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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Red Planet Mars (1952)

Written by John L. Balderston and Anthony Veiller; from a play by John L. Balderston and John Hoare
Directed by Harry Horner

Peter Graves:  Chris Cronyn
Andrea King:  Linda Cronyn
Herbert Berghof:  Franz Calder
And Morris Ankrum as Secretary of Defense Sparks (wearing a suit, not a dress uniform!)

El Santo of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting got in touch with me in the wake of HubrisWeen, asking if I was interested in tag-teaming the fall of Communism with him. I leapt at the chance, because his reviews are what my film criticism wants to be when it grows up. Of course I was willing to look over some science fiction of the Red Menace years; I'm also hoping to take a close look at a movie that's known by everyone in Germany as a blockbuster success that speaks to both halves of the reunited nation, but is an obscure arthouse comedy here in Americaland.

As of this writing, the Berlin Wall has been down for 25 years. The maps in Europe have been rewritten a time or two and the Soviet Union has been consigned to the ash heap of history. So for the remainder of November I'll be taking a look at Cold War-specific films, which was the original mission statement of this review blog.

Like lots of science fiction of the 1950s, this film starts with a voiceover narration. Unlike most of them that I can recall, Red Planet Mars begins with the narrator saying these are events that haven't happened yet, but soon will. Usually one gets a monologue about radar stations or space stuff instead of a Criswellian prediction. But instead of telling us that future events like these will affect everyone in the future, it's a pretty sedate introduction to the film.

The film then drops the viewer off in the middle of hot science action; Chris Cronyn and his wife Linda are at an observatory being polite to a pair of staggeringly polite astronomers. They discuss the security measures in place at the observatory and one of the scientists gently ribs Chris for thinking he's made radio contact with Mars. The astronomers show a pair of photos taken one week apart to the Cronyns, and even the most cursory analysis of the pictures shows staggering differences between the two exposures. The mountainous ice caps in the older photo are gone in the most recent one, and the canals on Mars are shown full of water (which reflects light in a way that the soil on the planet's surface wouldn't. Needless to say, the amount of energy required to do something like this would be staggering, and it appears that Martian civilization is hugely advanced beyond anything any Earth civilizations could even begin to plan trying to do.

The Cronyns return to their home (where Chris has some kind of electronics lab) and check in on their kids; Linda asks her husband not to send a signal to Mars that night. She's been thinking about the vast destructive energies shown in those photographs of the Martian surface. Her monologue (it's pretty apparent that this was based on a play) references her children and her hope that they won't have to fight another war in the wake of World War Two--nobody tell her about Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Iraq again, okay?--or the even ghastlier possibility that the entire planet will be the final battlefield if the nukes get dropped.

Chris reassures his wife that talking to Mars won't change anything on Earth, at least not right now, and goes off blithely to his lab. Linda tells him that every scientific discovery winds up getting used as a weapon, sooner or later. And mostly "sooner", at least based on her list. Chris tells her not to worry; the risks involved in true communication with Mars are outweighed by the potential benefits--a race capable of melting their ice caps in a week is orders of magnitude smarter than Earthlings (it took us several decades and the Koch brothers paying thousands of people to work as hard as they could, after all, and there's still some ice left as of this writing). Linda still can't think of anything other than the destructive possibilties suggested by the Martian landscape getting altered so suddenly.

They decide to press ahead and communicate with Mars again, and there's a dissolve from the Cronyn's radio antenna in California to another one in snowy mountains; Franz Calder, the man goofing with what I'm pretty sure is supposed to be a radar screen in this shack is extremely unhappy to see three men in suits and overcoats walk in on him and he tries to throw them out. One of the first things he says to them is "How did you track me down?", which suggests lots of different reasons that he'd be in hiding but none of them are good. Even more ominous are the Russian accents on the three men intruding in the lab, and more ominous still is when they tell him that they wanted him to contact Mars, which he apparently has not yet managed to do.

The chief Russian tells Calder that he owes them; they broke him out of an American jail and smuggled him to the Andes to continue his experiments. He's got all the radio equipment he could ever need or want in his cabin, and at least for the moment he doesn't have anyone from the Politburo breathing down his neck about how long it's taking him to produce some kind of results. But that neck-breath is coming, of course. I'm pretty sure the chief Russian agent doesn't appreciate the irony, but one of his threats to Calder is to mention that his Communist masters are not in the habit of making investments that don't produce returns.

