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The Night that Panicked America (1975)

The Night that Panicked America, Paul Shenar as Orson Welles conducts the Mercury Theatre

This is a truly amazing drama, recounting (with an acceptable degree of artistic license), the behind the scenes making of The War of the Worlds broadcast and the panic that ensues.

The film is divided into two broad strands. The build up to and broadcast of the play is a superbly crafted tale, building the tension slowly but surely and radiating the raw energy and excitement that surely must have distinguished all the live broadcasts of the time. The other strand, featuring the reactions of a varied cast of listeners, is slightly less successful, but nonetheless several of the vignettes succeed in capturing the mixture of bravery and self delusion that must have characterised many of the real stories that incredible night.

Grover's Mill is selected. The film features many key historical any mythological moments. For instance, the selection of Grover's Mill is recounted, with a slight spin on the tale. In reality, script writer Howard Koch closed his eyes and stabbed a pencil down on map brought at a gas station. This time he throws a dart at a map in Water tower at Grover's Mill.the studio office, but the flavour is certainly authentic. Also featured is the legendary (though surely apocryphal) assault by residents of Grover's Mill on a water tower, in the mistaken belief that it was a Martian war machine.

It is however the sense of realism given to the studio scenes that really carries the film. Paul Stewart, who acted in the original broadcast and producer John Houseman were technical advisors to the film, so one can imagine that there is a high degree of authenticity to the replication of the broadcast. Certainly the sense that such shows were produced on a wing and a prayer is beautifully captured.

Sound of Martian Cylinder opening using a toilet bowl.Wonderful scenes include an actor using a tea cup to simulate the distorted voice of a bomber pilot talking on a radio, and the reverberating sound of the Martian cylinder opening, achieved by the unscrewing of a jamjar in a toilet bowl! It is debatable if this was actually how this particular effect was achieved, but certainly the person responsible for the original broadcast sound effects is remembered as someone who could improvise. Ora Nichols was in fact the only woman SFX engineer
Ora Nichols. working in radio and head of the CBS sound department in the 1930's. As the director of the Buck Rogers radio series once recalled, he and Ora had on one occasion used an air conditioning vent to simulate the sound of a roaring rocket engine!

Tom Bosley. The cast is a varied one, with several early performances by people who would later become major TV stars. John Ritter (Three's Company) and Meredith Baxter (Family Ties) both play characters caught up in the panic, while Happy Days stalwart Tom Bosley turns in a great role as the harassed studio exec trying to deal with his difficult star, one Mr Orson Welles. This pivotal role went to Paul Shenar. Alas, Shenar is now deceased, (he passed away in 1989) 
Paul Shenar as Orson Welles.but on the evidence of his performance in this film, and a solid body of subsequent work, he was an assured actor. Certainly his performance as Welles is full of energy and one he clearly relished.

Nicholas Meyer.Another contribution by a then up and coming movie personality, this time from behind the scenes, was that of the script by Nicholas Meyer. Meyer would go on to pen scripts to two of the best Star Trek movies, and an equally wonderful historical fantasy featuring a lead character who was none other than H.G. Wells. This intriguing movie was "Time After Time", which postulated that Wells was the genuine inventor of a time machine, which is then stolen by Jack The Ripper!

Joseph Sargent.Completing an amazing cast of characters on both sides of the camera was director Joseph Sargent. Sargent began making movies at age 11, when an uncle gave him an 8mm camera. He was also one of the earliest alumni of New York's "New School of Social Research." This extraordinary training ground for artistic talent was founded by an exiled German stage director by the name of Erwin Piscator. He had fled Nazi persecution in the 1930's, and founded a school that saw many notables of stage and screen attend, including Marlon Brando, Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Tony Curtis.

Rather extraordinarily, The Night that Panicked America has never been released on home video or DVD, so unless you have been lucky enough to catch it on Television, you'll just have to take my word that this really is a gem of a film.

See also in:

Film & TV

The Night America Trembled

The Night America Trembled. Extraordinary live production from the renowned Studio One televsion series that re-enacts the infamous Orson Welles broadcast of 1938.

Radio Days

Radio Days by Woody Allen. A sentimental trip back in time to the golden age of radio that includes the War of the Worlds broadcast.

H G Wells and The War of the Worlds documentary

H G Wells and The War of the Worlds. In the wake of the Spielberg movie comes one of several new documentaries on Wells and The War of the Worlds.

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