FFPC12 - War of the Worlds

Intro by Ben Harrison

The War of the Worlds is a legendary story about monoculture and the way mass media can bend reality. The Orson Welles radio play of the story was adapted from the novel of the same name by H.G. Wells - no relation. It went on the air the night before Halloween in 1938 and reportedly about a million people didn't catch on that they were hearing a fiction.

Now, there has been some re-examination of the history of this and there are scholars who question how widespread and how acute the panic really was, but thousands of documented phone calls to newspapers and radio stations seemed to indicate that some level of freak-out really occurred. The broadcast was a sensation and made Orson Welles a guy who could write his own ticket, and he went on to many great things.

Later in an interview with the BBC he suggested that part of his motivation in creating a radio play with the verisimilitude of a real breaking news broadcast was to intentionally freak people out with the goal of demonstrating to a public - newly enamored with the medium of radio - that you shouldn't trust everything you hear. I really recommend the original broadcast, which you can listen to in its entirety on Wikipedia, in addition to the Radiolab episode about War of the Worlds.

The book has been adapted for radio and film several times. The central thrust of the story is simple: Some Martians decide they want Earth's resources, they come and try to get them, but are ultimately defeated not by our terrestrial militaries, but by a virus. The chaos and social panic imagery that is evoked in both the original story and in stories about the 1938 radio broadcast are a fertile backdrop against which to set a film, which is one of the reasons why there are so many versions of this story. Another is that the original novel, released as the British Empire was nearing its height, is an exploration of what it would be like for a technologically superior invader to come subjugate and exterminate the British.

Steven Spielberg directed the first film we ever reviewed on Friendly Fire. He is the guy that gave us Saving Private Ryan's bracing and unflinching look at what the D-Day invasion looked like and made us wonder if our lady-friends would ever tell us that we are good men. Today's film was conceived and filmed in the years shortly after 9/11 and the recasting of the invading aliens as a force that comes without explanation and whose motives are hard to understand is very intentionally an exploration of the way America dealt with the trauma of that attack.

So, for all those reasons we are reviewing it today, plus we just thought it was fun for the viruses to be the good guys for a change. "Who knows? Maybe you will survive, maybe they will take you as a pet or something, teach you how to do tricks!" Today on Friendly Fire: Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds.

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