RETRO REVIEW: RED PLANET MARS (Spoilers!)

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Figure 1 – Red Planet Mars Poster

Did you ever watch a movie (or read a book) that was going along fine, then there was a “What the Heck?” moment, then the whole rest of the movie (or book) just flabbergasts you and ticks you off? Well after the success of last week’s movie and review, I thought “What the heck, let’s do another ‘50s b/w movie! And this is one I heard about years ago (probably in Forry Ackerman’s Spacemen magazine) but have never seen. Up till now. Hey, it’s about Mars, and it’s got Peter Graves (Mission Impossible, a semi-SF series), brother of James The Thing Arness; how could we go wrong?

Figure 2 – Cronyns visit observatory

Graves plays Chris Cronyn, who with his wife Linda’s help (Andrea King) has been working with a “valve” invented by a German named Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof) to communicate with the planet Mars via radio waves. Calder was convicted of murder, but has since vanished—possibly has been “disappeared” by the Soviets—and Cronyn claims he has received signals from that planet using Calder’s valve.

Figure 3 – Cronyns meet Dr. Boulting (left) and Dr. Mitchell at Observatory

As the movie opens, we’re told this is a “story not yet told that takes place sometime in the near future.” We see a shot of a domed observatory “somewhere in Southern California” (the Monty Python part of my brain is muttering “It’s only a model”) (Figure 2) and we find the Cronyns talking to Dr. Mitchell (Lewis Martin)  and his assistant Dr. Boulting (House Peters, Jr.) about Mars. Mitchell shows a photo of Mars taken with the big telescope and tells the Cronyns that the “mountains” shown at the pole will be gone in tonight’s photo (and that the lines are definitely canals between cities).

Figure 4 – Mars “Photo”

He thinks the mountains are really icebergs hundreds of feet high, and that the Martians have melted them to fill the canals (or words to that effect). Cronyn tells him they’ll find out more when they establish real communication. He feels humanity can advance their science hundreds if not thousands of years with Mars’ help. But so far the Martians have only repeated whatever Cronyn has sent. We then cut to somewhere high in the Andes, and we find that Franz Calder (Berghof) has hidden himself in a hut where he is constructing a virtual duplicate of Cronyn’s machine using his own valve. When he escaped Russia, he told the Soviets they’d have to have God help them find him, and that’s exactly what Arjenian (Marvin Miller from The Millionaire) and his cronies have done. Because Calder’s hut is beneath a giant statue of Jesus, Arjenian’s been able to track him. The Soviets want him to contact Mars on their behalf to jumpstart Soviet science. Calder claims he can’t contact Mars himself, but can (and has) copied Cronyn’s contact with Mars. He shows a notebook with lists of everything Cronyn has sent and received.

Figure 5 – Calder (Berghoff) & Arjenian (Miller)

Back at the Cronyns’ home, which adjoins his lab with the valve and receiver, Linda Cronyn tells him not to send another message tonight—that she’s afraid; the whole world is afraid—afraid their sons will have to fight another war, fear of the Martians, fear of living on the edge of a volcano. Cronyn assures her that Vesuvius won’t boil over thanks to anything they’re doing. Inside the lab, she again tries to get him to not proceed, but he says they’ve worked too many years to give it up. They continue to contact Mars. Later, in the house with their son, Stewart (Orley Lindgren), they are surprised when Admiral Bill Carey (Walter Sande) visits to tell them that Washington is interested. He’s a bit disappointed when he finds out that Cronyn hasn’t been able to get any meaningful dialogue going; that the Martians just repeat whatever Cronyn sends. Stewart Cronyn suggests that they send pi (3.1415926) and see what response the Martians give. Here’s an interesting thing: because of the time lag between Earth and Mars, they need to wait for a response—they have a digital readout; I’m unable to find any other actual numerical lighted digital readouts in the 1950s! (Although, from research, I find the first digital numeric readout using circular dials was patented and actually made and sold in the 19th century!) I’ve highlighted the display in Figure 6.

