(5/10) In a nutshell: Poverty Row studio Monogram jumped the bandwagon on space films in 1951 with this colour movie filmed in five days. The design and effects are not bad for a film of its budget, although much of it is scraped together from found objects, but all suspense evaporates as the space crew settles on Mars and the movie settles into a boring chamber drama with talking heads.
Flight to Mars (1951). Directed by Lesley Selander. Written bu Arthur Strawn. Starring: Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, John Litel, Morris Ankrum, Richard Gaines, Lucille Barkley, Robert Barrat, Trevor Bardette, Tristam Coffin, Music: Marlin Skiles. Cinematography: Harry Neumann. Editing: Richard V. Heermance. Production design: Ted Haworth. Art direction: Dave Milton. Production management: Allen K. Wood. Sound recordist: John K. Kean. Visual effects: Jack Cosgrove, Jack Rabin, Irving Block. Produced by Walter Mirisch for Monogram Pictures. IMDb score: 5.2
1951 was a tremendous year for science fiction films in Hollywood, especially for films concerning space travel and aliens, subgenres that had only found their way into full-length cinema the previous year. In 1950 producer George Pal had tried to depict a scientifically accurate flight to the moon in Destination Moon (review), and Lippert Pictures had jumped on the wagon with a voyage to Mars in Rocketship X-M (review). In the first two thirds of 1951 spacemen came to Earth, first in The Man from Planet X (review), then in The Thing from Another World (review) and later in The Day the Earth Stood Still (review).
The scientists in Rocketship X-M discovered a Martian civilisation destroyed by nuclear holocaust, and sent back a warning so dire that people on Earth started travelling to the centre of the Earth to escape disaster in Unknkown World (review) in October. They found no more life there than some deep sea fish, but must have disturbed something, because a month later small furry Mole-Men started climbing up to the surface in the first Superman film, Superman and the Mole-Men (review). Such terror did they spread that George Pal built himself an interplanetary Noah’s Ark in When Worlds Collide (review) in November, around the same time that producer Walter Mirisch sent his own team of scientist out in space in Flight to Mars.
Walter Mirisch would later go on to become one of Hollywood’s most regarded producers with films like Seven Angry Men (1955), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960), West Side Story (1961), The Pink Panther (1963), Hawaii (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Dracula (1979). And he is still going strong today at 94 years old, as producer of a new Pink Panther animated film slated for release in 2016. In 1951 he was still working himself upwards with B movies in the Poverty Row studio Monogram, which was soon to merge into Allied Artists, for which Mirisch would eventually become studio boss. Flight to Mars was one of these cheap movies, although compared to some of the sci-fi garbage that Monogram and PCR put on in the forties, this one is rather classy.
The script was written by allround writer Arthur Strawn, best known for devising the story for the 1935 Boris Karloff vehicle The Black Room. The movie borrows heavily from Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M during the film’s first half: the flight crew is presented along with their specialities and their motives for going on the trip, and we get a build-up to the take-off. We meet the wisened egghead scientist Professor Jackson (Richard Gaines), the brilliant, ambitious engineer, Dr. Jim Barker (Arthur Frantz) and his girlfriend/colleague and token woman scientist Carol Stafford (Virginia Huston), the gloomy sceptic scientist Dr. Lane (John Litel), and the staple reporter of forties and fifties sci-fis, and our leading man: Steve Abbott (Cameron Mitchell).
Unlike the previous space voyage films, Flight to Mars doesn’t bother too much with laying out the principles of space travel, but briefly gives more or less the same story as Rocketship X-M: nuclear power will take us to Mars, and that’s more or less the extent of the science in the movie. The science isn’t the only thing borrowed from Rocketship X-M; Monogram was also able to purchase the spacecraft’s cockpit from Lippert Pictures. There’s even a mention of the same ”gyros” that keeps the floor of the cockpit facing ”downwards” during the whole flight – which would of course be redundant if the crew was weightless in space. Since the movie was filmed in no more than five days, Monogram had no chance of creating any weightlessness effects, and thus cheats away that issue by inventing something called a ”field stabiliser” – and thus we get the first example of artificial gravity in a movie.
