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Red Planet Mars

by Glenn Erickson Feb 17, 2024

Faith-based madness!  This 1952 sci-fi thriller is not a space opera, but a talky propaganda sermon. Peter Graves and Andrea King exchange radio messages with God, who lives on Mars, and a Nazi madman is eavesdropping on them. The show predicts that a Christian revolution will destroy Godless Communism, and advocates the replacement of our Democracy with a Theocracy — a very real concern in the political chaos of 2024. And get set for an endorsement of Eisenhower for President — he’ll be the Reverend-In-Chief!  This time around we offer some hints about the content of the original Broadway play from 1932.


Red Planet Mars
Blu-ray
MGM/Create Space (Amazon)
1952 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 87 min. / Street Date January 16, 2024 / Available from Moviezyng / 19.95
Starring: Peter Graves, Andrea King, Herbert Berghof, Walter Sande, Marvin Miller, Willis Bouchey, Morris Ankrum, Orley Lindgren, Bayard Veiller, Vince Barnett, Lewis Martin.
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Film Editor: Francis D. Lyon
Production assistant: Robert H. Justman
Original Music: Mahlon Merrick
Written by John L. Balderston, Anthony Veiller from a play by Balderston and John Hoare
Produced by Donald Hyde, Anthony Veiller
Directed by
Harry Horner

Until now, no authorized DVD or Blu-ray was available for this crazy item, released by United Artists back in 1952. The old MGM-UA Home Video released it very briefly on a fancy laserdisc and VHS. Other than that, the one way to see the oddball show was on infrequent TCM showings. In 2018 we wrote a ‘Revival Screening Review’ that attracted a lot of attention for CineSavant. But the disc companies that released MGM’s sci-fi holdings were apparently unmoved, as Red Planet Mars didn’t budge from the orphan reject shelf.

This new Blu-ray is not a gray-market item, but part of a relatively new plain-wrap disc line released directly by MGM. Thus we can write up a real review, with a first-hand evaluation.

“Not only is God not dead,
he’s alive and well on …”

Red Planet Mars once took late-night TV viewers by surprise: What the heck kind of movie IS this?  Today it ought to be studied as a case in social hysteria. It plays as if its makers believed they were spearheading a movement to Save The World. Sci-fi thrills direct the audience to cast aside the false god of technology and re-align their hearts and minds to the Judeo-Christian true faith. The ‘science fiction’ premise is that the New Testament Jehovah lives on our neighbor planet. When contact is made, he dispsenses instructions for our deliverance.

This may be the most radical faith-based picture ever made. Worthy and unworthy pictures promoting individual interpretations of ‘church values’ have always been around. They only become sinister when the religious messages are mixed with political propaganda. Adapted from a 1932 play, this 1952 movie accurately presages today’s social media hysteria. Fake News comes from the sky, and a major Christian world revolution is the result. Will America become a fundamentalist utopia?

Propaganda is a blunt word to describe Red Planet Mars, as everything with a viewpoint ‘propagandizes’ something, and those that try not to can be ‘propaganda’ for the status quo. The old Production Code enforced narrow definitions of Community Standards and Family Values, as defined by a few church-going moral guardians. ’50s science fiction set in outer space was seemingly required to reassure viewers that God is in charge, not science, often just with a single dialogue reference. Remember these dialogue lines?  If not, they link:

“That power is reserved to the Almighty Spirit.”  (The power of life and death.)

“The Lord sure makes some beautiful worlds.”

“Our true size is the size of our God.”

The collision of revivalism and conservative politics didn’t begin with the Cold War years. In the political distress of the Great Depression, Gregory La Cava’s pre-Code thriller Gabriel Over the White House (1933) tells the story of a corrupt President. Miraculously revived after an auto accident, he is inspired by a heavenly angel to cure the country’s ills by assuming dictatorial powers.

