1952 was a pretty thin year for sci-fi films. Red Planet Mars (RPM) is one of the few sci-fi feature films. RPM, like the 1997 film Contact, focuses on radio messages as our first form of contact. (Rather than invasion) Where the atheist Carl Sagan had Jodie Foster make contact with Carl's "god" -- a benign new-age "consciousness," the writers of RPM imagined contacting Mars and maybe the biblical God. RPM was plainly anti-communist, but at least it was couched in a sci-fi story. Many in the anti-red genre, such as Red Menace ('49), were unadorned dramas about commies trying to subvert America.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Cronyn (played by Peter Graves) is picking up radio signals from Mars. He's using a special "hydrogen valve" radio set based on captured nazi plans. The former Nazi, Franz Calder, who invented the hydrogen valve, is secretly bankrolled by the Soviets. He's set up in the Andes mountains. Messages come in telling of economic marvels -- of martians feeding thousands with a single acre, etc. This causes riot and economic upheaval in western nations. Then messages come through that the martians worship God. This sparks the faithful to overthrow their various communist regimes. Despite the labor trouble, the West enters an era of faith and peace.
An avalanche destroys Calder's lab, but he shows up later at Cronyn's lab claiming to have sent the messages himself, to destroy the West's economy and the Soviets' empire. He then planned to tell all in order to destroy the faith the religious messages spawned. Cronyn and his wife decide that Calder must be stopped. They open the hydrogen valve, willing to die to stop Calder and preserve the new peace. At the last minute, the receiver begins to crackle. A new message comes in from Mars and obviously NOT Calder. Outraged, Calder shoots the CRT, sparking the huge hydrogen-fueled explosion. Faith and peace prevail.
Why is this movie fun
The plot premise is pretty deep for a B-movie. What if we DID receive signals from extraterrestrials, or perhaps God himself, and they affirmed the morality and ethics of the Bible? What would mankind do? There's a discrepancy between Calder's log of fake messages HE sent, and what Cronyn received. Mistranslation? Divine intervention? Was Calder lying about transmitting fake messages and just trying to bluff and take the credit as a last grasp at self-glory? Pretty deep stuff for a B-movie.
The script is well paced, and the plot twists work well. The acting is pretty good too. Peter Graves is young, but does okay. Herbert Berghof does a great job with the shifty/evil Calder. Morris Ankrum is in his usual role as stern authority figure: in this case Secretary of Defense.
Cold War Angle
This is very blatant. The Soviets are the evil, merciless, anti-christian empire. They get overthrown by a popular uprising of the faithful. Early in the movie, Mrs. Cronyn voices the mood of the Cold War citizen. Chris Cronyn asks his wife why she's so fearful about him making radio contact with Mars.
Linda: "The whole world's scared. Every woman in the world. We all live in fear. Fear. It's become our natural state. Fear our sons will have to fight another war. Or fear they'll face worse. We've lived on the edge of a volcano all our lives. One day, it has to boil over."
After Chris tries to comfort her about science offering peaceful answers, she retorts, "Don't you understand? Science has made this volcano we're sitting on." A reference to atomic bombs.
Religious Tone -- Christian elements are woven throughout the movie, just to underscore the point that the Free World has religion while the Commies are "godless". For instance, Calder's secret Andean radio hut is set under a big statue of Jesus. His cryptic clue to his Soviet sponsors was: "To find me, you'll have to find Christ." Quite the taunt to godless communists (who found him anyhow).
There is an interesting little scene near the end, in which Calder scoffs at the Cronyn's faith in God. He quotes Milton. "Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven." Calder doesn't deny God's existence, but says he worships Lucifer. "God may have won that battle (kicking Lucifer out of heaven), but I will win this one..." (A devil-worshipping Nazi is pure archetypal villain -- easy to hate.)
The movie ends with American leaders musing reverently over the last recorded message fragment from Mars (or God himself): "Ye have done well, my good..." The President finishes the message, quoting from Matthew 25:23 as he addresses Congress. "Well done, good and faithful servant...enter thou into the joy of thy lord." This is followed by a montage of congregations singing and praying, culminating with a zoom shot out the oval office window which stops with the window mullions forming a Christian cross on the screen. The words "The Beginning" fade up.
Now, such an ending will probably drive today's atheist into a rage, but the VERY religious tone is historically noteworthy. Where The Day the Earth Stood Still was subtly religious, RPM is blatantly so. No doubt, the national mood surrounding the high-McCarthy-era provides much of the motivation. Since the communists were godless, to proclaim freedom and patriotism, godliness needed to be cranked waaaay up. RPM must be watched with its own cultural context in mind.
Proof Piece -- The House Committee on Un-American Activities had leveled the charge on Hollywood that they were pro-communist and producing films that promoted communism. The dreaded "Black Lists" resulted. Most of the studios quickly produced a movie or two that were obviously anti-communist, to prove the HUAC charges didn't apply to them. RPM was United Artists' offering.
You Can't Handle the Proof -- What would the modern world do if SETI (for instance) did get a message affirming what's written in the Bible? Our modern world has gotten so accustomed to belieiving whatever anyone darn well wants to (so long as it's not God), that having anyone settle that debate would be seen as violating someone's civil rights. What would we do with such a message? We'd probably have chaos and riots too.
Bottom line? RPM will disappoint people who require saucers, aliens or laser battles. All the "action" takes place on earth -- most of it is dialogue. We never see any martians, just flickering lines on a CRT as messages are received. RPM is more of a thought-provoking film than an action thriller. There's a timelessness to RPM which most 50s B-movies don't have. It's premise still works.