The first problem in space is the gravity of the moon – somehow these brilliant scientists haven’t been able to calculate whether or not the moon’s gravity will effect the ship, a fairly simple slideroll calculation, one might think. When pulled towards our Luna, the team makes a wild race-car turn to put themselves on the right trajectory. And just like in Rocketship X-M, they also encounter a surprise meteor shower. And this time the meteors aren’t just surprising, they also fly around completely erratically, like a swarm of fireflies buzzing around. And like the previous film, there’s also some tensions between the crew members and a love triangle between a male scientist, a female scientist and the everyman on ship. In Rocketship X-M it was the mechanic, here it is the journalist. There’s also the same discussion over whether a woman can be both a scientist and ”feminine” at the same time, an awful trope persistent throughout fifties sci-fi. And like in that other film, the crew also gathers in the cockpit to ponder over life and the universe. Only the dialogue was far better written in Rocketship X-M. In Flight to Mars the lines are absurdly clunky and out of place, as when Abbott suddenly blurts out ”Sometimes I wonder who I am”, and nobody as much as giggles.
Rocketship M.A.R.S. crashlands on the red planet, which isn’t so much red as white, as it is covered in snow, and they discover strange ”chimneys” sticking out of the ground (after having traversed the planet wearing nothing much more than winter gear and oxygen masks, just like in Rocketship X-M). Suddenly they are greeted by a welcoming committee of Martians, who look just like humans and even speak English, as they have ”monitored your radio transmissions” So well have they monitored that they even seem to be speaking English amongst themselves. The Martians all wear space suits because of the lack of oxygen – and if they look familiar, it’s because they were hand-me-downs from Destination Moon.
The Martians seem benign and welcoming, and inform our travellers that they live underground as the conditions on the surface are hostile. Life on Mars seems very much like life on Earth, except the architecture seems based on triangles rather than rectangles. All men are middle-aged or old and hold all positions of authority, and are dressed in Flash Gordon-styled garb. The women are all young and beautiful and all wear very, very short miniskirts, high-heeled boots, pointy bras and ridiculous shoulder pads. One can almost hear the sarcasm in the actress’ voice as she tells the Earth people that they find the clothes ”very comfortable”. The travellers marvel at the underground city, powered by a radioactive material. But Carol Stafford’s first question is ”Where’s the kitchen”. And no marvel is greater than the realisation that the Martians have created technology that both prepares food AND does the dishes. ”Mars is a heaven for women”, Stafford gasps.
Leader of the Martians is Ikron (sci-fi stalwart Morris Ankrum), who is very interested in the Earthling’s spaceship, as the Martians have spent too much time perfecting shoulder pads and automatic kitchens and too little time thinking about rocket science. They agree to help out repairing the damaged space ship, so that the Earthlings can return home. The most capable scientist is a young woman named Alita (top-billed Marguerite Chapman), who falls in love with Dr. Barker, creating a clumsy and wholly unnesessary live rectangle between the two, Abbott and Stafford.
However, Alita overhears Ikron and his closest lackeys speaking of sinister plans. The radioactive fuel of Mars is running out, and the Martians need a new planet to live on. Ikron plans to kill the Earthlings as soon as the spaceship is repaired, build more ships and fly to Earth to invade a new planet for themselves. And thus starts the third and final chapter of the movie, as Alita and her father, councilman Tillamar (Robert Barrat) try to help the Earthlings escape, while Ikron and his men and women prepare traps for the travellers. And the ending offers no great surprises.
The story, as said, is very much derived from Rocketship X-M, and the latter part of the movie seems, more than anything, to be lifted from old serials like Flash Gordon (1936, review) and Undersea Kingdom (1936, review). Some reviewers claim to have seen strong similarities with the Russian silent classic Aelita: Queen of Mars (1934, review). These claims stem from the fact that Marguerite Chapman’s character is called Alita. But apart from the fact that the movie concerns a trip to Mars and the humans tangle with some hostile Martians, there isn’t much of a parallel to be drawn. Steve Lewis at Mystery*File who claims that the plot is ”evidently drawn” from Aelita ”evidently” hasn’t seen the film, which is more than anything a philosophical look at socialism and the revolutionary ideology prevalent in the young Soviet Union. The name Alita in Flight to Mars is just an offhand homage to Yakov Protazanov’s movie. Yes, you can find similarities if you go looking for them: one of the travellers falls in love with a Martian woman, there’s a journalist on board, there’s a hostile ruler of Mars, and so on. But these were all fairly common traits of sci-fi serials, pulp stories, films and comic books, and if it wasn’t for the name Alita, no-one would have thought of the Russian film.