But three of the most extreme examples of religious-political movies were science fiction fantasies from the 1950s. The fear of Communism and The Atom raised a vague, nagging insecurity. MGM’s well-intentioned The Next Voice You Hear preceded Red Planet Mars, with its fantasy of God revealing his presence over the radio. Columbia’s troubling The 27th Day came five years later. Its solution for Cold War anxieties is the ‘vaporization’ of Communists as Enemies of Freedom.

Those pictures are now specialized fare, but Red Planet Mars is more obscure than either of them. Variety’s review from May 14, 1952 avoided the socio-religious issue by calling it “a confused futuristic story” and a fantastic concoction . . . that attempts to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.”  “Writers John L. Balerston and Anthony Veiller have let their imaginations run wild, and through a complicated series of events very conveniently right our troubled world back to an even keel.” The reviewer Holl called out the misleading poster art that depicts a futuristic Martian city that never appears in the movie proper. He stays away from any mention of propaganda, but is greatly amused by the movie’s prediction of the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower. “The authors, evidently endowed with clairvoyant powers, even predict the election of General Eisenhower as President. In a not-too-subtle manner, they indicate that the head of the nation is a former General.”

 

The pro-Christian anti-Communist Red Planet Mars dramatizes a yearning for God to appear from outer space and solve all of our earthly problems.

Red Planet Mars takes place in a near future that looks like contemporary 1952. Radio researchers Chris and Linda Cronyn (Peter Graves & Andrea King) maintain a radio observatory at their house in the hills near San Diego. Being good Christians, they desire a better world for their two young boys. An astronomer associate shows them photographic proof that Martian agriculture uses canals to irrigate with water from the planet’s polar ice cap.    But the Cronyns want to talk to Mars, not just look at it. Using a special ‘hydrogen valve’ confiscated from the Nazis, Chris and Linda have been beaming simple radio messages at the Red Planet, hoping for an answer.

Chris seeks advice from the Navy’s signals expert Admiral Carey (Walter Sande), who suggests transmitting a mathematical code. A few minutes later, a logical response proves that they’ve contacted intelligent life. The decoded messages are recognized as astonishing revelations, and are re-broadcast to every country. The Martian lifespan is three hundred years. Their agriculture is advanced far beyond ours. They’ve tapped something called ‘cosmic energy’ as a source of unlimited power.

 

The Martian messages prove extremely disruptive around the world. Life insurance policies are cancelled. Farm prices crash and steel mills and mines close. Democratic economies are threatened with collapse. To avert disaster the President (Willis Bouchey) declares all Mars communications to be top secret. Washington takes over the decoding of the messages, which are no longer made public.

But neither the Cronyns nor the White House is aware that the signals from Mars are a fraud. Their actual source is a remote lab in the Andes, run by the Nazi scientist Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof), a war criminal thought to be dead. Calder invented the radio ‘hydrogen valve’ in use by the Cronyns. His sponsor is now the Soviet Union, and his fake ‘Mars’ messages are aimed to weaken the Western democracies. The Russian spymaster Arjenian (Marvin Miller)    and the Soviet Commissar (Ben Astar, unbilled) are delighted by Calder’s disinformation scheme. Calder doesn’t care about Communism, only chaos. He’s a Satanist whose ambition is to ‘rule in Hell.’

 

The Mars messages then turn to the subject of war, peace and morality. Responses decoded by the military reveal that Mars is ruled by a Supreme Authority that visited the Earth and preached peace ‘seven lifetimes ago.’ Linda Cronyn multiplies 7 by 300 and concludes that the Supreme visitation coincides with the days when Jesus walked. The Martian messages are a new Gospel, straight from the source.

The President can start or stop the flow of the ‘classified’ radio transmissions. He sees no need to suppress these Christian-themed messages. Declaring that “Now we’re following the star of Bethlehem,” he releases the new Gospels to the public. Millions flock to churches.  *  When Voice of America broadcasts the news behind the Iron Curtain, oppressed Russian peasants retrieve long-hidden Eastern Orthodox artifacts. Millions rise up in demonstrations against the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, an Andean avalanche wipes out Calder’s lab, bringing a halt to the fake Mars messages. The Soviet government falls and an Orthodox Priest takes charge in the Kremlin. Churches reopen. Russia’s armies stand down. Because all world conflict was caused by the USSR, all regional wars cease (!).

