in “The Taking of Pelham 123,” but with just enough dramatic meat to sustain its 104 minute running time (a shorter 95 minute version was later syndicated as well).
Paul Shenar as the young Orson Welles really throws his back into the role, as do other members of the cast, including a very young John Ritter, as well as a riveting Vic Morrow and Eileen Brennan (“Private Benjamin”). While the occasionally melodramatic subplots may not be for everyone’s taste, I would argue they act as a cross-section of the broadcast’s influence, much in the way that the fictional characters of ‘Jack’ and ‘Rose’ gave modern audiences relatable avatars into the real-life “Titanic” disaster of 1912, as seen in the 1997 movie. A film about the Mercury Theatre company simply performing the radio play would be meaningless without seeing the effect their words had on the public at large.
Watching “The Night That Panicked America” today, in our terrifying “post-truth” era, where private citizens have raided pizzerias based on deliberately false information about baby-smuggling rings, it seems we’ve learned absolutely nothing about the incredible power and sway of electronic media since 1938, whether it’s radio, television, or the internet. This little-known TV movie arguably holds a lot more value as a cautionary tale today than it did in 1975.
Where To Watch.
“The Night That Panicked America” is available to own on DVD from Amazon.com (prices vary) and is available to stream from FlixFling (rental-$3.99, purchase-$9.99). There is also a low-quality VHS-ripped streaming copy to view for free from Internet Archive (archive.org/details/night-that-panicked-america-1975). Any way you can see this little-known gem of a docudrama is worth the effort, no matter the quality.