Although the film is a cheapo production it doesn’t feel slapdash, and probably looks more expensive than it was. The design is not bad, if a bit on the cheap side and rather unimaginative. The space ship looks very much like a miniature toy, and borrows its sleek look from Destination Moon, but it looks quite nice and was re-used in a few other films, like World Without End (1956), Queen of Outer Space (1958) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958).
Production designer Ted Haworth did the best he could with limited time and resources. The furniture of Mars consists almost exclusively of white plastic chairs that people thought looked so futuristic in the fifties. The one thing that does seem inspired by Aelita is the architecture – just like in that film the Martians seem to eschew rectangles, and instead we get curved lines, triangle-shapes and spiky design elements. There is a definite Bauhaus vibe going on, with the contrasting lines, flowing curves, symmetrical patterns and the two-dimensional look of the Martian architecture. However, the Martians don’t seem to care much for comfort or distraction, since all the rooms seem completely bare save for when a scene requires a chair or a table. The architecture might not be novel, but it is rather good-looking.
Haworth went on to design the films Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Monster that Challenged the World (1957), the splendid, but frequently overlooked cult classic Seconds (1966) and *batteries not included (1987). Art director Dave Milton was a Monogram stalwart who had worked on films like Revenge of the Zombies (1943, review), The Ape Man (1943, review), Return of the Ape Man (1944), Voodoo Man (1944, review) and The Jade Mask (1945, review). He later worked on The Maze (1953, review), World Without End and Queen of Outer Space for Allied Artists.
The matte paintings of Mars are not necessarily realistic, but quite beautiful in all their pulpy glory. The matte work was overseen by industry veteran Jack Cosgrove, who did work on classics like The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review) and Gone with the Wind (1939), and was nominated for five Oscars during his career. He also worked on The Invisible Ray (1935, review), Invaders from Mars (1953, review), Monster from Green Hell (1957) and Queen of Outer Space. Uncredited special effects artists were the dynamic duo of Jack Rabin and Irving Block. Both had worked on Rocketship X-M, and went on to collaborate on Unknown World, Invaders from Mars, World Without End, Monster from Green Hell, The Invisible Boy, Kronos (both 1957), War of the Satellites (1958), The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959) and Behemoth the Sea Monster (1959). Both also worked on a number of other sci-fi films separately. Rabin worked on movies including The Man from Planet X, Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review), Robot Monster (1953, review), Deathsport (1978) and Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). Block did work on films like Captive Women (1952), Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Atomic Submarine (1959).
The special effects are not at all bad for a movie of its day and budget, although the spacecraft is clearly dangling from wires, smoke from the spaceships’s rockets rise upwards in space, the meteors are simply red bokeh dots and the rocketship’s sudden turns are represented by the cast simultaneously throwing themselves sideways. It’s clear no photograph’s of Earth had yet emerged from outer space, since our beautiful blue planet is presented as a grey mass of play-dough. But for example the spaceship’s takeoff scene is better than in many consequent low-budget sci-fi films, and was re-used in a number of AA movies.
The direction by B-western specialist Lesley Selander is workmanlike and he doesn’t get much help from extremely prolific cinematographer Harry Neumann, with over 300 films to his name, all of them B movies, including the sci-fis The Jade Mask and Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman (1959). The lighting is uniformly flat, the camera angles boring and Selander does absolutely nothing to liven up the action. However, the film is one of the first sci-fi films to be shot in colour – and the first to use the newly invented SuperCinecolor process, a three-strip process based on the old Cinecolor process. The new technology reduced the lighting requirements and thus the costs, and made it possible to make colour films almost as cheaply as black-and-white films. It also enhanced the colour spectrum from previous subtractive two-strip colours to three strips. But instead of using magenta, cyan and yellow subtracts, it used red, blue and yellow matrices, that gave the film an ”oddly striking look”, as Wikipedia puts it. Indeed, the colour of Flight to Mars is oddly striking, and sets the film apart from many of its peers of the day.
The biggest pitfall of the film is the scripting of the second half of the movie. Although sometimes stupid, at least the first half has some sense of suspense and action, but as soon as the travellers settle on Mars we are treated to endless scenes of people sitting in rooms talking. Considering the film is actually set on an alien planet, it is hugely disappointing that the proceedings amount to mundane mobster movie plotting and an incredibly forced and unconvincing love rectangle completely devoid of emotion, save for a drawn-out crying scene courtesy of Virginia Huston. The only action, even that tepid, is saved for the last five minutes of the movie, and consists of some running through corridors and a few fisticuffs.
