“Bring to Earth the message of what you have seen. The mystery of space has been solved for you…”
[Original title: Himmelskibet; also known as: Heaven Ship, Excelsior]
Starring: Gunnar Tolnæs, Lilly Jacobson, Nicolai Neiiendam, Zanny Petersen, Alf Blütecher, Philip Bech, Frederik Jacobsen, Svend Kornbeck, Nils Asther
Screenplay: Sophus Michaelis, based upon a story by Ole Olesen
Synopsis: Captain Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs) returns from his service in the navy and receives a hero’s welcome. Waiting for him at the dock are his father, Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), his sister, Corona (Zanny Petersen), and his friend, the scientist Dr Krafft (Alf Blütecher). Once at home, Avanti remarks that now he must find a new calling. Immediately, his father takes him to the observatory built into the upper floor of their house, where he speaks enthusiastically of the many mysteries of space. The two are joined by Corona and Krafft, and the four drink a toast of thankfulness… Inspired by his father, Avanti first turns to aviation: one day he returns home to reveal that he has now flown higher than any other pilot. His success has filled him with thoughts of a new and extraordinary venture: to build “a bridge between planets”; to fly through space… A frequent visitor to the Planetaros’ house is Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen), another scientist. He is in the observatory when Avanti rushes in to announce to his father that he and Krafft have sworn to build a vessel in which they can travel to Mars. Planetaros is delighted, but Dubius’s response is a roar of incredulous, mocking laughter. Undeterred, Avanti and Krafft devote the next two years to designing and building a ship to carry them through space. When the project nears completion, Avanti calls a meeting so that those interested may hear about the proposed journey to Mars—and that those with the courage may volunteer to join the expedition. Learning of the meeting, Professor Dubius determines to attend, slipping into the darkened room just as Avanti begins to address his audience. As he finishes his speech and makes the call for volunteers, Dubius interrupts, denouncing the gathering as not a scientific convention, but a meeting of madmen. Avanti hits back, remarking that a scientist should be the last person to scorn new ideas; and that his own belief in the project is such, he is willing to risk his life in fulfilling it. Dubius departs, and the eager volunteers step forward… The night before the departure of the Excelsior, Professor Planetaros holds a formal gathering for Avanti and his crew. A toast is drunk at midnight, before Krafft and Corona slip away to say a private farewell… At daybreak, the men make their final preparations and board their spaceship. The great venture begins…
Comments: As we saw with respect to The End Of The World, when declaring neutrality during WWI, the Danish government imposed a series of interdicted topics upon the country’s artists, including its film-makers. The director August Blom, however, grasped the fact that fantastic cinema – which had not been specifically forbidden – could be used as a vehicle to examine some very realistic topics; and in embarking upon The End Of The World in 1916, he used a science-fiction framework and a tale of a comet striking the Earth to address the conflict still raging across Europe.
Two years later, with seemingly no end to the conflict in sight, Ole Olesen, the founder of Nordisk and one of its major producers, took August Blom’s vision and flipped it on its head—commissioning the Danish poet and novelist, Sophus Michaelis, to write a screenplay from his own story outline. The results, under the direction of Holger-Madsen (apparently born just Holger Madsen, but acquiring a hyphen somewhere along the way) were an allegorical drama about the advancement of the human spirit and an end to conflict: an anti-war film that never mentioned the war.
The allegory was vital, but even more so, in historical terms, is that in shaping it, the film-makers gifted the world of cinema its first space opera.
But it was a gift that we, more than one hundred years later, nearly didn’t receive: A Trip To Mars was for decades considered a lost film, until around the turn of the 21st century the Danish Film Institute located and restored an almost-complete print. In spite of some print damage, the results, released to DVD in 2006, are strikingly beautiful.
Less so is the prosaic rendering of the film’s title. The original Danish title, Himmelskibet, has been variously translated as “the sky ship”, “the heaven ship”, and even “the ship to heaven”. It was as Heaven Ship that the film was first released in the English-speaking world, and references to it under that title may still be found in numerous sources. In some territories, however, its distributors preferred the more utilitarian moniker, A Trip To Mars, and it is this title that opens the DVD.
