It’s a review. No, it’s a rant. Stop, you’re both right. CineSavant’s overt mission is to demonstrate that old movies, especially old Science Fiction movies, are more relevant than ever. There is at present no authorized home video release of this amazing 1952 politico-religious pretzel of a movie. The surprise is that it accurately presages the media hysteria that underpins our present day Info Wars. Fake News comes from the sky, and a major world revolution results — for the better? Will religious fundamentalism rule all? This may be the most radical faith-based picture ever made.
Red Planet Mars
Revival Screening Review
Not on DVD
1952 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 87 min.
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. Balderson, Anthony Veiller from a play by Balderson and John Hoare
Produced by Donald Hyde, Anthony Veiller
Directed by Harry Horner
The idea to revisit this favorite old curiosity was motivated by an Easter L.A. Times article about new faith-based movies. Worthy and unworthy pictures promoting church values have always been around, but only now are some achieving major success. They only become sinister when the religious messages are mixed with political propaganda.
Propaganda is probably not the right word, as most every movie promotes a political point of view. Just by showing what it considers a normal state of affairs, even innocuous movies reinforce the status quo. When American films conformed to the Production Code, all of Hollywood was a de facto message machine directed by a few moral guardians proffering prevailing church values. Non- Judeo-Christian messages were discouraged. In 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, special dialogue assured viewers that even an extraterrestrial visitor worshipped a familiar life-giving Creator. The homogenized politics of American movies helped enforce the illusion of a consensus culture, i.e., the ‘good old days.’
But there was no prohibition of radical Christian messages. In the political distress of the Great Depression, a few movies mixed religion and conservative politics. Gabriel Over the White House (1933) concerns a corrupt President, miraculously revived from an auto accident, who is inspired by a heavenly angel. He cures the country’s ills by assuming benign dictatorial powers. During the Cold War, three of the most extreme examples of religious-political movies were science fiction fantasies. One of the more controversial MGM pictures of 1950 was William Wellman’s The Next Voice You Hear, a strange parable in which the voice of God (unheard) speaks to all mankind on the radio.
The more obscure Red Planet Mars came and went quickly in 1952. Rather than risk a critique of the show’s controversial content, Variety’s review dismissed it as ‘a confused futuristic story’ and ‘a fantastic concoction . . . that attempts to throw in everything but the kitchen sink.’ In plain words, Red Planet Mars is a pro-Christian anti-Communist sci-fi melodrama that dramatizes the daydream desire for God to appear from outer space to solve all of our earthly problems. It foresees the salvation of mankind when futuristic technology discovers proof that God exists. It advocates the conversion of the United States to an outright Christian theocracy. Despite its title, and poster graphics depicting a futuristic Martian city, the film takes place entirely in a few earthbound settings.
Released by United Artists, the independent production was made by industry professionals with impressive credits. It is based on a 1932 Broadway play “Red Planet” written by J.E. Hoare and John L. Balderston, a noted playwright associated with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein franchises. According to Janne Wass’s review at the site Scifist, the original play is about a radio message from Mars that ignites a plague of commercial opportunism in London. A charlatan takes over as the world’s new leader, before it is revealed that the messages are fakes. The Internet Broadway Database says only that the play’s stars were Bramwell Fletcher and Valerie Taylor, and that it closed after seven performances. Wass thinks the play may have been a social satire, not a straightforward story of the power of faith.
The film version exploits a number of political anxieties of the early postwar years. Total victory brought not peace but a hostile confrontation with Communist regimes noted for suppressing religious freedom. Although America’s power and influence was at an all-time high, the public felt threatened from abroad and betrayed from within. Americans wishing that the complexities of postwar politics would just go away, turned for relief to the politically conservative sermons broadcast over their new television sets. As documented in the insightful documentary The Atomic Cafe, some of these fundamentalist broadcasters openly advocated annihilating our ‘Godless’ communist enemies. It was the beginning of a political outlook based entirely on fear and hate.
Although the story of Red Planet Mars takes place in the near future, most of what we see looks like contemporary 1952. Being good Christians, radio researchers Chris and Linda Cronyn (Peter Graves & Andrea King) desire a better world for their two young boys. An astronomer shows them photographic proof that Martians must exist, because they are using canals to irrigate their crops with water from the planet’s polar ice cap. Using a special ‘hydrogen valve’ confiscated from the Nazis, the Cronyns have been beaming radio messages at Mars, hoping for an answer. Monitored by Navy signals expert Admiral Carey (Walter Sande), they transmit a mathematical code to Mars. A few minutes later, a logical response proves that they’ve contacted intelligent life. Soon they’re receiving and decoding astonishing revelations that are re-broadcast around the world. The Martian lifespan is three hundred years. Martian agriculture is advanced far beyond ours. They’ve tapped something called ‘cosmic energy’ as a source of unlimited power.
The effect of the Mars messages is almost instantaneous. 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.
As it turns out, the signals from Mars are a fraud. Their actual source is a remote lab in the Andes. Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof), the Nazi scientist who invented the hydrogen valve, is purposely fabricating fake messages as a proto- disinformation campaign to cripple the economy of the countries that defeated Germany. His sponsor is the Soviet Union. Russian spymaster Arjenian (Marvin Miller) is delighted with the disinformation scheme, but Calder hates him too. The U.S. is not even aware that Calder is alive.
