Skiffy Flix: Flight to Mars

It’s been a while since I’ve watched and posted about a “skiffy flick,” that is, a science fiction movie from the 1950s, plus or minus a decade, when science fiction movies were very popular — or at least, a lot of them were made — and were mostly about space flight or visiting aliens, and were almost all really bad by any standards of science or even literary science fiction of the time. (My Skiffy Flix page lists those I’ve seen or plan to see, with links to reviews already posted.)

I watched another one this past week, a 1951 film called Flight to Mars. Here’s the Wikipedia description, and my photo of the DVD case:

As with virtually all the films on my list, I’ve seen it at least once before, likely back in the 1990s when a well-stocked video rental store was right around the corner from my Granada Hills house, and over a few years I saw many early science fiction (and horror) films from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, that I had never seen until then. (As well as films by Preston Sturges, whom I’d never heard of before.)

This movie, as so many other movies of that era, illustrate the same issues I discussed in my post about TV and movie physics a couple days ago: how depictions of the universe, and space travel, in those dramatic productions relied on intuitive notions of physics that were almost entirely wrong.

Flight to Mars is about a mission to Mars, launched from Earth, that lands on Mars and discovers a local civilization, of people who look exactly like white men and who speak English. (The Martians have listened to Earth’s radio transmissions, or somesuch, to learn the language, fortunately the language of the country launching the expedition to Mars.) Once on Mars, the Earth astronauts are welcomed by the locals, until the locals realize — their planet dying for lack of some element called “corium” or somesuch — that they can pretend to help the humans return to Earth, while actually plotting to take over and invade the Earth. The plot is silly, and the interest instead is the many ways the movie reveals the same kind of intuitive assumptions discussed in my earlier post, or exhibits the kinds of cliches about other planets and their cultures that we’ve seen in so many other skiffy movies.

The plot outline is on the Wikipedia page. So without reproducing that, exactly, I’ll just list the comments that I noted as I watched the movie.