Calder is bitter over having to hide in a tiny cabin in the middle of nowhere, and gets a pretty good "I'm done skulking like a rat and want to impose my will on the Earth" speech. He tells his interrogator that he's officially failed to get in touch with Mars, but that the Americans who stole his work have succeeded (his surmise is that this information will prevent his masters from killing him because they're CCCPissed off at his failure). There's some weirdly funny moments in this sequence between Calder and his handler; when the scientist starts working his way up to ranting about the seven years he spent in jail that let the Americans pull ahead of him, the spymaster grimaces and tells him not to start about that again. I didn't expect the Soviet and (presumably) Nazi antagonists in a Cold War science fiction movie to be griping at each other like an old married couple.

It turns out that Calder's radio shack is one of two places on the planet using a "hydrogen valve" in its radio; using his rig, he can monitor the American signals (I freely admit that this sounds like a pile of crap to me, but my education in radio consists of picking the TV production class instead of the radio one when I was at EMU so I don't actually have any way of knowing if it's possible or not--I assume the Andes are in the wrong hemisphere to monitor signals in California, but the hydrogen valve might compensate for that). Calder's superior, once he realizes that the exiled scientist is able to spy on the American communications with impunity, is all smiles and offers to ship in a better grade of canned borscht for Calder while he intercepts the Mars-American radio messages.

Back at the Cronyn household, some domestic bliss is interrupted by the arrival of Admiral Bill Carey, a cryptographer who's famous enough for breaking a Japanese military cipher that young Stuart Cronyn has heard of him (and the officer is actually pretty self-effacing, telling the starry-eyed kid that it wasn't a very good code). Carey is there to determine what's happening with the Cronyn's efforts to communicate with Mars. As things stand, they're only getting their own signals back from the red planet but the time lag between sending a signal to Mars and that signal's return works out properly (and in 1952, at least, there weren't any round beeping things orbiting the Earth to reflect radio signals back to the planet). What the engineers don't know yet is the exact cause of the signal bounce. One possibility is that it's just a literal bounceback; in that case, they're just learning about transmitting electromagnetic waves through a vacuum, which is important. But it might also be an intelligent response, and that would be the greatest scientific advancement since the discovery of fire. And when Chris Cornyn explains that there's always a slight but measurable delay between the signal reaching Mars and coming back to his observatory, it looks like Option Two is the one that's actually happening.

Team Cronyn--with an assist from Stuart--decides to take a great leap forward with their attempts to communicate with whatever it is on Mars that's boomeranging their signals. Since they don't have any idea what kind of language the Martians are using amongst themselves (and that problem is exactly the same one on Mars, looking at the Earth transmitter) they're going to try math instead. By sending the first few digits of pi, it's a conversational opening that the Martians could respond to without knowing anything other than a base-ten numbering system. It could wind up being an icebreaker just as impressive as the thing the Martians used on their planet's polar cap.

While they're waiting for a response, the Cronyns explain that the hydrogen valve was designed by a Nazi war criminal named Franz Calder; he was unquestionably brilliant but also irredeemably evil. Chris found the blueprints for the equipment at Nuremberg and got a grant to construct a hydrogen wave transmitter (contrast this with the secretive and isolated cabin that Calder works in). When the Admiral expresses shock that the Cronyns want to give credit to Calder when their results are made public, we get a great understated line about giving the devil his due from Peter Graves (who looks shockingly young in this movie, I must add). When the signal comes back, the first thing the display screen shows is just the digits of pi that were sent out by the Terran observatory but after a few cycles, new (and correct) digits are added that show the Martians understood what was sent to them and can at least potentially open a line of communication. Linda Cronyn is just as elated as the two men, but also offers up a prayer:  "Dear Lord, don't make us sorry".

The news becomes a global nine days' wonder, as it should, with lots of newspapers zooming at the screen while stock footage of people rushing around plays under them. The last paper is from Argentina, and that's a natural enough segue to check in with Calder again; he's on the radio with his masters in the USSR telling them that if he tries to contact Mars, the Americans will know he's listening in on their conversations. Since the Cronyns are just sending math and chemistry information out to the red planet at this point, there's no advantage to be gained letting the West know that the Soviets are eavesdropping on their party line. Part of the montage also shows people selling postcards and balloons related to Mars; I wouldn't have expected a movie from 1952 to be even slightly critical of capitalism, but this one presents the peddlers as irritating and tawdry. Interesting.

The difficulties of establishing some kind of communication with the Martians are thankfully glossed over (Admiral Carey has a team of presumably really smart people working on the problem) and when the clips switch from people reading newspapers to people listening to radios the film drops another bomb:  The Martians are now actively communicating with the Earth astronomers. The first information that gets provided is the average Martian lifespan--three hundred Earth years. Further shockwaves result on Earth when it's revealed that Martian cropland grows an absurdly high yield of food and the London Journal (is that even a real newspaper?) posts a screamer headline about the lack of rationing on the fourth rock from the sun--probably a sore point in 1952. Back on Earth, there's political hullabaloo over the possibility of pension payouts for two and a third centuries and the bottom falling out of commodities markets. It gets worse--after the Martians announce that they've got essentially free energy by using cosmic rays and making nonradioactive elements into fissionable energy sources coal mines close all across America. I think people might perhaps be jumping the gun a little bit; the Martian technologies are hugely advanced and it might take decades or even centuries for the engineers of Future 1952 to build an arc reactor and give the world infinite energy. It's also very telling that some people are angry and worried over the possibility of peace and plenty for everyone on Earth if that means they won't be at the top of the heap any more.

