Saturday, May 21, 2016

Red Planet Mars (Melaby Pictures/United Artists, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Red Planet Mars is something else again. I’d never seen it before — though I thought I had; I was startled when I couldn’t find any reference to it in the movie reviews stored on my computer — but Charles watched it when he was in London and a TV station was doing a regular showing of American cheapies from the early 1950’s. During our whole trip there Charles regaled me with stories of what a terrible movie this was, but as it turned out it was a lot better than he had said it would be; it’s not a great movie, and there are a lot of things wrong with it, but at least it attempted to grapple with serious ideas (as the best science-fiction writing did in 1952) and is oddly haunting and moving. The story deals with a U.S. scientist living in San Diego and working at an observatory (it’s obviously a stock shot of the Palomar telescope and its enclosing dome) which appears to be attached to his home. He is Chris Cronyn (a very young Peter Graves, looking like he just got out of high school even though he’s depicted as having a wife and two sons, one of whom looks about 11), and he’s developed an apparatus using something called a “hydrogen valve” by which he hopes to amplify radio waves and turn them into light signals and back so he can establish communication with the planet Mars. The “hydrogen valve” was actually invented back in the 1940’s by Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof — ironic, given the way his character lives in an isolated mountain cabin in the Andes, that the actor’s name should mean “Mountain Court”!), a Nazi scientist who was condemned as a war criminal at Nuremberg and sentenced to seven years for doing Mengele-style experiments on concentration-camp inmates. When his seven years were up he was kidnapped by the Soviets and forced to work on his invention under their auspices, though he was able to insist on doing so at his Andean redoubt instead of in the U.S.S.R. under the direct supervision of those nasty Russkies. As for Calder’s invention, it was declared war booty and Cronyn was able to pick it up from the U.S. government.

So the film is at first a battle between Cronyn and Calder over who can develop the Martian radio link first, and also between Cronyn and his wife Linda (Andrea King, who frankly looks almost old enough to be Peter Graves’ mother!), who says basically that no good can come of what he’s doing and if he discovers superior technology on Mars and imports it to Earth, we’ll just use it to destroy each other and ourselves more efficiently. Cronyn actually reaches Mars — or at least he thinks he has — but at first all he gets back is his own signals, copied and rebroadcast, and he has no way of knowing whether he’s really in touch with Mars or his own signals are bouncing off some object or energy field in space and coming back to him. Then, during one night at the Cronyn home in which Chris is confessing his frustration to Linda and their sons Stewart (Orley Lindgren) and Roger (Bayard Veiller, who I assumed was the son of the film’s producer and co-writer Anthony Veiller, though Anthony’s Web page says he only had one child, a girl), Stewart listens to this while wolfing down a piece of pie (which he’s holding with his fingers) and says, “I’ve got it! Pi!” Chris realizes his son is onto something and broadcasts to Mars the first five digits of the irrational number Pi (3.1415 … ), figuring out that if the Martians have the technology to build a receiver for his broadcasts and a transmitter with which to reply, they must have enough science to need to know the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. (One “Goofs” writer said this was a plot hole because the Martians might know Pi but not write it in decimal notation, but it’s likely that Chris simply thought of that first and, if it had failed, might have asked someone, “What’s Pi in binary?”) The Martians duly come back with the next in the series of digits of Pi and eventually start sending text messages which Chris is able to decode and give to the U.S. government — and particularly Secretary of Defense Sparks (Morris Ankrum — when Charles spotted his name in the credits he joked, “Ah, it’s a Morris Ankrum Film Festival!”). Chris sends a list of questions to the Martians and they send back a series of replies which state that Martians have a life expectancy of 300 years, they’ve developed a limitless source of cosmic energy and therefore have no need of fossil fuels, and they’re at peace with each other because they’ve followed the lesson of the prophet that came to Earth 2,000 years earlier to love one another instead of fighting wars.

