Red Planet Mars (1952) ***˝
The subject of science fiction in the 1950’s has been written about from pretty much every possible angle over the years since the decade’s close, but there is one important aspect of it that I’ve never seen pursued (except in the context of the near-subliminal symbolism in The Day the Earth Stood Still). Especially during the early 50’s, religion was almost as important to Hollywood sci-fi as science itself. Witness the frequent arguments over the immortal soul between the scientists in The Colossus of New York; the sermons of thanksgiving that dot The Day the World Ended like the pustules on its mutant’s skin; the act of divine intervention that sends the spaceship to Mars instead of the Moon in Rocketship X-M. Or to take the most jarring and prominent example of all, the coda to War of the Worlds, which implies with a straight face that God invented germs expressly to protect humankind from extraterrestrial invasion! (This is neither the time nor the place to get into a discussion of how that coda sidesteps the philosophically vital point that the Martians themselves must certainly be God’s creatures too…) There is one such movie, though, about which it is simply impossible to say anything without directly addressing the issue of religion— 1952’s Red Planet Mars.
Red Planet Mars is one of the most purely cerebral films in the genre, with barely any onscreen action and almost none of the usual special effects spectacle. Instead, it concerns itself entirely with ideas, particularly with the notion that humanity in the mid-20th century had, for all practical purposes, deified technological progress and the scientific thinking that makes it possible, elevating the man in the white lab coat nearly to the rank of false messiah. Our central characters are a husband-and-wife team of scientific researchers, Chris and Linda Cronyn (Peter Graves, of Killers from Space and The Beginning of the End, and Andrea King, from The Beast with Five Fingers and Blackenstein, respectively). They both work in the telecommunications field, and are currently engaged in a project to send radio signals to Mars using a cutting-edge signal-enhancing device called a hydrogen valve. One night, when an astronomer friend of theirs shows them some astonishing telescopic photos of Mars, they believe they may have succeeded. Comparison between pictures taken that night and another set taken a week before— right when the Cronyns began transmitting— suggest that the Red Planet harbors not just intelligent life, but a civilization of vast technological achievement. Not only that, the Cronyns soon begin receiving signals which repeat their own transmissions; a mathematical analysis of the lag time between their transmissions and their reception of the Martian signals proves that the latter are more than just echoes bouncing off the planet’s surface.
With such unambiguous evidence coming in that the project is successful, it isn’t long before the US government gets involved. The Cronyns receive a visit from Admiral Bill Carey (Walter Sande, of Invaders from Mars and The Navy vs. the Night Monsters), an officer whose early career in the service had been as a code-breaker— in fact, it was he who cracked one of the most important Japanese codes during World War II. Carey’s mission is to help the scientists figure out a way to communicate with the Martians, rather than just shooting the same signal back and forth at each other. But in the end, it is neither Carey nor the Cronyns who makes the big breakthrough, but rather the scientists’ boy-genius elder son (Orley Lindgren). While fixing himself some dessert out in the kitchen, Stewart hits upon the idea of using pi as an ice-breaker. The Cronyns can transmit the number’s value to several decimal places, breaking off without rounding up at a point in the series where rounding up would be expected. With any luck, the Martians will realize that they are being invited to continue the sequence, and will reply with the appropriate string of digits. Chris Cronyn puts his son’s idea to the test that very evening, with results that are everything he had dreamed of, but hadn’t really dared hope for.
The whole business is not nearly so clear-cut for Linda Cronyn, however. She’s been thinking ever since the efforts to contact Mars began, and she has come to the conclusion that scientific progress maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Every major advance that has taken place since the first caveman figured out that certain rocks would shatter into razor-sharp flakes if you bashed them together just right brought with it tremendous social dislocations. Not only have we as a species demonstrated an enormous talent for funneling the bounty of science into an assortment of ever more efficient ways to slaughter one another, we have also paid a heavy price for each advance in less obvious coin. Each time a new way of doing things is developed, old ways are driven to extinction, and with them the livelihoods of thousands of people who earned their keep in the obsolete industries. Assuming that the Martians’ society and technology really do represent a significant advance over ours, what havoc might it wreak when Martian ideas find their way to Earth? Nobody brings up this particular case in the film itself, but consider the social disturbances that resulted when the American Indians were introduced to European horses, weaponry, and intoxicants. With that in mind, are we sure that we really want to talk to Mars?
Meanwhile, in the Andes, events are transpiring that suggest that Linda’s worries are not unfounded. In a tiny shack on the side of a remote peak, a German scientist named Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof) operates a homemade laboratory containing primitive versions of much of the same gear that the Cronyns have been using. Calder, you see, invented the hydrogen valve while he was in the employ of the Third Reich; he was tried and condemned as a war criminal, but was rescued from prison by agents of the Soviet Union, who have much use for his talents. Calder has also been trying to contact Mars, and though he has enjoyed no success of his own (Russian electronics weren’t exactly the envy of the world in 1952, you know), he has been able to intercept all of the transmissions sent and received by the Cronyn lab— in effect, to read the Cronyns’ mail. This ability is of little value now, while the Cronyns and their Martian correspondents are just trading mathematical formulas, but once enough data has exchanged hands to establish a firm basis for communication, the power to eavesdrop on the conversation will be very desirable indeed.
