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Savant Review:

Flight to Mars

Flight to Mars
Image Enterainment / Corinth
1951 / Color / 1:37 / 72 min.
Starring Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, John Litel, Morris Ankrum, Richard Gaines
Cinematography Harry Neumann
Special Effects Irving Block, Jack Cosgrove, Jack Rabin
Art Direction Dave Milton
Film Editor Richard Heermance
Original Music Marlin Skiles
Written by Arthur Strawn
Produced by Walter Mirisch
Directed by Lesley Selander

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Of all the early space movies, none is so disappointing as Flight to Mars. Destination Moon was scientifically accurate, and Rocketship XM had a gripping dramatic script. This copycat production has neither. Both of the earlier shows created a spirit of adventure and the feel of a new genre being explored; this Monogram cheapie from then cut-rate producer Walter Mirisch is both dull and retrogressive, even if it is just the second space movie in color. The best words Daily Variety's review of November 7, 1951 could find for it were, "singularly unexciting", and for once their lack of enthusiasm is shared by the rest of us.


The first Mars rocket (called Rocket M.A.R.S.) is launched sucessfully, but crashlands on the red planet after being damaged in a meteor shower. An advanced civilization greets the astronauts and welcomes them to their underground utopia, offering to help make repairs for a return flight. The flight leader, Dr. Jim Barker (Arthur Franz) falls in love with Martian scientific assistant Alita (Marguerite Chapman), much to the consternation of Earth scientist Carol Stafford (Virginia Huston). She had set her slide rule for him, but there's romantic compensation in the form of Steve Abbott (Cameron Mitchell), an amorous newswriter along for the ride.

Things get dicey when Alita reports that all the cooperation is a ruse - as soon as the rocket is ship-shape, the Martians will seize it to begin an invasion of Earth.

Science fiction completists are going to be interested in this disc of Flight to Mars, despite its flaws. Serious spaceflight movies thoroughly burned themselves out in just a couple years, thanks to the sub-moronic likes of Cat-Women of the Moon and others. When George Pal tried to jump-start the genre again in 1955's Conquest of Space, Hollywood insisted on ruining it with melodramatic subplots and girlie-show 'love interest', content it was presumed audiences expected.

At 72 minutes, Flight to Mars is about five minutes shorter than Virginia Huston's crying fit when she finds out Arthur Franz has fallen for top-billed Marguerite Chapman, who plays a Martian with the best legs ever seen. Her name, Alita, would seem to be a lift from the Russian silent film Aelita, about a queen of Mars.  1

The rest of the story centers on Martian duplicity. Mars turns out to be a very ho-hum advanced civilization, almost exactly like our own. We see precious little of it, just a couple of rooms and a few unlikely-designed hallways you'd think would result in lots of head injuries. The men dress in robes with King Arthur medallions on their chests and hold all positions of authority. All the women are beautiful, wear tiny miniskirts to show their terrific legs, and are crazy about not having to cook. Martian science can synthesize food artificially, but there's no atomic power. They buy their furniture from the same faux-modernist garden shops we did in 1951, and they use familiar T-squares and read ordinary books. As dull as Mars may be, even worse is the Earthlings' non-reaction to being confronted by men in colorcoded space suits 30 seconds after touching down. Nothing. Total complacency, as if they had expected to land in Holland, and were confronted instead by Belgians.

Science fiction of this type is special effects, and these are at least interesting. The Irving Block-Jack Rabin duo create the bare minimum number of shots needed to illustrate the script, a major failing of '50s sci-fi, yet some of them are attractive. The reasonably attractive rocket that wiggles on wires and spews lots of (upward-rising) smoke is probably the same undersized model seen on a desk earlier in the movie. It can be spotted, for better or for worse, in later Allied Artists movies ... Monogram became AA not long after this picture came out.

The rest of the effects are matte paintings that are at least decorative. Block and Rabin became the deans of independent effects during these years - angles of the rocket ready for takeoff were recycled in Invaders from Mars, unless I'm mistaken. If the duo were smart, they billed Invaders for the shots as if they were new. Their whole budget was probably just a few thousand dollars, and then as now, effects men often end up doing lots of work for free.

If Flight to Mars is a failure, it's because it really isn't about anything except a Martian doublecross. The plotting is as weak as a Flash Gordon serial, and the romance is even weaker. The actors do fine with a script that has more than its share of blind alleys. For instance, a lot of screen time is used for scientist Richard Gaines (who played vile businessmen for Billy Wilder in both Double Indemnity and Ace in the Hole) to express his suicidal attitude toward the space flight. He breaks his contract by doing a radio interview so his family will have some money, and repeatedly hints that the expedition will be a one-way trip. But nothing comes of it - he neither kills himself, or tries to stay on Mars, nor causes any trouble whatsoever. Alien civilizations meet, and the spaceman carries a Martian maid back to Earth, like Jason & Medea. Big ideas ...but no payoff, zilch.