All these revelations immediately collapse the Earth economy and bring both the U.S. and western Europe into chaos and depression — if there’s no need for fossil fuels there’s no need to mine coal or drill oil, so those companies go out of business and, with no one mining coal, the steel mills shut down as well, while the revelation that on a nearby planet people live to be 300 collapses the medical and pharmaceutical industries as well — but the next set of messages, containing thinly disguised quotes from the Bible, spark a religious revival in the Soviet Union. Despite the Soviet government’s attempts to suppress it by shooting people en masse as they’re starting to worship again, ultimately a revolution successfully topples the Soviet regime and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is installed as Russia’s new leader. Then Franz Calder, who’s already fended off a gang of Russian agents attempting to get him back to the Soviet Union to do his work there, is nearly killed when an avalanche destroys his little cottage in the Andes (so both movies we saw last night featured an avalanche ex machina!), but he escapes and over the next nine days somehow makes his way to Chris Cronyn’s home in San Diego. Calder tells Cronyn that the “Martian” messages were all fakes — he received Cronyn’s broadcasts and wrote and sent the replies himself — and as proof notes that the messages from “Mars” stopped nine days earlier when his house and the hydrogen-valve equipment in it were destroyed. Cronyn pleads with Calder to shut up about the fraud because the messages, especially the religious ones, are doing so much good on Earth — and Cronyn says he wants the human race to suffer because his only God is Satan (he even quotes the marvelous line John Milton wrote for Satan in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”); it occurred to me that the nihilistic ending of Watchmen might have been ripped off of Red Planet Mars. 

Only while Cronyn, his wife and Calder (who had spent his time in that Andean cottage mostly getting drunk on champagne he had bought by the case with the Soviets’ money) are confronting each other and threatening to blow up the lab — in Cronyn’s case to keep Calder from exposing the messages as fakes, in Calder’s case to keep Cronyn from doing that — another Martian message comes in and it reads, “You have done well … ” — only the rest of the message is lost because at that point Calder fires a gun in the room and it ignites the hydrogen tanks that fuel the hydrogen valve, so he and Mr. and Mrs. Cronyn all die, the two Cronyn kids are left facing an uncertain existence (“Call the orphanage!” one of the audience members at our screening joked, though since this is an early-1950’s movie made at the height of “family values” I thought we were supposed to assume that a surviving adult relative of Mr. or Mrs. Cronyn would take them in), but the President of the United States reads the fragment out loud to a joint session of Congress and proclaims what a great thing it is that the messages from Mars have led to a worldwide spiritual revival and all the people in the world are getting closer to God. Red Planet Mars is certainly a souvenir of its time politically, and even as a Right-wing movie it’s hardly in the same class as The Birth of a Nation (Griffith’s, not the new one about slave rebel Nat Turner whose maker deliberately ripped off Griffith’s title for ironic reasons) and Triumph of the Will (though it’s considerably better than The Red Menace and all the other McCarthy-era cheapies about dirty Commie agents trying to subvert America), but it’s also a film created by genuinely talented people: the original idea came from a play by John L. Balderston (whose credits include some of Boris Karloff’s best films: The Mummy, The Bride of Frankenstein and the little-known but marvelous 1936 British film The Man Who Changed His Mind) and John Hoare. Anthony Veiller, a writer with major credits of his own (Orson Welles’ The Stranger, the 1946 version of The Killers, State of the Union, the 1952 Moulin Rouge — he was also assigned to the classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon, though in the end director John Huston wrote the script himself, basically splicing it together from two copies of Dashiell Hammett’s source novel), bought the movie rights and co-wrote the screenplay with Balderston.

Though the film, aside from its bizarre propaganda aspects, is pretty stiff and stage-bound (it’s the sort of movie that, even if the credits didn’t inform you it was based on a play, you could tell), it’s also haunting. It’s certainly a sophisticated work that attempts to grapple with serious philosophical, political and spiritual issues, even though the messages it sends about them are not my own — and indeed it would be easy to imagine a remix of Red Planet Mars that used the same plot premise to deliver a Left-wing message, in which the messages from Mars stressed peaceful coexistence and religious tolerance and the character of Calder wasn’t an embittered villain but a man whose direct experience of both Nazi and Soviet oppression led him to want to bring both sides together and end the Cold War. The seriousness of the piece, at least for me, overcomes a lot about what’s wrong with it, including the stodginess (the director, Harry Horner, was a capable filmmaker but hardly at the level of his writers), the creepiness of its political message (as one of the attendees at the screening pointed out, it was a product of the same early-1950’s mindset that defaced the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance with the words “under God” and put “In God We Trust” on all U.S. money) and the cheapness of its production, including the incredibly extensive use of stock footage (this film would earn the joke the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew used about another 1950’s sci-fi cheapie, “This film doesn’t have stock footage, but stock mileage”) to represent the cataclysmic world events the messages from Mars (real or fake) are supposedly inspiring — including an odd shot of the Pope being carried through throngs outside the Vatican in an exposed sedan chair, a far cry from the armored boxes the Pope is moved around in today!