When the coal mines shut down out of fear of obsolescence, the steel mills in America find that they can't produce anything because they don't have any fuel for the smelting tanks. Without steel, American industry shudders to a halt. Again, unless I'm seriously misreading the film, all of this is happening before any free-energy plants have been built! Public opinion turns pretty sharply against Chris Cronyn; instead of souvenir hawkers he's got people throwing rocks at his car and the lone cop guarding the gate to his lab says they're going to need the Army to protect him before too terribly long. Radio and television news bulletins show continuing economic and social collapse worldwide. Cronyn retreats to the lab, defeated and crushed by how poorly things are turning out.

The near-total collapse of the world economy means that the President is taking a direct interest. Somewhat belatedly, the Secretary of Defense gets involved and clamps down on the incoming messages--from that point on, no more messages from Mars are going out into the public without someone trying to consider the consequences of the information release. Of course, nobody in the American political structure knows that a former Nazi is listening in on all of the transmissions. The last thing Calder is able to tell his handler is that the Americans want to know how the Martian civilization progressed to the "free cosmic energy" point without a political dispute wiping the map clean.

While things are deteriorating in the Western world, the Soviets and their allied governments are rubbing their hands with glee, watching everything stagger to a halt. The Secretary of Defense, along with a few other hawkish voices, try to sell the President on a preemptive war against the Soviet bloc while they still have the industrial capacity to fight. An actor who looks somewhat like Eisenhower refuses to start a war against the USSR at this point, even when presented with the possibility that the Reds will decode the Martian messages and make their own cosmic-radiation devices (which would mean the end of democracy in a matter of hours, if not the total extermination of life on Earth). The Secretary of Defense is especially worried; the implication is that he doesn't want to see America on the business end of a power it unleashed against Japan.

The Cronyns are escorted to the Oval Office and personally informed by the President that their project is to be scuttled immediately (leading to didactic words between Chris Cronyn and the Secretary of Defense re:  the duty of scientists to advance the frontiers of knowledge and the duty of politicians to preserve existing political structures). Cronyn refuses to shut down his project without a direct Presidential order. He also reveals his suspicions that Calder is listening in on the Martian broadcasts, and that if the Americans stop working on the messages it will mean giving the Soviets a massive advantage at decoding anything.

Admiral Carey is brought into the meeting and brings the newest message from Mars:  When asked how the Martian civilization avoided destroying itself with cosmic-ray weaponry, the translated response contains a quote from the Sermon on the Mount and chides Earthly civilizations for utterly missing the point of the message they were given "seven lifetimes ago", which would be about 2100 years before the story took place. Chris Cronyn refuses to release the message because it makes no scientific sense, but his wife makes a very telling point--there is nothing in the message to love goodness and hate evil that threatens national security (her husband and the Secretary of Defense immediately disagree with her and agree with each other, which is a bitterly funny moment in a very serious scene).

The new message goes out to the world exactly as translated--and suddenly the USSR is not enjoying the discomfort of the West any more. There's also a neat sight gag in this section where a bunch of really serious looking Soviet characters bunch around Calder's supervisor as he tries to get his pet Nazi mad scientist to explain what's going on. People in America are just as shaken, with church attendance skyrocketing as people decide that they're going to look busy in case God is real. The movie surprised the hell out of me at this point because the President, while broadcasting about the Martian messages, also says that the Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist faiths are searching for meaning through faith. I can just about imagine Barack Obama mentioning something similar if a Martian divine message was decoded today, but I sure as shit can't see any of his political opponents or anyone in the mass media doing anything but excoriating him if he did.

In the wake of this revelation, Soviet citizens return to organized worship (and get crushed by reprisals; that I can believe in a Wellsian science fiction movie from 1952). More messages come out; Calder's handler worries for his life when he has to tell the Politburo that God is alive, ruling Mars, and specifically doesn't like tyranny. Shortly after the former Nazi delivers that message to his supervisor, a model of Calder's isolated cabin is destroyed by an avalanche. In the absence of further contact with Calder, the Soviets start to make their own plans for war; if a spasm of religious fervor helped them beat the Germans in the last war, another one could drive them to success against the Americans in the next one.

