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Monday, October 8, 2007

Flight to Mars

This little movie is actually a gem of a B-movie. Monogram was a B studio, but they put a lot into Flight to Mars (FTM). For one thing, it's in color. They put more than usual into the sets. It's still a B-movie, but it's a B+. The plot is derived from Alexsei Tolstoy's novel Aelita but drew from the book more than from the 1924 movie, which was also (loosely) based on the book. It's more of an adventure than political commentary. Most of the action takes place on Mars. The pacing fairly brisk, for a B movie. Despite using several B-movie cliches, the overall effect works pretty well.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Several scientists (including the requisite one woman) and a reporter take off on an exploratory mission to Mars. The ship is damaged by meteors (which just always seems to happen) such that they have to crash land on Mars. They survive, but the ship is too damaged to return. The crew must go EVA in just flight jackets. They find building structures and encounter the Martians (in space suits) who have cities underground. While industrialized and supposedly technologically advanced, the Martians have never figured out space travel, so aren't much help. Their ruler, Ikron, offers to help the earth men build a new ship based on the design of the one they came in. In reality, he plans to imprison the earthlings and take their rocket when their done. He then plans to copy the earth rocket, creating a fleet, by which he can invade and colonize the earth. "Ours is a dying world" he tells the council. Ikron's plot is discovered as the earthlings are aided by the lovely martian babe: Alita. She helps the crew narrowly escape the guards and commandeer the duplicated ship so they can return to earth. Alita and her father (the "good" councilman) return with the earthlings so that they might get help to overthrow the tyrant Ikron. The End..

Why is this movie fun?
Lots of reasons. First off, this is a fresh sort of space adventure unencumbered with Cold War gloom which was already pervading films. The rocket itself is a cool example of 50s thinking. The smoky flames coming out of the model-on-a-string scenes are pure B-film stuff.

The prevailing notion that alien clothes simply had to have a big lightening bolt icon emblazoned on the chest, is fun to see too. Then there are the huge shoulder pads! Where did that come from? Mars, apparently. It's also kind of amusing that alien workers (especially if employed by the bad guy) tended to wear leather with studs, as if re-used from some sword and sandal flicks. Why are advanced technology workers wearing leather vests with studs? There's some quirky social mythology at work there.

And, speaking of costumes, it's fascinating that 1950s directors (and audiences) were so decided that alien women would be pretty, young, tall, leggy and dressed in micro-skirts and very high heels. Space, it seemed, was imagined to be like Las Vegas.

Another fun thing was that there were no space suits for the earthlings! They just went out in leather bomber jackets, caps and oxygen masks. The martians, however, greet them wearing the michelin-man space suits!! (These were left over from Destination Moon.) THAT is an interesting scene. The earthlings are in caps and leather jackets while the aliens are in space suits...on their own planet!

Cold War Angle
Actually FTM has none of the usual Cold War themes. This is, of course, because it was based on a pre-war book, and a Russian one at that. Still, the writers avoided grafting in any Cold War themes, so FTM comes across as more adventure than moralizing.

Forerunner -- If you had seen the 1924 film, Aelita: Queen of Mars you would probably not think of FTM as a remake. They seem like very different stories, except for there being earthlings which land on Mars and find martians. The key female martian in FTM is named Alita. That's about your only clue. In FTM, she's a good guy -- dressed in the appropriate white silky short dress, while the other ("bad") woman gets a dark red short dress with spiky shoulder pads. If you saw the 1924 film, Aelita, you'd see a hint at the rebellion subplot repeated. Viewers are told there are those who oppose Ikron and that he'll be overthrown once Alita and a "good" councilman get to earth with our earthling crew.

Color Me Red -- If you watch FTM, notice the colors. It's shot in CineColor. This two-strip process had more a limited color rendering range than Technicolor's three-strip, but was much cheaper. It was something like 20% more expensive than black and white, and required less lighting, so it wasn't out of the realm for a small studio like Monogram. Since CineColor captured colors using a blue and a red filter, it was good at blues, browns, reds, and flesh tones. CineColor didn't do green or yellow very well. As a result, FTM has a decidedly blue-gray and red-brown coloring. The colors seemed very 50s.

Star Gazing -- For actor-watchers, the venerable Morris Ankrum plays the part of sinister martian ruler: Ikron. Ankrum often plays the role of Army General in these B-films, so it's kinda fun to see him out of uniform and in the role of villain. It looked like he had fun doing it.

Bottom line? FTM is a fun B film. For as early as it came in the Golden Decade of sci-fi, it's a fine space adventure.  The sets and costumes are very much a product of the times. FTM is worth the search to find it.


Darci said...

Re: "1950s directors (and audiences) were so decided that alien women would be pretty"

Am I right that the costumes for Alita and Terris would show up again in World Without End and Queen of Outer Space? Studios like Monogram and Allied Artists (as well as the majors) got their costumes from Western Costume.

Nightowl said...

I'm away from my collection at the moment, but it would be interesting to compare freeze frames from those movies. If not outright costume borrowing, certainly a shared vision of what "alien beauty" would be.

Unknown said...


A minor classic and somewhat underrated film.
The plot line is fairly good.
The acting is very good - especially Morris Ankrum. Ankrum plays a really great bad guy - a lot different than his usual roles in science fiction movies.
The costumes of the female characters worked just right for a boy starting puberty.

It is well worth watching but has an odd ending. They manage to get the door to open in the roof of the rocket ship hangar, then blast off. That's it. I got the feeling that they ran out of film at the end of the movie.
I will watch it again.