  • The opening shot is of a couple men standing by an enormous telescope. Is this an echo of the final shot of Things to Come?
  • Opening scenes are set at the Pentagon, where news about this voyage to Mars is released to the world via a teletype machine.
  • Among the crew will be a reporter, Steve Abbott. There is an issue about how his reports will get back to Earth; it’s spelled out that he will use ‘space cylinders’ launched from the spaceship back to Earth to send these reports. (Why wouldn’t radio work?)
  • There is some acknowledgement that personal reasons drive the crew (the word ‘astronaut’ is not used), not pure science; e.g. being the first to climb a tall mountain.
  • And there is some interesting dialogue about ‘isolationists’ vs. ‘interventionists’ concerning the idea of trying to contact other civilizations.
  • One crew member is female. The men speculate she’s here for a date.
  • The men smoke cigarettes and pipes — even once aboard the spaceship, and later on Mars.
  • The spaceship is your standard rocket ship, with stairs and ladders inside leading the crew quarters at the top. The crew wear flight suits (as jet pilots would wear) and even hats, as men wore in the 1950s.
  • The crew, for takeoff, lie on bunk cots, and wear belts. Wikipedia notes that sets from Rocketship X-M (1950, released a year and a half before this film) were reused and slightly redressed.
  • Two days after liftoff the crew notes that it will be “10 to 12 hours until we’re out of orbit of the moon,” which is nonsense. They all walk around the main deck as if experiencing gravity; earlier it was claimed that a gyro would keep them ‘vertical.’
  • Passing the Moon (as if they needed to, heading for Mars?) is a menace; their gravity gauge goes wild; they fire their rockets to get safely pass the Moon (all nonsense).
  • Aside: there should be a term for the mistaken notion that, since various celestial objects are farther and farther away from Earth, they will all be passed while heading outward into space. As if they are all lined up. Which they are not.)
  • The Pentagon loses contact. (Why??)
  • The crew engages in some philosophical chit-chat, while drinking cups of coffee. Will they get back to Earth? Apparently they hadn’t thought through whether that was part of the plan, or they were leaving it to luck. They speak of corpuscles as universes [echoing primitive SF ideas about atoms as solar systems] and whether the smallness ever ends.
  • Red blobs pass by, identified as meteors, and the crew worries about friction.
  • Earth has had no contact for 48 hours. (Why?? Why is there this assumption that radio would give out after a time? Nor do the filmmakers seem aware of the time span that would be involved waiting for radio signals to go from Earth to Mars and back; that idea is beyond their conception.)
  • The crew sees Mars ahead, and anticipates “orbit of Mars” in two days. Carol, the female crewperson, uses a slide rule. A subplot begins about one of the male crewmen kissing her as a ‘lady scientist,’ potentially setting up a rivalry.
  • The launch of the first message rocket goes wrong, causing damage to the ship, to the landing gear. They have to crash land — or return to Earth. They decide to land.
  • The rocket, a long needle-nosed thing, flies over mountain ranges and then crashes into an embankment of sand at the base of a mountain, triggering an avalanche, half-covering them. But the rocket remains perfectly intact, in a way no real rocket, or airplane, ever would.
  • The crew emerge from their rocket and see evidence of a city nearby. They wear oxygen masks, but otherwise only flight suits. [It was not known until over a decade later that we understood that humans would not be able to walk around on Mars without space suits. Thus Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and many others.]
  • The crew from Earth wonder if what they see are monuments from an extinct species — until a group of humanoid figures comes around a corner to greet them. They’re the ones wearing colorful suits with globular helmets (as seen on the DVD cover above). These Martians seem just like humans; and they speak perfect English (of course) via listening to radio broadcasts from Earth. One of the five is Ikron, the planetary president (who would be on a first contact party just as Captain Kirk was always among the beam-down party).
  • The humans are taken inside the Martian underground city, which is vast (again, recalling Things to Come), with huge domed spaces, monorails, and angled walls (later copied by Trek episodes like “A Taste of Armageddon”). The Martians are all old white men, though later we see one of their daughters.
  • A conference between both sides is held, until the humans are escorted to their quarters. Carol, the female crewman from Earth, asks to see the kitchen (!) but is told their food will be automatically delivered, from food labs.
  • A couple female Martian escorts wear silly costumes, with skimpy skirts, pointed bosoms, and high heals. 1960s Trek did not do much better.
  • The humans are soon given local clothing. The Martian leaders wear clothes with lightning bolt and rocket icons, as aliens would.
  • The story splits around here, as we see scenes with the humans on the one hand, alternated with scenes with the English-speaking Martians. The Martians are aware that their planet is dying, and so they secretly plan to invade the Earth, and so plan to pretend to help the humans repair their rocket, then take control of it at the last moment to stage their invasion.
  • And so the Earth rocket is somehow brought into this underground city, where it stands upright beneath a dome, and undergoes repair. There are scenes of subterfuge as Martian spies, pretending to assist the human in a skimpy blue outfit, reports her finding back to the council. And so on.
  • And so on. The humans perceive the Martian plot, yet manage to finish repairs to their rocket, while pretending they won’t be done in another couple weeks. And then, sneak their luggage on board! Since the rocket just happens to be positioned a few steps from their living quarters. And they take a couple Martian friends with them, since otherwise the Martians will die within 10 years, their supply of corium almost exhausted.
  • The rocket blasts off, through that dome. Final shot: Earth, in the distance.

It would be difficult to elaborate they many ways this movie is awful, both in dramatic and scientific terms, though it’s not that much more awful than other skiffy movies of this era. Their awfulness, especially for their wrong-headed intuitive scientific premises, are what fascinated me about them. Yet I wonder if my posts here are doing something similar to what Mystery Science Theater did for so many years, but it’s a show I’ve heard about but never watched. (Perhaps I should see if that show covered this movie and see what it said?)

Also, you watch these old corny movies, and you see where so many premises of the 1960s Star Trek came from. Especially the assumption that aliens would speak English (yes, yes, via some “universal translator”), and how alien races were depicted as being variations of human cultures, and easily mapped to the conflicts of the 1960s.

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