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’ — when Jesus walked. Declaring that ‘Now we’re following the star of Bethlehem,’ the President releases the Christian-themed messages to the public. Millions flock to churches. The news is also broadcast on Voice of America behind the Iron Curtain. Millions of Russian peasants retrieve long-hidden Eastern Orthodox artifacts and rise up in demonstrations against the Kremlin.
An avalanche wipes out Calder’s lab. Although the messages from Mars cease, the popular uprising overturns the Soviet government. A priest takes charge in the Kremlin. Churches reopen. All world conflict comes to an end as Russia’s armies stand down.
The Cronyn family is celebrating the birth of what is now called The Blessed Generation when Franz Calder shows up at their guarded radio observatory to reveal what he has done. Calder boasts of his intention to reveal his hoax so that the world will once again fall into secular chaos. Chris and Linda realize that the only way to stop this modern anti-Christ is to ignite the unstable hydrogen valve and become martyrs for the new age of Christian peace. Yet, at the last moment, a genuine message comes through from Mars . . .
At a first viewing the outlandish Red Planet Mars takes one’s breath away: God is alive and well and living on Mars. The anti-Communist propaganda message is that the solution to the world’s problems is universal Christian fundamentalism. As with many faith-based storylines, Faith is taken as an absolute good. Even if belief is based on a lie, the belief justifies itself.
The movie assumes that its audience will agree that Communists are vile, godless villains, and that, if only they were eliminated, all Earthly political problems would cease. The Soviet Premier is a bloodthirsty despot eager to shoot dissidents and execute underlings that bring bad news. Linda Cronyn’s exaggerated position speeches advocate more radical, wildly inconsistent opinions. She argues that science is evil and will advance mankind to oblivion. She says that the present state has made all women afraid for the future. She initially believes that contacting Mars is a big mistake. After all, “Mars means war.”
Headline montages and TV reports come across a wall-mounted flat screen monitor, which is perhaps the film’s only futuristic touch. The public initially blames the Cronyns for the nation’s plunge into economic chaos. The masses then flock to worship when the Mars messages turn religious. 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.’
The most intriguing theme that emerges from Red Planet Mars today is the use of media to influence populations. The Russians delight when the evil Calder’s disinformation campaign disrupts America’s economy. The U.S. Government strikes back with the religious messages from Mars, and the effect is an instantaneous religious counter-revolution against the Communists. Whoever can monopolize what the eyes and ears of a nation see and hear 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.
Variety was correct in calling the show confused, as the screenplay fails to clarify exactly which Mars messages are genuine and which are Fake News. The abrupt plot reversals at the climax allow viewers to come away with the impression that all the Mars messages are fakes. 1952 was an election year, and Variety also noted that Red Planet Mars may have been trying to influence the outcome: the actor Willis Bouchey, playing the God-fearing President, is a dead ringer for Ike. “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 movie is therefore a covert endorsement of the Republican ticket for the November election. 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 a relic of its time, because a sizable minority today advocates just this viewpoint.
The film concludes like 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 as if preaching to a national congregation, declaring the Cronyns’ orphans to be both blessed and fortunate. The last fragment of the authentic Mars signal (which verifies the truth of the others) is, “Ye have done well, my good -“ As the President is never without his Bible, he completes God’s words: “. . . my good and faithful servants.” Let the religious conversion begin.
This cinema- political Sci-fi insanity didn’t begin or end with Red Planet Mars. French silent film genius Abel Gance went overboard with his 1931 La fin du monde (The End of the World). He cast himself as a doomed Christ figure, who preaches that total destruction is coming because mankind hasn’t embraced Christian love. Both the evil stockbroker villain and the benign astronomer hero attempt to sway the masses by monopolizing what is printed in newspapers and spoken on the radio. Several years after Red Planet Mars came John Mantley’s film version of his vicious anti- Communist Sci-fi story The 27th Day. The religious angle is minimized, but the film’s moral solution for the salvation of mankind couldn’t be more distasteful, if the film were propaganda produced in the Soviet Union. An alien weapon is re-programmed and unleashed to simply disintegrate ‘all enemies of human freedom.’ Naturally, all those terrible communists magically disappear, making the finish a barely disguised reverse Rapture. The perverted fairy tale makes Red Planet Mars seem comparatively benign.
Red Planet Mars could be dismissed as kooky nonsense. But it seems highly relevant today in light of the absurd, irrational political extremes — some of them promoted as religious — that are part of our everyday onslaught of distressing news. Our sources of information are dwindling down to a few privately controlled, easily gamed corporate sources, and the new social media are vulnerable to bold disinformation on a mass scale. The principles of democracy have been severely compromised: it can be argued that simple things like Objective Truth and Common Sense Science have become endangered species.
Red Planet Mars has the reputation of an awful movie, an outright dog. For the obvious reason that media executives recognize it as an uncommercial white elephant, it has never shown up on an authorized DVD or Blu-ray. . . although Gary Teetzel reminds me that it was released on VHS, and that I myself have it on Laserdisc, in one of those $100 four-title sets from the 1990s. At present it screens in HD from time to time on the MGM cable channel, and on Turner Classic Movies. It’s a talky but eventful show, competently directed and (for the most part) acted. Peter Graves and Andrea King perform an interesting spin on the perfect ’50s family, the kind with a top-secret interplanetary communications lab in their futuristic guest cottage. True, the verbal debates border on the schizophrenic, but they’re never boring. The show was once easy to laugh off as a nutty aberration, especially the finish with the U.S.A. converted into a Christian theocracy. But considering what is possible (or happening) in today’s political news, the joke is really on us.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Red Planet Mars
not on authorized home video
Reviewed: April 2, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson