Preach for the Stars
Sorry folks, one year on and we're back to trawling the backlog of movies of yestertime – hopefully I can track down a new streamer that's worth watching soon. In the meantime, let us check out a film which was first recommended to me by Ye Post Editor, many years ago. He assured me I would love it. He was wrong, but it's still fascinating in all sorts of ways.
The film in question is Red Planet Mars, made in 1952 and directed by Harry Horner. There are many striking and unusual things about this film, not least because it belongs to that odd subset of SF films which appear almost entirely mundane in their setting and events. For a genre which is so often predicated on the visually innovative and spectacular, there is a tradition of heroic attempts to tell big science-fictional stories without eye-catching visuals or extensive special effects – usually, it must be said, for reasons of budgetary exigence, but that doesn't stop some of them from being rather accomplished. Does Red Planet Mars attain this level also? Er – wait and see.
'This is a story not yet told,' drawls the narrator – which is just as well, given the movie's only just started at the time. ('This is a story already half-way through,' would not work so well as an engaging opening line, I suspect.) The narration is actually admirably concise and restrained compared to the melodramatic and/or quasi-religious excesses to be found in other movies, but the movie soon makes up for that as we meet radio astronomer Chris Cronyn (Peter Graves, long before his tape player started exploding) and his wife Linda (Andrea King). Chris and Linda are visiting some scientist friends who share their interests in both Mars and painfully clunky expository dialogue. The other scientists have photos of Mars which suggest an advanced civilisation exists on the planet. This is of great interest to Chris as he has spent years, with Linda's help, building a highly-advanced transmitter to contact the planet.
This must have been a trying undertaking for Chris as Linda soon reveals herself to be an obsessive doom-mongering pessimist, much given to bleak predictions about the impending death of the world and going on about the diet of fear she and every other woman in the world is forced to live on. How exactly did these two get together? He is a brilliant scientist who lives for his work, while she appears to be a psychotic anti-intellectual maniac – if Chris succeeds in his ambition of contacting the Martians, says Linda, he'll be the next to advance science, 'and maybe us – INTO OBLIVION!!!' All I can assume is that Linda must be a really good cook.
Maybe they're just keeping it up for the sake of the kids. Chris and Linda's sons pop up repeatedly throughout the movie and are clearly meant to be loveable all-American scamps, paragons of wholesome boyhood. Needless to say I found them creepy and irritating, and the scenes extolling the virtues of traditional American family life and values more than a little stomach-churning. Never mind laying it on with a trowel: Red Planet Mars gets to work with a fleet of JCBs.
Oh well. Things become a little more engaging when the scene changes to a hut high in the Andes where we meet Franz Calder (played by Herbert Berghof, who gives the closest thing to an acting performance of anyone in the movie). Calder is a disgraced ex-Nazi scientist who invented the transmitter Chris is using; at the behest of his Soviet paymasters Calder is trying the same thing. Pausing only to scoff at a nearby statue of Christ – ooh, those Russians! – the Soviets depart leaving everyone to get on with the plot.
Chris succeeds in contacting Mars, but initially struggles to find a basis for communication with this alien society. Okay, so it's not very sophisticated, but it's a world away from movies like This Island Earth where everyone on Metaluna speaks fluent English. Rather predictably, despite the presence in the room of a brilliant scientist and a decorated cryptographer, it's one of the junior Cronyns who cracks the problem, which I suppose wipes out any credit the film earned for itself on this score.
Never mind, the movie continues in idiosyncratic style as communications are established between Earth and Mars. The social and cultural implications of alien contact are a vanishingly rare theme in SF cinema and Red Planet Mars instantly becomes interesting, even though it tackles the topic in a crushingly simplistic fashion. The signals from Mars have a devastating effect on western civilisation, especially its economy: news that fossil fuels have been abandoned causes the mining industry to collapse, while suggestions of improvements in agriculture have a similar effect on farmers. What lets the film down is the perfunctory way this is handled – no-one on Earth actually has the slightest idea how the Martians generate their power, but being informed of the very fact they do it differently is enough to cause Earth people to abandon their existing system. (Then again, this is quite a short film.)
However, a movie that looked to be quite unusual and thoughtful goes – frankly speaking – completely off the deep end as the real secret of Martian success is revealed: the Martians have all found God and are mildly critical of Earthlings for ignoring the message imparted to them by the Almighty two thousand years previously. Not content with causing a massive international depression, the Martians now start a global religious revival – 'Take them curlers outta your hair, we're going to church,' one minor character orders his wife – which leads to… ah, I'm on the verge of spoiling the rest of the plot.
Needless to say, Linda, who has been banging on throughout about the awful dangers of communicating with Mars, now performs an astounding feat of hypocrisy and starts telling anyone who'll listen how wonderful all of this is. Chris, on the other hand, initially resists the release of the good news from Mars to the public, on the grounds that it doesn't make sense. (With you all the way, Chris.) Come the climax of the movie, of course, they have reconciled their differences, agreeing that talking to other planets is indeed a good idea, as long as it allows God to get on the airwaves like some ineffable ham radio operator.
The final permutations of the plot reveal Red Planet Mars to be – in some ways – the dark, homuncular twin of Watchmen, and really destroy any aspirations it may have been to be taken seriously as a piece of genuine SF. This movie is often written off simply as a propaganda film, and to some extent it is – but while the Soviet machine is routinely demonised, this isn't really anti-Communist propaganda, but pro-Christian.
Lip service is paid to the idea that other religions are benefitting from the spiritual revival just as much as the Church, but there's precious little evidence of that on screen. It's not just that the Martians are believers, they're actually Christians, and this is depicted as being part and parcel of their status as a superior civilisation. By extension, the God-fearing Americans are better than the heathen Soviets – Christianity, conservative moral values, and the American nuclear family are not just equated but presented as being virtually indistinguishable.
To say that this is not done subtly is a major understatement. Even if you agree with Red Planet Mars' strident views on politics and religion – and I suspect that there are many in America even today who do – you would probably find the film embarrassingly hokey and primitive to watch. To hell-bound observers such as myself, it often borders on the laughably crude. Most of the film takes place on the same five or six small sets, and the only special effects sequence, depicting an avalanche, strongly resembles someone pushing over a pile of soap flakes. The director can do little to overcome the story's origins as a stage play, given the obviously low-budget nature of proceedings.
Some 50s SF movies have withstood the passage of time better than others, with a few having become acknowledged classics. Red Planet Mars is nowhere near such distinguished company. It's not just that the cramped and talky production isn't that entertaining – it's that this film was never really designed to entertain in the first place. It is, to be honest, simply a lengthy and melodramatic tract, concerned with singing the dubious praises of a very American kind of religion. The fact that it does touch upon some genuinely interesting SF ideas along the way is ultimately irrelevant – but the scenes in question are one more reason to check out a movie the very bizarreness of which makes it oddly watchable.