The acting is in no way spectacular, although not overtly bad, either. One could perhaps call it uninterested. Marguerite Chapman as Alita was the biggest star of the film, and got top billing, despite the fact that she doesn’t appear until the second half of the movie. Chapman’s heyday was in the early and mid-forties, when she became a star as the leading lady in the hugely successful propaganda serial Spy Smasher (1942), followed by leading roles in the films Submarine Raider and Parachute Nurse the same year. She cemented her status as leading lady in an impressive number of B movies for second-tier studio Columbia, perhaps best known for her role as Russian woman trapped alongside Paul Muni’s Soviet officer in a building surrounded by Nazis in Zoltan Korda’s unusual pro-Soviet war film Counter-Strike (1945).
Chapman, a snappy, head-strong telephone operator and typist, had no acting ambitions, but agreed to try her hand at the trade after encouraged by her friends and discovered by Howard Hughes during a model gig. Although she was quite successful and had a steady run of leading roles during the entire forties, she was destined to be stuck in B movies, and her roles slowly got worse in the early fifties, som she decided to shift her focus to television, where she carved out a decent career as guest star on a number of TV series, sometimes doing the occasional film role. She continued acting until the mid-seventies. Her only other sci-fi role was the embarrassing The Amazing Transparent Man, where she still got top billing despite her rather faded star in 1960. She’s one of the better actors in Flight to Mars, but despite her long and exposed legs, she leaves no great impression.
Cameron Mitchell was an up-and-coming B movie leading man in 1951, possessing rugged good looks and a casual charm which has made him something of a cult favourite, despite his lack of defining roles. An actor with a stage background, Mitchell kept himself steadily occupied in leading or big supporting roles in both film and TV during the late forties and most of the fifties, and got something of a new start in the sixties as the star of a number of Italian genre movies, mostly sword-and-sandal stuff, quite a few of them directed by cult legend Mario Bava. Between B movies and genre films, he thrived in a number of A efforts, like Death of a Salesman (1951), Les Miserables (1952), The Robe (1953, as the voice of Jesus), Désirée (1954, opposite Marlon Brando), the musical Carousel (1956) and Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western Minnesota Clay (1964). In the seventies he reinvented himself as a TV actor, perhaps best known for his leading role in The High Chapparal (1967-1971).
Mitchell stayed clear of sci-fi until the late sixties, but then played the lead in Island of the Doomed (1968), Autopsia de un fantasma (1969), Nightmare in Wax (1969), The Big Game (1973), Supersonic Man (1979), Captive, Without Warning (both 1980), Frankenstein Island (1981) and Space Mutiny (1988). Mitchell carries Flight to Mars on his shoulders and does so in a carefree, slightly macho manner that’s difficult not to like.
Arthur Franz is likewise likeable, but a bit less spirited, in the role of the engineer. Franz’ career trajectory was very much like Mitchell’s, except Franz was often stuck as the sidekick character or in a supporting role. A prolific actor in B movies who sometimes did impressive work in A films like Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Roseanna McCoy (1949), The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Fritz Lang’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt (1956). Franz also appeared in Invaders from Mars (1953), The Time Barrier, Monster on the Campus (both 1958), The Atomic Submarine (1959), and a number of sci-fi TV-series.
A lot of fifties sci-fi geeks seem to have something of a man-crush on veteran bit-part and supporting actor Morris Ankrum, whose reputation far exceeds his work, although he did some fine work throughout his career in most genres, almost invariably in B movies and often in westerns. Ankrum’s range wasn’t staggering, but his stern visage and authority was palpable and he always brought a sense of believability and weight to the movies he acted in. Ikron is not his greatest role, mostly because the material he gets to work with is wafer-thin.
Rocketship X-M was his first sci-fi movie, and he went on to appear in Red Planet Mars (as secretary of defense, 1952, review), Invaders from Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), Kronos, The Beginning of the End, The Giant Claw (all 1957), How to Make a Monster, Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman, Curse of the Faceless Man (all 1958), From the Earth to the Moon (as president Ulysses S. Grant, 1958), Most Dangerous Man Alive (1961) and Roger Corman’s X (1963).
The music of the film isn’t particularly memorable, but follows the same professional standard as the rest of the movie with its orchestral score. Composer Marlin Skiles was a studio veteran who had worked extensively on film serials, including many sci-fis, and ended his career in TV in the sixties. He scored a number of B sci-fis during the fifties and sixties, including The Maze, The Giant Claw, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Queen of Outer Space, The Crawling Hand (1963), Space Probe Taurus (1965), Journey to the Center of Time (1965) and The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (1967).
