Review: ‘Martian Mania: The True Story of ‘The War of the Worlds’’

There has to be more to the "true story" of Orson Welles' landmark 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" than is told in this Sci-Fi Channel special hosted by James Cameron.

There has to be more to the “true story” of Orson Welles’ landmark 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” than is told in this Sci-Fi Channel special hosted by James Cameron.

Surely, there must be some footage of Welles and other Mercury Theatre players discussing the fateful radio broadcast, which vividly demonstrated the power of a mass medium like radio by panicking a nation of listeners who believed as true the story of a martian invasion as it unfolded over the CBS airwaves on Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938.

This docu, billed as a 60th-anniversary celebration of the unforgettable radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ novel, makes scant use of archival material. Even clips of Welles’ famous day-after press conference mea culpa are finely chopped to convey the nature of the questions reporters were firing off, rather than focusing on Welles’ answers.

Inexplicably, Bill Herz, the one surviving Mercury Theatre player who took part in the broadcast, is introduced toward the end of the spec, and then is only heard from in one or two soundbites.

There’s much discussion of how many listeners were befuddled because they tuned into the broadcast a few minutes late and therefore missed the introduction that clearly labeled “Worlds” as a drama. But radio historian Anthony Tollin strains credulity in declaring the “Worlds” broadcast “the first recorded instance of channel surfing.”

The docu does make clear, in the words of talking heads like filmmaker Henry Jaglom, that the hoopla surrounding “War of the Worlds” helped paved the way for Welles’ move to Hollywood, where he would soon deliver “Citizen Kane”

It also points out interesting parallels between the faux newscast style employed in “Worlds” and the newsreel narrative of “Citizen Kane,” among other Wellesian storytelling techniques.

By far, the best bits in the docu are the recollections of “ear” witnesses, Steve Allen among them, to the breathless tale of a martian invasion that started in Grovers Mill, N.J., and had leveled all of New York City, including CBS headquarters, by the end of the hour.

“Why’d they pick on us?” asks listener Jack Stives, who was living in the Grovers Mill area at the time. (As it turns out, “Worlds” radiocast writer Howard Koch, of “Casablanca” fame, picked Grovers Mill at random by dropping a pencil point on a map of New Jersey.)

The hokiest element is the re-enactment footage meant to illustrate the remembrances. Spec appears to blend actual period footage, i.e. anonymous families piled around suitcase-sized radios, with the corny B&W staged stuff that’s treated to look grainy and old.

Cameron’s narration and on-camera bits don’t add much to the story, except to confirm his status as a Welles fan. His eyebrow-archer wrap-up question — “Could it happen again?” — sounds just plain silly in today’s media-saturated world. As “ear” witness Allen explains, even in the thick of the panic on the night before Halloween in 1938, he quickly figured out that “Worlds” was a farce once he heard dance music playing on a radio tuned to another station.

Production and tech credits are OK.

Martian Mania: The True Story of 'The War of the Worlds'

Sci-Fi Channel; Fri. Oct. 30, 9 p.m. ET, 10 p.m. PT


Taped in Los Angeles by MPH Entertainment. Executive producers, Jim Milio, Melissa Jo Peltier, Mark Hufnail; director, Melissa Jo Peltier; writers, Melissa Jo Peltier, W.W. Weiner; co-producer, W.W. Weiner; associate producer.


John Gengl; editor, Chris Simpson; music, Kevin Kiner; camera, David N. Banks, Bryan Duggan, Kevin McCafferty; sound, Teresa Banks, Peter Cavanagh, Miles Ghormley, Brian O'Carroll.


Hosted by James Cameron
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