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Arts & Culture

When Wells Met Welles, In San Antonio

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Wikimedia Commons
Left: H.G. Wells in 1920, photo by Beresford. Right: Orson Welles, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, March 1, 1937.

“You can’t appease paranoia.”

So said Orson Welles in a broadcast on San Antonio radio station KTSA on October 28, 1940. The occasion was the only recorded meeting of Welles, the famed director, writer and performer (then 25 years old) with H.G. Wells (then 74), author of “The War of the Worlds,” the Martian invasion story that the former used to reportedly scare the bejeezus out of the public on a Mercury Theater radio broadcast in October, 1938.

Was Welles referring to the American public at the time of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast? No, the topic at hand for most of the two men’s conversation was the war in Europe that had recently brought Japan into the Axis powers, and would a year later draw the United States into the Allied forces of World War II.

The broadcast, hosted by Charles C. Shaw, was a chance meeting between the two men, who both happened to be in San Antonio at the time. Wells was in town to address the United States Brewers Association, and Welles was here for a town hall forum address that would take place two days later on October 30, 1940.

A shortened version of this broadcast has long been available on YouTube, but a brand new Criterion Collection release of the 1953 film “War of the Worlds” on Blu-ray includes the full-length conversation (nearly 24 minutes long) as a supplemental feature on the disc. The audio may also be found on the website of Indiana University, which holds archive recordings of Orson Welles on the radio.

After introducing the two, Shaw asks about “War of the Worlds,” and Wells congratulates Welles on the broadcast, though noting that in America, “You can still play with this idea of terror and conflict.”

Shaw interjects: “You think that’s good or bad?”

H.G. Wells: “It’s a natural thing to do until you’re right up against it.”

Welles responds: “Till it ceases to be a game.”

Wells prompts Orson Welles to get a plug in about the film “Citizen Kane,” then in production, and there’s some general discussion about new ideas in art, but then Shaw turns the conversation back toward how war will affect the arts, to which both Welles and Wells reply with the idea that war leads to a degradation of the arts, but inspires a renaissance once said war is over. Wells, with a dry British observation, then reflects on Adolf Hitler’s rise to power with a parable, saying “If you have a happy village of people doing this, that and the other thing and you get a dangerous lunatic who begins to go about terrorizing the whole village… it's a great nuisance, but you have to pull yourselves together and suppress that lunatic. It's what civilization has to do now.”

Wells also seizes on what he feels to be the importance of allying with Russia in the conflict, noting that Britain, Russia, and America working together may be the only way to contain and defeat Hitler. When Shaw opines that the American press has painted Russia as a villain, Wells responds:

“Oh naturally, and appallingly so. We should… I mean, the foreign correspondents working on American wire services are emotionally unprepared to deal sensibly and in a neutral and decent way about the about the whole Russian business. And the press represents, for the most part, vested interests in America. And therefore, the whole Russian picture has been so falsified as to make it almost impossible to discuss with the ordinary, intelligent American, the Russian position. It's a great tragedy because perhaps the hope of the world is some sort of alliance with Russia. I’m not speaking of a Communist revolution, but an understanding with the aims of Russia, no matter how much we may quarrel with the aims of Russia.”

Shaw wraps the conversation by inviting Wells to plug his new book, “Babes in the Darkling Wood,” which Wells describes as a story about “the mental attitude of a two very clever young people, two university students, towards the world. How the world looks to them, and what problems they have to face. It's a book for the young, about the young.”

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Credit Courtesy the Criterion Collection
'War of the Worlds' is new on Blu-ray this month.

After the broadcast, Orson Welles remained in San Antonio for a few days more before departing. His film “Citizen Kane,” often named the greatest film of all time, would be released the following year. H.G. Wells published two more novels before dying in 1946, at age 79. His most famous novel, “The War of the Worlds,” was published in 1898, and adapted into two feature films, a musical album, and inspired dozens of other artistic works. The most famous of these is probably Paramount Pictures’ 1953 film, with its eerie, manta ray-shaped Martian attack ships destroying Los Angeles. The film was released during the Cold War, and while America was in the midst of a UFO sighting frenzy, proving that Wells’ work was both ahead of its time, and timeless.