Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Martian Chronicles (Charles Fries Productions, BBC, Stonehenge Productions, MGM, 1979)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening ( was a marathon: all 4 ½ hours of a three-part mini-series based on Ray Bradbury’s 1950’s science-fiction classic The Martian Chronicles, produced in Britain by Charles Fries and with some formidable talent both in front of and behind the cameras. The director was Michael Anderson, whose résumé includes Around the World in 80 Days, the 1956 version of George Orwell’s 1984, The Shoes of the Fisherman (which I remember seeing on its initial release and I regard as an underrated film), and The Naked Edge (Gary Cooper’s last movie, made shortly before his death in 1961). The writer was Richard Matheson, who while hardly in Bradbury’s league was a capable science-fiction writer in his own right, best known for his short-story collection Third from the Sun and a lot of the scripts for the original Twilight Zone. The cast included Rock Hudson as Col. John Wilder, head of NASA and an astronaut on the fourth manned mission to Mars (though in the movie it’s the third and Matheson’s script omitted one of Bradbury’s most chilling tales: Earth astronauts land on Mars and try to explain who they are and where they’ve come from, and the Martians think they’re crazy and put them in a mental institution), who’s inflated into a continuing character and used to tie together the various stories of Bradbury’s book.

Both Charles and I were somewhat nonplussed by the description of the story source in the credits as “a novel by Ray Bradbury,” since the book is actually a thematically but not narratively connected collection of short stories, some of which were actually published as stand-alones in Street and Smith pulp magazines. (This is how they turned up adapted as radio scripts in the Dimension X and X Minus One radio shows in the early 1950’s: Street and Smith co-produced these shows and as part of the deal they gave the shows the rights to adapt any short story they’d published in their sci-fi pulps.) The Martian Chronicles was filmed in 1979 and originally scheduled for airing as a big “event” on NBC — it was two years after the mega-success of Roots and the networks were looking for big, prestigious projects that could be stripped as week-long “events” — but though 1979 is the copyright date it wasn’t publicly shown until 1980. Part of the reason was that Bradbury went public with his dissatisfactions with the script, and though the first third of the program, “The Expeditions,” is a reasonably close adaptation of three of the original stories, the rest of it veers into a freely associated version of events in which Bradbury’s stories are stuck like raisins in a cake. (The two other episodes are called “The Settlers” and “The Martians.”) The plot starts in 1976, when the real-life Voyager probe first lands on Mars (ironically, Bradbury’s book had assumed that Mars had a sufficiently temperate climate and enough oxygen in the air to sustain human life without the humans having to wear spacesuits, and it was the Voyager and subsequent probes that showed us that Mars isn’t like that at all: it’s bitterly cold and most of their atmosphere is carbon dioxide), and then cuts to 1999 for the launching of Zeus, the first manned mission to Mars.

They encounter a bored middle-aged Martian couple (called Yll and Ylla in the book) whose female member has had erotic dreams about Earthlings — despite her husband’s insistence that Martian science has conclusively proved that there is no life on Earth — and so when some real-life Earthers actually land on the planet, Yll freaks out and kills them out of jealousy. (Martians au naturel look pretty much like us except their heads are rounder, more egg-shaped and lack exterior ears, which makes one wonder how they can hear each other when they speak. Perhaps they communicate via telepathy, but if that’s what we were supposed to think the actors playing Martians made the mistake of moving their lips when they speak: if you wanted to suggest people who communicate silently they should have had the actors’ lips stay closed and either pre- or post-recorded the dialogue.) The second expedition encounters uncannily exact replicas of the home towns on Earth where they grew up — this episode, called “Mars Is Heaven,” is probably the most famous part of The Martian Chronicles and the most often adapted as a stand-alone (including an episode of the later half-hour Ray Bradbury Presents TV series which I recall as a considerably more sensitive and effective adaptation than the one here — in fact, several of the chapters in The Martian Chronicles were adapted for Ray Bradbury Presents and those shows, though with much lower budgets than this one, seemed better written, staged and acted than this movie) — and, like the sentient ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, the Earth environments and the long-dead replicas of the astronauts’ dead relatives have been created by the Martians as illusions. The idea is that, since Mars can’t repel an Earth invasion with their weapons — they’ve lived at peace with each other for so long that they’ve pretty much abandoned the techniques of killing each other (though in later episodes the Martians do have ray guns) — the only way they can fight back is through their telepathic mental powers, using them to create illusions that will lead the Earth people to abandon their mission and hang out with their dead relatives (actually Martians shape-shifting to impersonate them) so the Martians can poison them and hopefully discourage any future expeditions.

The next Earth expedition to Mars is led by Col. Wilder personally and includes a scientist named Jeff Spencer (Bernie Casey) — I noted the irony that, after having watched O. J. Simpson in Capricorn One at the previous month’s screening, this was the second time we were seeing a show with a professional football player that had adopted an acting career (though Bernie Casey is a far, far better actor than Simpson ever was and, indeed, turns in what I thought was the finest performance in the film!). It also puts an interesting “spin” on the tale to make the character who goes crazy, “goes native” and starts slaughtering his fellow astronauts to protect the Martian heritage from human destruction Black! The gimmick here is that between expeditions two and three the Martians have been exterminated because one of the astronauts on a previous trip had had chicken pox, and the chicken pox/shingles virus had escaped and wreaked havoc on the Martians because their immune system had no defense against it — an interesting “tweak” by Bradbury of the ending of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The second part of the Martian Chronicles TV series, called “The Settlers,” shows that Spencer’s prediction that humans would come to Mars en masse and wreck it (the way we’ve wrecked our own planet) has come true: Mars has become a huge boom town, with all the sleazy enterprises familiar to us from movies about gold rushes and an equally unscrupulous group of people pursuing get-rich-quick schemes to tap the mineral resources of the Red Planet. This part of the movie ends with news of an imminent nuclear war back on Earth, and virtually the entire Martian colony is evacuated just in time to be annihilated back home as nuclear weapons on both sides turn Earth into a lifeless husk. (Just why all the Earth settlers on Mars went home to virtually certain destruction was a weak point in Bradbury’s book and is even less well explained in the film.)

The third show, “The Martians,” deals with the stragglers left on Mars, and one of Bradbury’s tales is dramatized as a frustrated seduction story with Bernadette Peters as the ultimate cock-tease (once again this one was better done on the Ray Bradbury Presents TV show than it is here) while the payoff is probably the part of the show that infuriated Bradbury most: Rock Hudson, his wife (Gayle Hunnicutt) and their two kids realize they’re essentially the Adam, Eve and offspring of this tale, and they’ll have to rebuild the human race on Mars. As part of the break with their old life, Hudson burns all the books and briefing papers on the expeditions that got humans to Mars in the first place — and I can’t imagine that the author of Fahrenheit 451 looked kindly on an ostensible adaptation of one of his other books that ends with a book-burning sequence of which we’re clearly supposed to approve. One of the charms of the book The Martian Chronicles is the sheer elegiac beauty of Bradbury’s prose (like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bradbury at his best was a writer who beautifully blurred the distinction between prose and poetry) and its ironic contrast with the story’s nature as a tale in which the populations and civilizations of two planets are utterly destroyed. That gets lost in the sappy ending Matheson and Anderson concocted. The film’s cast is O.K., though Rock Hudson isn’t really an authoritative enough character to bear the dramatic weight of the story, and when the narrator early on in the film speculates that for centuries humans have asked, “Is there life on Mars?,” we get the unfortunate impression that Hudson was probably asking himself, “Are there Gay bars on Mars?”