Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Flight to Mars (1951)

Made in 1951, Flight to Mars was a fairly ambitious effort from Poverty Row studio Monogram. It’s one of the earliest science fiction films to attempt to deal reasonably realistically with space travel, as opposed to the more or less pure fantasy approach of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials.

The first manned mission from Earth to Mars seems to be progressing fairly successfully until they run into a meteor shower of the kind that would bedevil so many science fiction space missions. Their landing gear is damaged which leaves them with a choice - they can risk a landing on Mars knowing that they may not be able to take off again or they can return to Earth. Being a brave and dedicated lot they elect to go ahead with a crash landing on the red planet.

They land safely enough but their spacecraft suffers so much damage that a return to Earth seems impossible. That is until they meet the Martians. The Martians have a civilisation that is in many ways ahead of Earth’s but oddly enough they have never perfected space travel. They live in vast underground cities and manufacture their own air and water as well as growing crops hydroponically. The Martians seem friendly and anxious to help our space travellers get back to Earth. There are however a few very important things that the astronauts from Earth don’t know about Mars and the Martians. Returning to Earth will not be as easy as they had anticipated.

The plot seems very clichéd today but you have to keep reminding yourself that this movie was made in 1951 and that most of the plot devices that seem hackneyed had not yet become clichés. The spacecraft damaged by a meteor shower, the underground civilisation on Mars, the dying planet scenario with a population needing to find a new home, all these things would have seemed quite fresh to an audience in 1951. While they seem old today they won’t detract from your enjoyment of the movie.

The crew of the Mars mission comprises chief pilot and engineer, Jim Barker (Arthur Franz), a couple of typical science fiction scientists, Professor Jackson (Richard Gaines) and Dr Lain (John Litel), and to add some extra plot interest they are accompanied by Barker’s scientist girlfriend Carol (Virginia Huston) and journalist Steve Abbott (Cameron Mitchell). Jim Barker, his girlfriend and Steve Abbott provide the ingredients for a romantic triangle that provides the movie’s obligatory romance sub-plot. There’s also a beautiful female Martian scientist to add even more romantic complications.

The Martians look completely human which certainly saved perennially budget-conscious Monogram on makeup costs. The Martians have been listening to our radio communications for years so they all speak English, again conveniently simplifying things.

The acting is fairly competent, especially by the standards of Monogram’s very cheap B-movies. Even though his character seems somewhat superfluous to the plot Cameron Mitchell’s undeniable acting chops establish Steve Abbott as the dominant character.

This is civilised space travel, where you can smoke your pipe in peace without anyone hassling you with any silliness about no smoking in the spacecraft.

Director Lesley Selander helmed an enormous number of low-budget movies and while Monogram’s meagre resources and the very tight five-day shooting schedule don’t allow him to do anything fancy he gets the job done. Arthur Strawn’s screenplay doesn’t provide too many surprises but it’s also quite competent.

Monogram did splash out a little by making this movie in colour. The special effects are typical of its era, with wonderfully ’50s Space Age miniatures and lots of matte paintings. The great retro-futuristic costumes add to the enjoyment and the sets are generally not too bad.

The one minor problem I had with this movie was that the ending was a bit rushed. I’m not sure if this was because the print had been cut (possibly cut for length for television transmission) or simply because it was a B-movie and they wanted to wrap things up within a limited running time. It’s not really a major problem though.

The Region 4 DVD is barebones. The transfer is passable for a budget DVD release. The movie was shot in the Academy ratio of 4:3 so the aspect ratio isn’t an issue. The movie looks its age but that will add to the appeal for fans of ’50s sci-fi.

And Flight to Mars is exactly the sort of movie that those fans of ’50s sci-fi love so much. They won’t be disappointed by this one. It’s considerable better than you’d expect from Monogram. Recommended.

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