Before any concrete plans can be made towards global war, Calder's master has to justify the loss of contact to the Premier, personally, which goes sour pretty quickly. There's a massive distraction when the power goes out in the government building, followed by a budget-conscious uprising that gets put down by soldiers and police, followed by riots and fires in Moscow. It turned out that the Russian people were tired of being ground down by the Man and overthrew the Soviet system; the new government is led by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church. The USSR is dissolved immediately and the Russian military is recalled to Russia rather than being used to hold down their satellite territories. Additionally, the new government no longer forbids religious expression--the Communist experiment ends in a single night of fighting as the old system gets cast down.

The Cronyns' jubilation is cut short when Herr Calder sneaks into their house / lab; he presents the original schematics for the hydrogen valve as his credentials to the pair of scientists. He tells the Cronyns that he'd just snuck into the country the day before. He's incredibly bitter that his work was used by someone else to change the world; as far as he's concerned, the American government stole his work in the aftermath of the second World War. It turns out that the old war criminal was quite persistent, as well. He dug himself out of the avalanche and came to the California observatory in the wake of the disaster and tells the American scientists that he has copies of all the messages to and from Mars, and that there won't be any more transmissions from the red planet now that his radio gear has been destroyed. Linda figures out the extent of the fraud, and Calder says he's more than happy to share that credit with the Americans.

The depth of Calder's grudge against the world can scarcely be underestimated; he created a paradise on Earth simply for the joy of destroying it when he tells the world that the Martian system was one that he made up. And that would be as a finale to the destruction of the capitalist economy and the entire Soviet bloc--as a megalomaniac, Calder is almost entirely without peer. It also turns out that the American military translators played a part--Calder's faked Martian message that was reported as the Sermon on the Mount was supposed to say "One tribe must have the power" as the Martian political system, which the Nazi had hoped would set the Western and Soviet systems against each other to the death.

The Cronyns try to figure out a way to stop Calder from confessing his fraud to the world (and it turns out they've been outmaneuvered before they even knew there was a problem; the press corps is going to show up in less than five minutes to hear Calder's story). Calder has a grudge against the world, yes, but he's even angrier at the Cronyns specifically for stealing the fruits of his genius. He gets to shatter the new order and humiliate his perceived rivals at a single stroke if things work out the way he's planned. He pulls a gun on the Cronyns to keep them in the lab and Linda prepares to martyr herself by lighting a cigarette (which, due to the hydrogen content in the lab's air, would cause an explosion). Chris agrees that killing themselves to stop Calder is a worthy sacrifice; unfortunately, the evil scientist knows the hazards of a spark or flame in the hydrogen-saturated atmosphere of the lab.

Just before Chris can light his wife's cigarette, a new transmission comes in--and the only transmitter in the world is under thirty feet of snow in South America. The new message is "Ye have done well, my good--"

It turns out that when Calder tries to shoot out the reciever, the flame from his gun is perfectly sufficient to set off the hydrogen in the lab. The world will have to continue on its way, without further guidance from the Martian intelligences. At least until another hydrogen valve radio can be constructed, but until then, humanity has something to strive for--a world free from want, where people live for centuries and work for the common good. Not a bad ending for a thoughtful movie that was far more measured and considerate than I expected it to be.

Come to think of it, it's almost the inversion of the first movie I reviewed for the Checkpoint, Colossus:  The Forbin Project; the development of a new and untested technology sets the world free. It's also much less rabid than I was expecting; it wouldn't surprise me if seconds after the end title THE BEGINNING someone from the John Birch Society started decrying the movie for being too kind to the Russian characters and not vicious enough to its pacifist characters. Half a century and change after the film was made, I'm amazed at how much the political situation has gone differently--not just in the former Soviet Union but right here in America. It's a sobering piece to consider, and if you have a chance you should definitely check this one out.


This review is part of the "Berlin Thanksgiving" event with 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall and corresponding end of the Cold War 25 years ago, in November of 1989.


  1. A little voice in the back of my head said, while reading the review, "The call radio tubes 'valves' in England." This might be helpful, but doesn't explain the dangerous amounts of hydrogen loose in the place.

    I keep reading excellent reviews of this thing. I must try to track down a copy.

  2. It might be that the playwrights were British, I guess. The hydrogen all over the room was mostly so Jailbait Peter Graves could warn people not to smoke in the room a couple times during the second act and then try to martyr himself in the third.

    I was really expecting something insane from this movie (in my head, it played out like the novel REDHUNTER, which tries to make Joe McCarthy into a courageous hero). I didn't get it at all, but I'm very pleasantly surprised by that.

  3. "I'm pretty sure the chief Russian agent doesn't appreciate the irony, but one of his threats to Calder is to mention that his Communist masters are not in the habit of making investments that don't produce returns."


  4. The joke I was proudest of was the phrase "CCCPissed off". Now you know.