Of all the neighboring worlds in our solar system, none has captured our collective imagination as completely as Mars. From Percival Lowell's 19th Century sketches of the "canals" of Mars through the panic-inducing "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast of Orson Welles and right down to today, Mars has remained the primary focal point of our suppositions and fantasies about extraterrestrial life.
This fascination with the red planet has, naturally enough, manifested itself in the movies virtually from the beginning. Most of the time, however, the focus has been on Martians coming to Earth to wreak havoc, as in "Invaders From Mars" (1953), "War of the Worlds" (1953), and, lest we forget, "Mars Attacks!" (1996). A less common variation on the theme, probably because it tends to cost more to make, is a storyline built around Earthlings traveling to Mars, as in the currently playing "Mission to Mars." For a sampling of earlier cinematic missions to Mars, look for these titles on home video.
"Aelita, the Queen of Mars" (1924). One of the earliest movies about a journey to Mars was this remarkable silent Russian film, loosely based on a story by Alexei Tolstoy, about an engineer from Moscow who succeeds in building an interplanetary spacecraft. He flies to Mars and becomes romantically involved with the planet's monarch, Aelita. When he discovers that the populace has been enslaved, however, he helps organize a slave uprising, as any good Marxist revolutionary would. This is a real curiosity, shot in a deliberately non-realist style, but if you can adjust for the stylistic eccentricities it makes for fascinating viewing. For the best existing version of this film, look for the release from Image Entertainment, Inc. (www.image-entertainment.com/599/aelita.html), which was restored by archivist David Shepard.
"Flash Gordon's Trip To Mars" (1938). Buster Crabbe's second appearance as Flash Gordon finds him traveling to Mars to once again confront the evil Ming the Merciless. Not content with being ruler of the planet Mongo, Ming is now engaged in taking over Mars, and it's up to Flash, Dale Arden, and Dr. Zarkov to stop him. This 15-chapter serial can hardly be considered great cinema, but if you're in the mood for a good, old-fashioned low-budget space opera, you can hardly do better. If you don't want to sit through the whole 15 chapters, by the way, there's also the feature length condensation, which goes by the title "The Deadly Ray From Mars."
"Rocketship X-M" (1950). As so often happens in Hollywood, this picture was made in an effort to steal the thunder of a much-anticipated project by beating it to the punch. Renowned fantasy and science fiction producer George Pal was about to set a new standard for space movies with his "Destination Moon" (1950), a film about the first manned flight to the moon. "Rocketship X-M" sought to capitalize on the buzz about the Pal film by rushing their low-budget production into theaters first. In it, a crew bound for the moon goes off course and ends up on Mars instead. Despite the patent absurdity of this premise (it's roughly equivalent to a missed putt on a miniature golf course accidentally hitting a hole on a regulation golf course miles away), the film itself is rather good.
"Conquest of Space" (1955). Pal's own follow-up to "Destination Moon" was this tale of the first manned expedition to Mars. The result was a mixed bag. The script, having been subjected to studio tampering, left much to be desired, but the visuals were memorable. As he had done for "Destination Moon," Pal enlisted the aid of Chesley Bonestell, an artist who had made a specialty of creating stunning illustrations for books on astronomy. Bonestell was known for producing images that were both visually striking and meticulously consistent with the best observations and theories of professional astronomers. In terms of making a serious effort to visualize space travel as it really would be, this was to be the high water mark until Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke raised the bar yet again with "2001: A Space Odyssey" in 1968.
The science fiction boom of the Fifties produced other missions to Mars on the screen, as did the "space race" of the Sixties. Next week we'll look at a few more Mars mission titles.