Orson Welles broadcast his radio play of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds on 30 October 1938 as an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode and caused widespread panic. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles. The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of realistic news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion byMartians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show (it ran without commercial breaks), adding to the program’s realism. In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage from certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast. Despite these complaints it secured Welles’ fame as a dramatist.
The program, starts with an introduction from the novel, describing the intentions of the aliens and noting that the adaptation is set in 1939, a year ahead of the actual broadcast date.The program continues with a weather report and a dance band “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra” (actually the CBS orchestra under the direction of Bernard Herrmann). This is interrupted by news flashes about strange explosions on Mars. Welles makes his first appearance as the (fictional) famous astronomer and Princeton professor Richard Pierson, who dismisses speculation about life on Mars. The news grows more frequent and increasingly ominous as a cylindrical meteorite lands in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. A crowd gathers at the site. Reporter Carl Phillips (Readick) relates the events. The meteorite unscrews, revealing itself as a rocket machine. Onlookers catch a glimpse of a tentacled, pulsating, barely mobile Martian inside before it incinerates the crowd with Heat-Rays. Phillips’s shouts about incoming flames are cut off in mid-sentence. (Later surveys indicate that many listeners heard only this portion of the show before contacting neighbors or family to inquire about the broadcast. Many contacted others in turn, leading to rumours and confusion.)Regular programming breaks down as the studio struggles with casualty updates, firefighting developments and the like.
‘A shaken Pierson speculates about Martian technology as The New Jersey state militia declares martial law and attacks the cylinder. There I s a message from their field headquarters concerning the infantry and the helplessness of the Martians in Earth’s gravity until a Tripod alien fighting machine rears up from the pit and obliterate the militia. the studio returns, now describing the Martians as an invading army. Emergency response bulletins give way to damage reports and evacuation instructions as millions of refugees clog the roads. Three Martian tripods from the cylinder destroy power stations and uproot bridges and railroads, reinforced by three others from a second cylinder as gas explosions continue. An unnamed Secretary of the Interior (Kenny Delmar) advises the nation. (The secretary was originally intended to be a portrayal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, then President, but CBS insisted this detail, among others, be changed. However Welles directed Delmar to imitate Roosevelt’s voice.)
A live connection is established to a field artillery battery. Its gun crew reports damaging one machine and a release of black smoke/poison gas before fading into the sound of coughing. The lead plane of a wing of bombers broadcasts its approach and remains on the air as their engines are burned by the Heat-Ray and the plane dives on the invaders. Radio operators go active and fall silent, after reporting the approach of the black smoke. The bombers destroy one machine, but cylinders keep falling all across the country. This section ends with A news reporter, broadcasting from atop the CBS building, describes the Martian invasion of New York City – “five great machines” wading across the Hudson River, poison smoke drifting over the city, people running and diving into the East River “like rats”, others “falling like flies” – until he, too, succumbs to the poison gas. Finally, a despairing ham radio operator is heard calling, “2X2L calling CQ. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there… anyone?