A Trip To Mars is not always an easy film to deal with. Though I’m sure it was a conscious choice by Holger-Madsen, the acting is as broad as it well could be, with the cast spending most of its time onscreen striking poses and making dramatic gestures—and quite often (particularly in the case of Gunnar Tolnæs), literally reaching for the sky.
This artificiality sometimes becomes hard to take, and is particularly jolting during the early, earthbound scenes. Getting accustomed to it may require some active good will on the part of the viewer; though later, it is easier to understand what Holger-Madsen was trying to achieve through this stylisation.
On the other hand, like so many Scandinavian films of the silent era, A Trip To Mars is stunning to look at. The black-and-white cinematography and lighting effects of Frederik Fuglsang and Louis Larsen, even in relatively minor scenes, are absolutely gorgeous; and the film offers striking composition after striking composition. Like August Blom before him, Holger-Madsen was working with a stationary camera, but strove to overcome this limitation by creating a constant sense of movement within the frame—having the advantage of a scenario that included some impressive crowd scenes. There is also, in what we might loosely call a flashback scene, an unexpectedly early use of some in-camera effects that are quite impressive.
For modern audiences, however, the most surprising thing about A Trip To Mars is a consequence of our perspective. What we have here is a silent Danish film from 1918 embracing a philosophy now almost absurdly familiar…at least if you watch a certain sort of science fiction.
While, given the film’s history, it seems unlikely that Gene Roddenberry could possibly have seen A Trip To Mars in his formative years, there is little here not immediately recognisable from the Star Trek universe, in its various iterations—including the first appearance of the pop-cultural trope now usually designated “the space hippies”, here offered in all seriousness as a contrast and an example to the flawed human characters.
But it isn’t apparent at the outset that this is where A Trip To Mars is headed. On the contrary, the opening scenes suggest a paean to the human spirit, rather than a lecture on exactly how far that spirit still has to go.
A Trip To Mars opens with a quick clip of Sophus Michaelis and Ole Olesen apparently conferring about their screenplay. The opening of the film proper presents us with Captain Avanti Planetaros returning home to a hero’s reception, after undertaking “a scientific expedition”, purpose and outcome unspecified.
Evidently this also marks his release, or resignation, from what we take to be the navy, as no sooner is he home than Avanti is literally hanging up his hat and remarking ruefully to his father that, with his mission over, he must now seek new tasks.
Professor Planetaros doesn’t miss a beat: he hustles Avanti upstairs to his observatory, apparently built since his son’s departure, and speaks to him eagerly of the unsolved mysteries of space: of, Planets that we long for and that long for us.
(I am pretty sure, by the way, that the observatory set here is the same one used in The End Of The World, slightly redressed and with all the lights on instead of in ominous shadows.)
Downstairs, meanwhile, Corona and Dr Krafft (who never acquires a first name) are having a brief “moment”, just enough to let us know that there’s something going on there. They are interrupted by the servants, and hurriedly break apart to head upstairs and join Professor Planetaros and Avanti in a toast to formally welcome the latter home:
Planetaros: “Let us drink to the work of the human spirit, and to peace…”
Later left alone, Avanti ponders his father’s words. We discover now that his personal hero is Columbus, whose painting hangs on his wall: “They laughed at you, when you talked of sailing around the world!” he observes.
(Um. Did they think we wouldn’t know who Magellan was?)
Fired by his father’s enthusiasm, Avanti first takes up aviation, and succeeds in flying higher than any other pilot has done. This in turn inspires him with thoughts of flying through the stratosphere—and beyond. He reveals his new dream to Corona and Krafft: that of, “Building a bridge between the planets.” The others are shocked at first, but Avanti’s passionate vision soon grips them too, and they pledge themselves to his cause.
Meanwhile—well, if you raised your eyebrows as “Planetaros”, allow me to introduce to you the nearest thing this film has to a villain, in Professor Dubius.
