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Friday, October 1, 2010

The Wizard of Mars

Easily overlooked in the increasing numbers of sci-fi films released in the mid 60s, The Wizard of Mars (WoM) as a very-low budget indie film that was 20 years behind its time. Some businessmen (vending machine operators, according to Wikipedia) wanted to make films. David L. Hewitt (writer in The Time Travelers agreed to help, acting as producer, writer and director. To his credit, Hewitt was able to get John Carradine, for marquee power. The film itself, however, suffered both from a tiny budget, one-film actors and the usual pitfalls a one-man-show piece is heir to. When released for television, the movie was retitled "Horrors of the Red Planet."

Quick Plot Synopsis
Four astronauts, Captain Steve, Charlie, Doc and Dorothy, are on the first manned orbital mission to Mars. Their task was to orbit and map only. A "freak" storm in space knocks out their control systems. They jettison the "main stage" prevent plummeting to the surface. With only nominal control, they are able to crash land on Mars. Once down, they have only enough battery to radio for help OR open the hatch. Doc persuades them to go out. They do, just before the ship catches fire. They have only enough oxygen for four days. They inflate two rafts and float south down the water-filled canal from the ice cap, following signals they're sure are their main stage. (which contains more O2 and supplies). They encounter some flaccid canal worms, and thick fog. The canal becomes a cave. Now on foot, the four wander through the cave, finding lava pits. They discover a hole back to the surface. There, they wander through a sandy desert, almost out of oxygen. The signals turn out to be a derelict NASA probe. Residual O2 in the probe gives them a couple more days. A sand storm blows through. The storm uncovered golden pavers. A golden road, says Dorothy. They follow it to an ancient and abandoned city on a mesa. Inside, the corridors are all lined with columns. These turn out to be tubes containing the hibernating bodies of the ├╝ber-brainy martians. Through a sort of mind-meld, the martians tell Steve to go into another room. There, John Carradine's head floats, superimposed over various star field photos. He (the "wizard" of the title) is the manifestation of all the martian minds. He talks for a long time, about how his people were the masters of the universe, with a vast empire of a thousand worlds, etc. etc. They even conquered time, managing to pull themselves (in the city) out of time. The eons gave them time to realize that immortality was wrong. Life needs death. Trouble was, they could no longer affect the physical world. The wizard tells Steve what to do to put the city back into regular time. They place a small sphere (containing a model of the city) into the hub of a big pendulum/clcok works. it starts swinging. As time catches up with the city, it begins to crumble. The four astronauts run through the falling debris, finally getting out just before the city disappears. The all fall onto the sand, exhausted. The next moment, they're waking up on board their ship. They're dirty and the men have scruffy beard growth. Mission control calls. They're two minutes overdue for a check in. Two minutes? says Steve. Carradine delivers a few final lines about life and death. Fade to black. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is something very nostalgic about the style. If you look beyond the lame production techniques, there are a few nuggets of thought to muse over.

Cold War Angle
The story is more philosophical about life and mortality than anxiety over commies.

Old School -- The bulk of WoM is reminiscent of travel adventure B films from the 30s and early 40s. Back then, movies were still novel enough that images of different landscapes, caves, deserts, etc. (or exotic animals, for jungle flicks), was enough to keep audiences interested. Some 50s B films, such as Unknown World ('51) used this format, but this was no longer enough. By the mid-60s, it was really not enough.

Talk To Me -- Notable in WoM is Hewitt's screenplay is a heavy reliance on words, and near-total absence of action. Action shots and effects are expensive. Hewitt had some lofty intentions in his story, telling of a highly advanced race who could freeze time for themselves, but came to regard their immortality as a mistake. This part of the story is all delivered mostly in the Wizard's monologuing. The other characters were fairly shallow foils for dialogue. Steve: the brave leader. Doc, the obligatory scientist type. Charlie, the comic relief and Dorothy, the token helpless female. Hewitt's skills as a director and writer would improve, but they're pretty rudimentary in WoM.

Hype For Dollars -- The theatrical poster promised some pretty high-energy stuff. "We Triple Dare You to retain control of your mind as screeching creatures attack your brain!" and much more. Audiences in the mid 60s had seen some pretty impressive sci-fi effects. WoM was probably a major disappointment for them. WoP was a cheap mass-market product designed to make a little money for its investors, then disappear. The investors weren't making art, just a few bucks. That said, it does seem that Hewitt was trying to convey a deeper literary meaning via his story.

A Bit of Baum -- Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz formed only a scant framework for Hewitt to hang a story on. We do have four travelers, one a woman named Dorothy. The do find a yellow (or golden) road and follow it to an unusual city. Inside, they do talk with a projected floating head, and tell it that they just want to go home. As in Oz, it wraps up by being all a dream -- or almost. Sci-fi liked the trope of a time warp to put things back the way they were, in lieu of an actual dream. Hewitt wasn't out to recast the whole Oz story on Mars, however, so trying to parse out which astronaut was the scarecrow, etc. is probably a waste.

Easy Dubs It -- A familiar budget-saving trick in film making was to add the sound track in the studio, post production. One handy thing about having the characters wear their Mercury Program astronaut suits most of the time, is that you could hardly ever see their lips moving within those helmets. Easy dubbing. There are many long shots, or shots with the actors looking away where the dubbing was easy to.

Bottom line? For people who expect high-quality productions in their movies, WoM will be a mind-numbing bore. For people with a more sympathetic view towards the old 30s travel-adventure genre, or a taste for philosophical musing, WoM has a few nuggets.

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