Eventually, Chris Cronyn believes he has laid sufficient groundwork to begin asking some real questions. The first thing he wants to know is how long, on average, the Martians live. The answer— about 300 Earth-years— causes a panic in the insurance industry and sends the folks in charge at the Social Security Administration into a tizzy. The subsequent revelation that the Martians power their entire civilization by harnessing the energy of cosmic rays sends similar shockwaves rippling through America’s coal, oil, and electric companies. Ditto for the farmers when they learn that Martian agriculture is sufficiently advanced that 1000 of their people can be fed for a year on the output of half an acre of land. Within a week, the entire economic structure of the Western world is in shambles, as the captains of industry race to get out of businesses which they see as being moribund in the face of the advances that Martian science will soon introduce.
And that, my friends, brings us back to the Russians. Arjenian (Marvin Miller, who later supplied the voice of Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy), the KGB agent who has been serving as Calder’s liaison to Moscow, has kept his masters apprised of everything the Martians have told Cronyn. And while Arjenian’s boss, General Borodin (John Topa), doesn’t necessarily think it’s a good idea, there is a movement gathering steam in the Central Committee to take advantage of the emerging economic crisis by going to war immediately with the West. But the Russians have yet to hear the most sensational Martian dispatch of all. When asked by Cronyn how, with all their immensely powerful technology, they have managed not to destroy themselves with war, the Martians reply to the effect that war is not possible amongst them because Mars is ruled directly by God. They even offer a quote from the Sermon on the Mount to prove it.
Well if you thought the reaction to the previous statements from Mars was big, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Suddenly, all of the frantic scrambling for advantage that began with the first Martian bulletin stops in its tracks. All over the world, the greedy and self-interested pause to contemplate the irrefutable new evidence that there really is more to life than the accumulation of wealth. Naturally it is on the far side of the Iron Curtain that the most profound shakeup occurs. Within days, the entire Soviet Union is convulsed by the spontaneous uprising of an intensely faithful people who have been forced for decades to deny God. When the smoke clears and the dust settles, Lenin and his successors are nothing more than a bad memory, and the new provisional government of Russia (led by the Patriarch of Moscow) orders the recall of its military forces from all of Eastern Europe. It seems that both of the Cronyns were right after all— the birth pangs were only slightly less dreadful than Linda had feared, but the new world that arises with the advent of interplanetary contact is more glorious than even in Chris’s wildest imaginings. But Franz Calder knows a secret that could upend the entire edifice…
It may be a bit lacking in dazzle and excitement, but Red Planet Mars is one of the most thought-provoking sci-fi films I’ve ever seen. Of the greatest interest to me is the way it plays up a difference in attitudes that separates the 50’s from the present. To begin with, while something like Red Planet Mars probably could be made today, it would almost certainly wind up as a direct-to-video release from one of the Protestant fundamentalist kook labels that have sprung up in recent years. The corner of the movie industry that spawned The Omega Code and Left Behind is probably the only place where filmmakers and their paymasters wouldn’t be made so uncomfortable by the story’s subject matter that they’d flee from it like roaches before a bright light. But that, in turn, means that one of the most interesting aspects of Red Planet Mars would fall by the wayside— its aggressively inclusive, even syncretic theology. At one point, the president of the United States (Panic in the Year Zero!’s Willis Bouchey) gives a press conference in which he explicitly points out that the moral teachings encapsulated in the Sermon on the Mount as quoted by the Martian transmission underlie all of the major world religions, and that the revelations from Mars can thus in no sense be taken as a specific endorsement of Christianity despite the suggestiveness of certain details of the message. Leaving aside the issue that the president’s claim is a gross overstatement, it is here more than anywhere else in Red Planet Mars that we can see how times have changed. In our more pessimistic age, it seems far more likely that the word that our next-door neighbors in the solar system were ruled directly by God would spark a worldwide bloodbath of free-for-all holy war, as each religious community interpreted the news as a vindication of their own particular faith. After all, a god that can be equally claimed by all religions can be fully claimed by none of them, and I just can’t see the present-day leadership of any religious sect having the courage to stand up and say, “Today we have received incontrovertible proof that God exists, but we have also learned that our teachings have been in error on the following points…” In the 50’s, though— at least in America— the details of doctrine had waned in importance; indeed, I rather doubt that most Americans of that generation could give you any coherent statement of what, specifically, their religious beliefs were. Moreover, this movie’s take on comparative religion— that every A-list faith in the world can be boiled down to the simple admonition, “Don’t be a dick, and you’ll get into heaven”— was very much a mainstream idea in 1950’s America, even if it represents a rather blinkered understanding of the world’s non-Abrahamic religions. It’s another example of how the 50’s were a much more hopeful era than the one we live in now. A god who insists that humans treat each other well, but who doesn’t give a shit about what you eat, which direction you face when you pray to him, or how many sub-beings you want to divide him up into has become a threatening and subversive idea again, almost as much so for many people as it was in the Middle Ages. But 50 years ago, the makers of Red Planet Mars were ready to believe that all of humanity would rush to embrace just such a deity.