 

Enter the Antichrist, Stage Left.

The President’s new State of the Union speech resembles a church sermon. The Cronyn boys are now being called part of ‘The Blessed Generation.’ The Cronyns are celebrating the birth of a new era when Franz Calder shows up at their guarded radio observatory, angry and defiant. Calling the scientists fools (and patent thieves), Calder boasts that he can’t wait to reveal his hoax, so that the world will once again collapse into secular chaos. Chris and Linda now are shocked to learn that all the Mars messages were fakes. Their response is to suppress Calder’s truth at any cost. They are preparing to become martyrs for the new age of Christian peace when, at the last moment, a genuine message is received from Mars . . .

At a first viewing the outlandish Red Planet Mars takes one’s breath away. Every scene is packed with technical exposition and political position speeches. The main message is that the only antidote to Communist evil is universal Christian fundamentalism. Faith is taken as an absolute good, independent of Truth. Even if belief is based on a lie, the belief justifies itself.

There’s no way to argue with that position.

The movie preaches that the elimination of Communism would bring an end to all Earthly political differences. The Soviet Commissar is a bloodthirsty despot eager to shoot dissidents and execute underlings that bring bad news. Linda Cronyn’s (shouted) opinions are wildly inconsistent. She argues that the present state has made all women afraid for the future. Science is evil and will advance mankind to oblivion. In her opinion, contacting Mars is a big mistake. After all, “Mars means war.”

An accurate futuristic prediction.

The film’s one everyday futuristic item is a wall-mounted flat screen monitor, on which play montages of headlines and TV news reports. The news of strikes and unemployment gives Chris Cronyn a headache, especially when public opinion scapegoats the Cronyns. When the Mars messages turn religious ‘the masses’ then flock to houses of worship. The film’s one bit of comedy relief depicts a heavy drinker (Vince Barnett) impressed by the sermons from Mars. He throws away his booze and drags his wife to church, ‘just for insurance.’

Also rather prophetic is Red Planet Mars’ prediction of the pernicious influence of mass media. The Soviets are delighted when Calder’s disinformation campaign causes chaos in the West. The White House strikes back with the religious Mars messages, igniting an instantaneous Russian counter-revolution. Whoever controls the conduits of information can control what people think and do. The parallel to our present-day ‘information distortion age’ with its privatized journalism and Fake News is painfully acute.

 

The screenplay is indeed confused — it fails to clarify exactly which Mars messages are genuine and which are Fake. The abrupt plot reversals at the climax encourage viewers to simply believe and not ask too many questions. Variety was right in noting that the show covertly endorses the Republican ticket for the November election.    Willis Bouchey, the actor playing the God-fearing President, is a dead ringer for Ike. In the filmmakers’ view the U.S. should be a Christian nation with no separation between church and state — and with a military led by literal Christian Soldiers. Red Planet Mars can’t be dismissed as irrelevant — a sizable minority today advocates just this viewpoint.

The film concludes as a barnstorming morality play. The anti-Christ is vanquished and the enlightened Cronyns go to their heavenly reward. In Washington, the President addresses the Union from a dais that is now a pulpit. Does the last fragment of the authentic Mars signal verify the truth of the others?  “Ye have done well, my good -“  The President doesn’t mind finishing God’s sentence for him: “. . . my good and faithful servants.” Let the Christian conversion begin.

 

Seven spellbinding performances on Broadway.

Released by United Artists, the independent production was based on the 1932 play Red Planet written by J.E. Hoare and John L. Balderston, who adapted Dracula and Frankenstein for the stage, and wrote the original play of Gaslight. Associate Gary Teetzel located a November 29, 1932 Variety review from what looks like a tryout performance in Buffalo, New York. The ‘all English’ cast included Bramwell Fletcher (The Mummy),  Valerie Taylor (Went the Day Well?) and Esme Percy (Dead of Night).