Dubius is actually something much more believable – and infuriating – than evil: he’s a mocker, a sneerer, someone who gets his jollies pouring cold water on other people’s aspirations. He is there when Avanti announces to his father his plans to build a spaceship, and reacts to the project with roars of contemptuous laughter. He then proceeds to hound Avanti right up to, quite literally, the closing of the door to the completed ship as it prepares for launch.
Left alone in the laboratory with Corona, Krafft’s enthusiasm for the project takes two forms: a straight adoption of Avanti’s startling vision, and a perception that his involvement in the project is, “The way to your heart.”
The first of the film’s love-scenes follows, and an uncomfortable one it is, with Krafft kneeling worshipfully at Corona’s feet, and she responding with a cradling of his head against her breast that strikes us as more maternal than passionate. We’ve seen this sort of thing before in European films of this era, and it abounds in A Trip To Mars—taking things so far as to have this young couple refrain from sharing a first kiss until the building of the spaceship that has become their mutual goal in life: a mere two years to wait…
Finally, Avanti is ready to announce his plans to the world, in an address to the Scientific Society. He shows film of the ship, the Excelsior, being built, and announces that a new “power” has been discovered capable of propelling the vessel at a speed of 12,000 km/hr, though no details are forthcoming.
On the other hand, Avanti’s schematic for the timing and direction of his ship’s journey seems realistic and properly calculated—fascinating when we consider that this is eleven years before cinema’s first piece of “hard” space-flight science fiction, Fritz Lang’s Woman In The Moon.
Avanti winds up his speech by dedicating his efforts so far and their future results to, “The honour of the Earth”, and calls for volunteers.
At this point he is rudely interrupted by Professor Dubius, who derides the gathering as, “A meeting in a mad-house” and ridicules the project and anyone foolish enough to risk their lives on such nonsense.
And finally, here, we get the reason for Dubius’s attitude: he cannot bear that, after only two years, Avanti might succeed where he – having worked his “whole life” – has utterly failed.
The scientific community (refreshingly, given the way in which such meetings are usually depicted in science-fiction films) wholeheartedly rejects Dubius’s scorn and cynicism, and Avanti gets his crew, with men from all over the world queuing up to sign on. We get a glimpse of said world from an unfamiliar angle here, as we are forced to deduce the nationalities of the volunteers—one in particular from “the East” who, despite the film’s use of the word “Comrade” seems intended to be Japanese. (He – gasp! – wears glasses.)
There is also David Dane, a big, somewhat unsophisticated individual whose secret drinking problem will ultimately threaten the expedition—and who is clearly meant to be American…
(He does later call himself “European”…but I suspect the word he was looking for is “Caucasian”…)
Our first intimation of this potential trouble comes the night before the launch, when the young men gather at the Planetaros house to drink a toast to their venture. As the clock strikes midnight, the Planetaroses, Dr Krafft and the spaceship crew have a single glass of champagne together before, the mood solemn, separating for the night. Dane alone stays behind after the party has broken up, to – gasp! – sneak a second glass.
(Which frankly gave me a warm fellow-feeling…)
The Planetaroses and Krafft exchange emotional farewells—the Professor and Corona having agreed that they will not make things harder by going to the launch. From here, however, Professor Planetaros is increasingly overcome by guilty certainty that he has sacrificed his son to his own ambitions. Corona, though she does not share her father’s burden, carries a double load of fear for her brother and her lover. Both struggle to keep the faith, which will be progressively shaken by the length of the explorers’ absence and a series of spiteful newspaper articles predicting their doom. (I’m sure you can guess the author.)
At dawn, the crew of the Excelsior make their final preparations for launch. The ship itself, very much a best-guess effort of 1918, looks like a rather bizarre cross between a biplane and a dirigible, and sports an oddly tiny propeller out the back; though if you tilt your head and squint, you can sort of see it as foreshadowing the space shuttle.
In any event, the Excelsior takes off like a plane, flying so low that Avanti is able to hang out of the still-open door to take a last look at the world he is leaving. Finally the ship tilts up, climbing through the stratosphere—
—while below, on a cliff-top, Professor Dubius shakes his fists and his umbrella and spits bile: Avanti, I hate you! The destiny you are going to serves you right!