Producer Walter Mirisch put the show together from found items - the ship interior is from Rocketship XM, and the Martian suits from Destination Moon.  3 Mirisch probably saw space travel as another gimmick to exploit, the same way he concocted ersatz Tarzan movies from less than nothing. This probably helped keep Monogram in the chips, but he did much better later, becoming a great producer by courting top talent and backing their creativity.

Wade Williams' DVD of Flight to Mars doesn't give the show the presentation it needs. We may be looking at the only surviving print of the movie, and it is interesting to observe the original 2-color Cinecolor process hues. But the print is damaged in distracting ways. Respliced film breaks occur every couple of minutes, not interfering with the continuity - until a key scene late in the show. Then, a storm of splices frustratingly interrupts important dialogue lines. It would have been better if this section were replaced with a substitute source, even a b&w one.

Almost as annoying are a small series of bubble-dots just below center screen that pop up constantly during the movie. From my experience, they look like the result of a scorching by a projector with a too-hot lamp. The trailer has the same flaw, so I'm willing to bet that ol' Wade scorched them both in the same screening. Don't you like 'great film collectors' who risk irreplaceable original prints like that? On the other hand, perhaps the print was that way when the Wade Williams Collection acquired it. Savant will retract the statement, your Honor.

Besides those rather glaring flaws, the picture is handsomely transferred. The opening shots have the same Cinecolor feel as Invaders from Mars, with a similar title design. The subdued hues of Cinecolor have the look of a faded paint-by-numbers watercolor, and it is interesting to see how the art directors tried to accomodate the limited palette.

The trailer included as an extra makes the film look slightly better than it is - and ends with a b&w replacement section, the proper solution for the problem scene in the feature. Frankly, this DVD is watchable but frustrating, as with Wade Williams' earlier Detour. He's notorious for not cooperating with anyone - other companies, archives - the result being that the incomplete good material he controls is not being combined with other elements to truly preserve these pictures.

An extra feature is a rough interview with star Cameron Mitchell, made by fan David Del Valle and perhaps shot on public-access television somewhere. Mitchell is charming, putting his career in the best light possible. He's certainly no slouch and has made many impressive films both big and small. The actor distances himself from a lot of his questionable work by saying he perhaps wasn't as selective as he should have been. It's nice to see him on camera, as he must have been an all-around great guy, but the interview impresses more as a promotional piece for the host.

Expert Tom Weaver contributes some nice liner notes, compiled from real first-person interviews. He gets a When Worlds Collide plot detail wrong (Zyra didn't just 'happen to be passing at a crucial moment') but his excellence as a chronicler of our favorite movies is unsurpassed.  2

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Flight to Mars rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Fair
Sound: Fair
Supplements: Trailer, Cameron Mitchell interview
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 6, 2002

Footnotes (Okay, sloppy tangents):

1. The fact that actor-watching is a main preoccupation of genre film fans is nothing to be ashamed of. Who seems to be doing well, and who isn't, is always interesting, if only to better understand the insecure nature of film actors' lives. Virginia Huston is hardly recognizable as the same woman who gave the strong performance in the must-see Out of the Past just four years previous ... and one wonders, is direction what made the difference, or is she just killing time in a demoralizing role, having given up on her career? Of the players in this opus, you can tell Morris Ankrum, Cameron Mitchell, and Arthur Franz would impress directors looking for talent. The women have more screen time, but make little or no impression, beyond Ms. Chapman's great figure, of course. Her most memorable role came as Tom Ewell's secretary in Seven Year Itch, where she becomes his fantasy girl in the From Here to Eternity parody.

2. I've got nothing but praise for Tom Weaver, whose many interview books are very good reads for fantasy aficionados. Someday, however, I'd really like him to explain his outspoken hatred of Hammer films. He seems to have nothing but the most negative of opinions for both the classics and the not-so-terrific Hammer horrors. There's no accounting for taste, but on most other issues, I find myself in hearty agreement with this interesting author.

3. It's tough to make futuristic designs that won't look silly a half-century later, but some details here are pretty embarassing, just the same. When the airlock door to a zillion-dollar spaceship is kept shut by a mechanism you'd expect to see in a kid's playhouse, well ...

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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