More than anything, Flight to Mars is a wonderful time capsule that tells us much more about the early fifties than it does about outer space. This was still a time when men were men, and when you couldn’t quite trust the learned minds to get you out of a tough spot without the help of a real blue-collar dude. It was a time when space was still a big, dark mystery, full of promise and horror, much like the new technology that mankind was tentatively probing. Despite the fear of of nuclear war, the fifties were a time of unbridled techno-optimism, a time of rising standards of living, when technology wasn’t simply there to serve manufacturing, but to bring comfort and ease to domestic life. Take the food processor of Mars – how different is it from the aluminium-wrapped TV dinner that was slowly starting to roll out in the US the early fifties? It was also a pivotal time in te battle of the sexes. Feminism was on the rise, and could not be ignored by movie makers, but still professional women were treated as an anomaly, and the question of what it meant to be a woman – a real woman – was the debate of many a Hollywood film. The notion that a working woman dedicated to her career could not at the same time be romantic or harbour notions of family life was rife within scienct fiction films – this was not the first fifties sci-fi movie to explore the question. And more often than not, these brilliant young women were reduced to serving coffee and scrubbing floors – or indeed marvel over the automatic dishwasher.
The look of the movie today brings forth little notions of the future, but smells remarkable like the fifties, with the inclusion of the hotly debated mini-skirt, the fifties hairdos and the shoulder pads. That the ”liberated” women of Mars would walk around all day in stiletto heels showing off their long legs is also an interesting notion of feminism – and Mars doesn’t seem to have much grasp on the concept of equality. A female scientist is OK, but don’t let any of them into our executive board. As so often what we seem to think is oh so futuristic often just turns out to be a defining feature of our own time – just look at those plastic chairs in Flight to Mars. Even Stanley Kubrick would fall for this fallacy in his epic space film. Mars looks not so much different from a newly built US diner in the fifties.
When we are at the subject of feminism and civil liberties – a notion that must be brought forth is the fact that all Martians seem to be Caucasian – or do they? A fact that I haven’t seen brought up elsewhere is that in the scene where the Martians first greet the Earthlings, one of the Martians is actually a black man. Look at the picture above at the left hand side at the man in the teal space suit – isn’t that clearly a black actor? Interestingly enough, nothing more is seen of either him nor any other person of a different skin colour than white in the whole film. It even looks as he has been deliberately edited out of the movie. Look again at the picture to the right. Doesn’t it seem oddly cropped? As if the man in the teal suit would have been edited out of the frame – we only just see his right arm although he is standing quite close to the camera. If this was just a mistake, then it is very sloppy direction, you don’t show a fourth of a guy in a shot like this. No, it does seem as if someone didn’t want him to be seen. My theory is that somewhere along the line someone had the idea to show Mars as multi-ethnic society, but for one reason or the other that notion was dropped, but I won’t go into further speculation. It is a shame, though – if the filmmakers would really have made a multi-ethnic, equal society on Mars it would have been something to be remembered for.
All in all Flight to Mars does have a few firsts – it’s the first serious Hollywood film to encounter an intelligent, advanced civilisation in outer space (not counting the musical comedy Just Imagine, 1930, review) and the first to actually bring out the beautiful vixens of Mars/Venus/the moon, a tiresome staple of a number of later exploitation films. Even Flight to Mars was undoubtedly an exploitation film with its cheap sets and re-used scenery and space suits, but the colour photography and the fact that the team obviously have made an effort to make the thing look good sets it apart from many later Z movies. So good was it that for example a vista of the Martian city and its flying – something – (cars, elevetors?), its spaceship and takeoff scenes were re-used in a number of movies, often by the same effects team, though. The big problem is of course the script, which is tepid and dull and fails to take advantage of the wonder and adventure that a flight to Mars invariably promises.
Flight to Mars (1951). Directed by Lesley Selander. Written bu Arthur Strawn. Starring: Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, John Litel, Morris Ankrum, Richard Gaines, Lucille Barkley, Robert Barrat, Trevor Bardette, Tristam Coffin, Music: Marlin Skiles. Cinematography: Harry Neumann. Editing: Richard V. Heermance. Production design: Ted Haworth. Art direction: Dave Milton. Production management: Allen K. Wood. Sound recordist: John K. Kean. Visual effects: Jack Cosgrove, Jack Rabin, Irving Block. Produced by Walter Mirisch for Monogram Pictures.