“Uncertain in purpose and hazy in effect.”

The pan review finds the play confusing, enmeshed “in a maze of explanatory and repetitious outside matter.” The basic setup is identical to the movie. God indeed seems to be broadcasting from Mars. A ‘rival inventor’ has perpetrated the hoax for the same reason, to first create a religious revival, and then to unleash social havoc by revealing the truth.

The review makes no mention of a Communist theme, pro- or anti-. The play instead blames English government ministers for attempting to exploit the news from Mars.  A Machiavellian chancellor wants to become a Messiah-like dictator, abetted by corrupt cabinet ministers, the bankers, the church (?), and a Jewish financier. As described by the reviewer, the play ended with a martyrdom identical to that of the movie made twenty years later.

Red Planet Mars is of course highly exploitable as evidence of craziness on the Cold War home front, with religious revivalism piggybacking on anti-Communist hysteria. Nervous Americans wanted complex postwar politics to just go away.  Some turned to the radical sermons broadcast over their new television sets. As documented in the insightful documentary The Atomic Cafe, some fundamentalist broadcasters advocated annihilating our ‘Godless’ communist enemies. It was the beginning of a political outlook based entirely on fear and hate.

Did Red Planet Mars fail to attract audiences because of its sermonizing, or because it was regarded as a talky bore without action or big stars?  A good percentage of viewer reaction is to simply tune out from lack of interest. We do admit that a close reading of the film doesn’t resolve its inconsistencies, especially the issue of who has access to the messages and where they are coming from at any particular time. If this were a paranoid post-Watergate movie, we’d suspect that some of them might be fakes generated by Washington … I suppose that means that we are really lacking in faith.

 

We’ve lived on the edge of a volcano all our lives. One day it’ll boil over.

Most of the film’s acting can’t be faulted. Peter Graves and Andrea King work hard to make the Cronyns seem conscientious do-gooders. It’s Graves’ first leading role, and it’s not easy pretending to be brilliant while explaining science at a 4th-grade level. Ms. King must sell the script’s most awkward non-sequitur dialogue. Their level-headed eldest son Stewart is played quite well by Orley Lindgren. There’s a reason why his younger brother Roger continually squirms and stares at the camera with a goofy smile — he has the same last name as the co-screenwriter co-producer Anthony Veiller. Marvin Miller is a bit much as the nasty Soviet agent, but Willis Bouchey, Morris Ankrum and Walter Sande are solid as the men from the White House and the Pentagon.

 Stealing the show is Herbert Berghoff as Franz Calder. Berghoff makes emotional sense out of the mad scientist’s ravings; we’re almost on his side. The actor specialized in foreigners, usually the suspicious kind. We like him a lot in Joe Mankiewicz’s espionage movie Five Fingers.

This was Harry Horner’s first job directing. He’s better known as a production designer for prestigious films by William Wyler,  George Cukor,  Sydney Pollack and even  Walter Hill. As a director his biggest picture is likely 1956’s The Wild Party with Anthony Quinn and Carol Ohmart. Most of Horner’s directing credits are on television, as with episodes of World of Giants.

 Capsule reviews of the show were often vaguely positive. In 1952, many journalists avoided statements that might elicit reader complaints about Proper Ganders. Red Planet Mars now plays as an earnest but naïve miscalculation presented with overheated save-the-world dramatics, bogus science, and some very skewed politics. The tacky Christian martyrdom theme puts the film into the Faith-based territory of Biblical tracts like The Robe.

Looking at the film in another way, is the story of the Cronyns an early manifestation of the ‘Oppenheimer’ syndrome?  Linda Cronyn insists that science is not good for families and children, and that guilty men of science must atone for treading on God’s domain.

That anti-science message would be preposterous, were it not now a core political belief of a growing percentage of Americans.