Figure 6 – Cronyn and Adm. Carey wait for response

Again, Linda tells her husband not to try—“for thousands of years, Mars has been the symbol for war—who are we to fly in the face of providence?” Of course, he succeeds; this opens the two-way communication and soon Cronyn is receiving and decoding (that part has been glossed over… enquiring minds want to know how they got from pi to English) actual Martian messages. He becomes the most famous person in the world, and receives a Nobel Prize. The whole world wants to know what the Martians have to say, but here’s where the movie begins falling apart for me (and my wife, the Beautiful & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk): if Cronyn tells him the Martians have a new source of limitless energy, the bottom drops out of oil and coal on the Earth, closing large corporations and putting thousands of people out of work. Why? They’re not sending any particulars. If the Martians say they can feed 10,000 from one acre of land, the bottom drops out of the produce industry worldwide and food becomes scarce. Again, why? We don’t know how to do that, we’ve received nothing practical from Mars. There are worldwide riots already, but when the Martians tell Earth that we were given the answer to world peace two thousand years ago, all of a sudden the whole world goes religious. What the actual fark?
An avalanche wipes out the hut in the Andes, and Calder shows up at Cronyn’s lab unexpectedly. He reveals who he is to Cronyn, but tells him that the Martians never answered him; it was all a plot on his part to destabilize and destroy the whole world. Calder’s set, now destroyed, was the actual origin of all the “Martian” messages. Cronyn and his wife realize that if he’s allowed to tell this to the world, it will go to Hell in a handbasket, so to speak. Linda surreptitiously releases the hydrogen, and–just before Calder shoots his gun (therefore blowing up the lab and the Cronyns, and himself to boot–we see a new message coming through the oscilloscope. It can’t be Calder, so it must really be Martians! (Don’t worry, I couldn’t make much sense of it either.)
Okay, here’s my problem with this movie, and part of it’s the problem with The Stand, an otherwise terrific book (and somewhat terrific TV play) by Stephen King: all of a sudden science goes out the window and God enters the storyline. It was implied (I think) in the book, but explicit in the TV movie—the finger of God detonated the nuclear explosion. It’s like there’s no way the two can coexist; you either have science or God. Now I don’t know (or care) what your (yes, you!) religion is, if any. Personally, I lack the God Gene; I was raised a Christian/Protestant. My parents wanted us to experience religion so that we could make up our own minds, as they weren’t in the slightest religious either. We went to Episcopal Church (I think) in Minnesota, Church of England in (where else?) England, and in high school, I briefly became a Lutheran because my best friend (hi, Darrell!) was one. I almost became a Catholic when I got married (the first time), but the priest who was “instructing” me was really a drunk and I gave that up. The only caveat in my parents’ religious feeling was that my mother disliked Catholicism (probably why my older sister is Catholic, and my younger is pagan/Wiccan). Me, I’m totally areligious. You can be as religious as you like for all I care (as long as you don’t try to push it on me) and I’m happy for you. But why does it have to be one or the other? Surely, if you believe it all comes from God, why can’t science do so too? And the whole last 20%-30% of the movie is about everyone on Earth becoming religious.
Secondly, the bad science—even for 1952: somehow that “valve” is some kind of quartz crystal pressurized in liquid hydrogen to improve the “acoustics” of the signal—huh? AFAIK, sound won’t travel in a vacuum; and Cronyn is sending Morse with a speed key. Why are they watching the return signal on a giant oscilloscope, where the dits and dahs are translated into horizontal lines: 3 lines on a black background for 3 dits, etc. What the…?
And the “special effects”…(Figure 2) They had a matte artist (or glass-painter) do several terrific telescope backgrounds (only the ladder was real), but these crappy hand-drawn “photos” (Figure 4) are laughable. All in all, what started as an interesting movie about interplanetary communication just fell apart.
Oh, well. Next week let’s cheer up and look at the current (July-August) issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction! That always gives me a lift!

Comments? Oh, c’mon… you must have something to say about this! Say it here, or on Facebook, or even by email (stevefah at hotmail dot com). All comments, good or bad, positive or negative, are welcome, as long as you’re honest (and, I hope, polite). My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owner, editor, publisher or other columnists. See you next time!

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Steve,
    My memory of King’s great-but-waaay-too-long novel The Stand is that Trashcan Man shows up at the climax, towing an armed nuke, and his own actions trigger it. No God involved–ha!–only karma. OTOH, the Devil has been around since the beginning of the novel. But IMO Randall Flagg is really just a King supernatural villain, nothing especially religious.
    Keep reviewing 50’s trash, please! I used to eat them up as a kid, and I treasure their crappy effects, horrible science, and incomprehensible plotting. Childhood was so much simpler…

    • Hi, Stevo–
      Thanks for checking in… I may be conflating the movie with the book, but the movie for sure has a giant religious context: the “hand of god” forms over the bomb and sets it off. Flagg is a supernatural villain (who shows up in other books), but God himself is telling “Mother Abagail” what to do, and is the reason that Stu Redman, Larry, and Glenn are sent to be blown up with Flagg & crowd (Stu, because he’s Fran’s boyfriend, is allowed to live). The implications abound that ravens, wolves, rats, and cops are in league with Flagg (who is presumed to be the devil or acting on his behalf); even technology is–with the exception of the power and water of Boulder, Colorado, not a godly thing.
      I’ll review as many as I can… I’m enjoying the trip back into memory lane (and even “I wanted to see this but never did” lane).

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