Clever, exciting, and suspenseful, The Night That Panicked America tells a quasi-fictionalized version of the events surrounding Orson Welles’ notorious 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds. Broadcast when radio was America’s primary form of home entertainment, Welles’ show was so immersive and persuasive that thousands upon thousands of listeners believed invaders from Mars had actually landed on Earth and commenced a hellacious assault. This highly enjoyable made-for-TV movie was adapted from the play Invasion from Mars, which was written by Howard Koch, the author of the script for the Welles broadcast. Yet arguably the most important contributor to this project was the gifted novelist and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer, credited with writing the screen story and cowriting (with Anthony Wilson) the teleplay. A literate fantasist adept at injecting new life into familiar characters (Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, the crew of the starship Enterprise), Meyer was ideally suited for transforming a historical event into old-fashioned pulp fiction.
The movie cuts deftly between the scene at a CBS radio studio in New York City and various places around the country where people listen to the broadcast. In the studio scenes, Paul Shenar plays Welles like a demonically possessed orchestra conductor, determined to see his complex vision realized no matter the obstacles. One of the best creative choices made by the team behind The Night That Panicked America was eschewing psychoanalysis of Welles—simply presenting his determination implies plenty. The studio scenes are realistic and vivid, celebrating the gifts of voice actors and the resourcefulness of technicians. (The sound-effect subplot involving a bathroom is quite droll.)
As for the pandemonium scenes, they’re more pedestrian but still quite effective. Borrowing a page from the disaster-movie playbook, the filmmakers present people who are either caught up in personal troubles or stupidly oblivious, with their reactions to impending doom revealing their personalities. The most compelling thread involves Hank Muldoon (Vic Morrow), a beleaguered family man contemplating leaving his wife, Ann (Eileen Brennan), and their children. When the Welles broadcast convinces the Muldoons the end is near, Hank takes extreme measures leading to a harrowing climax. (One can’t help but wonder whether Frank Darabont saw this telefilm, as the conclusion of the Muldoon supblot anticipates a key scene in Darabont’s 2007 Stephen King adaptation The Mist.)
Directed by the reliable Joseph Sargent and featuring solid supporting actors—Tom Bosley, Michael Constantine, Cliff De Young, Will Geer, John Ritter—The Night That Panicked America may include a high quotient of artistic license, but isn’t using every possible means to put on a good show very much in the spirit of the Welles broadcast?
The Night That Panicked America: GROOVY