Movie: Flight to Mars (1951)

The mock-religion The Church of the SubGenius employs as its primary symbol a clip art image of the stereotypical ideal of the 1950’s American male, complete with pipe clenched between teeth.  I kept thinking of this image every time the eerily similar Arthur Franz appears on screen during 1951’s Flight to Mars.  He is like the living embodiment of the SubGenius savior Bob Dobbs, including the ever-present pipe.

Yes, this is the kind of movie where people smoke on-board a rocket on its maiden voyage to the red planet.  The characters even wear what is essentially their street clothes.  I was surprised to see a female scientist among the crew (Virginia Huston), but she wears a skirt throughout the trip.  I guess it’s a good thing the artificial gravity is working on the ship, lest things get too interesting.

The main characters even get picked up at home by hired car and brought directly to the launchpad minutes before takeoff, and I wondered if NASA has ever considered doing that.  One thing that agency should be teaching astronauts is how to throw a decent punch, since that is the skill most frequently employed in this kind of fare.

Cameron Mitchell is the one with the quick fists here, as a PR guy who is inexplicably part of the crew.  I guess the thinking behind this picture is people who are smart can’t be decent fighters, so you need to have somebody who isn’t an egghead or a girl, just for the inevitable skirmish. 

The landing on Mars is hilarious.  They don’t have enough fuel to do a controlled descent, so they decide to crash land.  Actually, they slam right into a cliff, just like the plane on the cover the Beastie Boys’ License to Ill.  Something I found gut-bustingly hilarious is how the vessel just comes to an abrupt stop when it smacks into a rock wall.  Defying all logic, it is relatively unscathed from the incident.

The crew is outfitted in what appear to be leather bomber jackets when they go explore their surroundings.  I found this fascinating since Mars is cold–vastly colder than what people clad in such a manner could endure.  They also wear oxygen masks, which is a good idea, even if I doubt that would be adequate, either, since there is still the little matter of drastically lower air pressure to consider.

They are greeted by a group of Martians who look perfectly human, something which is not speculated about.  They also speak English courtesy of a development I thought was interesting: they’ve been intercepting our radio and TV signals for years.  In their Martian spacesuits, each one a different pastel color, they look like nothing less than Teletubbies.  I wonder if there is a connection between those preschool TV pals (which had television screens in their tummies) with Martians who dress to look like them (and learned our language from TV signals).

The locals are very friendly on the surface but, in covert meetings, they talk about how their planet is dying and they need to invade Earth.  Those factions don’t want the humans to return home, lest they possibly give some advance warning of a Martian invasion. An invasion the visitors don’t know anything about. 

So there’s some intrigue involving a few Martians genuinely helping the Earthlings repair their rocket, while others are committing acts of sabotage while only pretending to help.  Why they found this ruse necessary was beyond me, except there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise.  In my opinion, they should just kill the humans immediately, disassemble their craft for parts, and invade Earth.  Job done.

Assisting Franz in engineering the repairs is a local played by Marguerite Chapman.  She makes the most of a rather thin role.  It’s no surprise these two fall in love, and I would have loved to have seen them try to consummate their romance, as I imagine they would discover some manner of incompatible parts. 

To be fair, the two other main women in this are pretty sharp, though to different ends.  Lucille Barkley is a spy for Mars-first bunch.  Huston’s character is probably the smartest of the three but the actress is saddled with the worst personality.  She spends most of the journey there seducing Mitchell in an attempt to make Franz jealous.  You can imagine how well she responds to Franz and Chapman becoming an item.  Oh, and this is her line when the group is shown to their living quarters: “Where’s the kitchen?”

I want to briefly mention the sets for the underground Martian world.  While nobody will mistake anything here for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, there is much that has a certain naïve charm.  We get a brief glimpse of a “cityscape” that, at the risk of appearing condescending, I found awfully cute.  An unusual visual aspect that dominates the set design is walls set at 45-degree angles.  That looks neat but seems like poor utilization of space. 

Even the opening credits are as interesting as they are unusual.  The very first shot is of a man looking into the eyepiece of a huge telescope.  We cut to a shot of stars we assume he’s looking at, except giant text bearing the title shoots out at us from the distance.  So, is this astronomer actually watching the opening credits through a telescope?

I have seen better movies than Flight to Mars that attempt to depict such a journey in a quasi-realistic manner, but I have also seen worse ones.  It is solidly a product of its time, where a newspaper man who talks with his fists flies to Mars with a catty woman and her would-be boyfriend who seems to be surgically attached to his pipe.  And they fly through the cosmos in a wobbly rocket whose exhaust drifts upwards, suggesting there is gravity in open space.

Dir: Lesley Selander

Starring Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Marguerite Chapman

Watched on Film Detective blu-ray