 


 

The MGM/Create Space (Amazon) Blu-ray of Red Planet Mars is a very good encoding that looks to be from the same HD remaster done years ago that used to air regularly on the now-defunct MGM cable channel. The original film elements have likely been left undisturbed since the movie was new. Has the film image been slightly over-scanned? — the lettering of a couple of newspaper titles is slightly clipped.

The simple menu has a ‘play’ button and a toggle for the removable English subtitles. 11 chapter stops are included. The lettering on the cover is so dark that the film’s title barely stands out. But hey — we wanted a good Blu-ray for this show, and now we’ve got one.

The disc carries no extras. It really could have used a good commentary, although key source info on the film is not easy to find. In his book Religion in the Cinema, Ivan Butler touches base with The Next Voice You Hear… but not this film. It may not have been distributed in England.

This new MGM Blu-ray is part of a plain-wrap ‘Create Space’ product line, some titles of which seem to have been passed over by outside disc companies. Some of American-International’s remaining ‘beach party’ movies are in this MGM list, but also some pictures we’d think would have had plenty of takers, like Go Tell the Spartans. Red Planet Mars is a genuine holdout. Almost all of the vintage United Artists horror and science fiction movies for which MGM has home video rights have been heavily exploited; the ones still MIA on authorized discs would seem to be Winston Jones’s  UFO and Paul Landres’  The Flame Barrier. Voodoo Island and Pharaoh’s Curse arrived on DVD but as of yet, not on authorized Blu-ray.

 Maybe it’s time to jettison the old 1990’s United Artists Sci-Fi Matinee laserdisc — no, the packaging is too attractive.

 The film’s famously misleading key poster art is not particularly attractive. What is one to do with this oversized Red Planet Mars poster, printed in sections?  Does the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena maybe want to hang it in a hallway?

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Red Planet Mars
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Strange
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 13, 2024
(7079mars)

*  The President does pay lip service to ‘those other religions,’ but the Word from Mars is 100% Christian.

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Text © Copyright 2024 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Katherine Turney

Thank you for the article. It’s about time for this one. It would also be nice to be able to find out more about MGM/Create Space to see what other titles are upcoming.

Mike LaBorde

Since Amazon now owns MGM, are these releases really Amazon ones? Does anyone know?

Kevin Deany

Director Harry Horner is also the father of the late film composer James Horner.

Jeffrey Nelson

They should have hired you to do a commentary for this nutball film, and paid you for the use of your poster for the cover art instead of that horrible garbage they ended up using.

Paul Zahl

This review is so pervasively hostile to Christianity. I mean, “Red Planet Mars” is a small ‘blip on the screen’ within the history of the medium, but you “rave on” about it with animus and almost no humor. What harm, in the long run of things, did this odd once-off movie ever do?

Walter Peterson

Yes, I detected the same condescension.

Jim

Yep. Sigh.
“That anti-science message would be preposterous, were it not now a core political belief of a growing percentage of Americans.”
Yet nowadays, the predominantly anti-science, anti-biology, anti-common sense messages aren’t coming from Christians.

Jenny Agutter fan

So does this god like movies about gladiators? (I immediately thought of that line when I saw Peter Graves)

trackback

[…] Beware, My Lovely was finished almost two years before its release in 1952, just as was Ryan & Lupino’s On Dangerous Ground. Without heavy promotion, its audience was the crowd likely to respond to its lurid poster art — the title sounds like something from Mickey Spillane, not a sensitive psychological drama. The delay did no favors for Horner, either. It was the former production designer’s first feature as director, but his second-directed show was released first, the strange political science fiction film Red Planet Mars. […]

Barry Lane

Not at all a grand entertainment but talky beyond acceptance. On the other hand, there are at least three great male performances, Peter Graves, Walter Sande and in an unbilled cameo, Tom Keene as General Burdette He was always welcome, especially to relieve a moment or two of pretentious boredom.

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