bY Dean Robbins
As an Orson Welles fanatic, I thought I knew everything about his infamous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds from 1938. The 23-year-old genius crafted the program as if Martians had actually invaded the U.S., with news bulletins seeming to interrupt regularly scheduled programming. Listeners believed the invasion was real, and a national panic ensued. In the aftermath, Welles faced lawsuits, a government investigation and Congressional censure.
That’s the part I knew. But the American Experience documentary War of the Worlds (8 p.m. Tuesday, PBS) does a beautiful job of filling in the historical context. In 1938, prominent scientists still believed in life on Mars. Plus, people had gotten used to hearing the most incredible news bulletins on their radios. Was a Martian invasion more farfetched than the Hindenburg disaster? The Lindbergh baby kidnapping? Adolf Hitler?
In the documentary’s nicest touch, actors in period dress deliver comments from people who were actually fooled by War of the Worlds. Some of them insist that Welles be punished to the full extent of the law, but others congratulate him for pulling off such a brilliant stunt.