The space flight section of A Trip To Mars is a strange mixture of the straight-faced and the absurd—though with the latter predominating. Having already skipped the details of the ship’s means of propulsion, the film likewise gives no consideration to how the men are breathing or why they have gravity or what their energy source is; while the viewer is further left to ponder the sight of them consuming normal, sit-down meals in a tiny galley, with dinner settings and cutlery.
Yet then we get a striking piece of what we can only call realism, with an intertitle informing us baldly that six months have passed with no end to the journey in sight.
When we re-join the crew we find the situation getting a little tense. The “endless night of space” is driving the men to their breaking-point: even Avanti and Krafft are feeling the strain; while the rest of the men are losing hope and showing signs of panic—except for David Dane, who has started drinking again. (We assume he smuggled the booze onboard, but—how?) Worse, and somewhat surprisingly, Dane divides his stash up amongst the others, encouraging their feelings of rebellion. Of the rest, it is only the putatively Japanese crewman who is immune to the spreading malaise: he throws in his lot firmly with Avanti and Krafft, who manage to quell the first signs of outbreak, but are more shaken than they show—particularly since, by Avanti’s calculations, they should be drawing near their destination, but as yet there is no sign of it…
…and at this uncertain point, the film offers the viewer another intertitle reading simply, On Mars.
A Trip To Mars not only introduces the space-hippy trope, it hatches it fully fledged—inasmuch as it entirely ignores the questions of how Martian society might actually function: how the people live day-to-day, what sort of relationships prevail there, how the people educate their children, whether anyone works, as we understand work, whether anyone owns property, whether they produce their own food, what they do for fun…
Instead, the film offers an overarching vision of an alien society built on peace and love and music and flowers – lots of flowers – whose members can only stare in horror and confusion at the Earthpeople and their violent ways.
It’s easy enough at this distance to lift an eyebrow or curl a lip—but let’s not forget when A Trip To Mars was released: February of 1918, three-and-a-half years into the war, when an end to the conflict must have seemed as far away as Mars, and a vision of peace and love as unrealistic as space flight. External intervention, from someone, anyone – even an annoyingly superior race of aliens – may have seemed like the only way out.
Be all that as it may, our first glimpse of Martian civilisation shows us a gathering of white-robed men in headdresses staring up into space through telescopes: they are aware of the Excelsior, and have made the decision to “bring it down” (implying that they have something like a tractor-beam).
The Martians’ intervention acts inadvertently to quell what has become outright mutiny on the Excelsior, with guns on both sides and threats of death. Krafft, piloting the ship, suddenly cries out that they are rapidly accelerating—and, what’s more, Mars may be seen through the windows of the control-room.
This kills the mutiny on the spot, as the men drop their weapons and collapse in relief and shame; kneeling with Avanti while he gives dramatic thanks to “divine providence”.
As the Excelsior approaches the surface of Mars, Krafft is struck by the sight of buildings. Conversely, a gathering on a hillside of white-robed young Martians (mostly women with flowers in their hair) all gaze upwards and point as the ship draws near.
And after all that, we get another surprising moment of realism as the men on the ship don their oxygen masks. This is the first time the latter issue has been raised, and it doesn’t stay raised for long: Krafft – the scientist of the group, remember – tests the atmosphere by opening the spaceship door (!), whipping off his mask (!!) and taking a deep breath (!!!).
The moment that the crew of the Excelsior first sets foot on Mars is perhaps the most critical in the film. To date these men, or at least Avanti and Krafft, have been presented in-film as the best that the Earth has to offer; and even the rest were lauded at the outset for their courage and sense of adventure in volunteering for the expedition.
But now, as they step out of the ship in their dark-coloured aviation suits, which clash so dramatically with the white robes of the Martians, they are immediately, visually, positioned as the film’s Bad Guys. We can only brace ourselves for the worst as the two cultures exchange tentative greetings.
The Martians are led by a council of Wise Men (of course), themselves headed by an Elder; and with dawning wonder, the Earthmen realise that they can understand their Martian hosts, whose lips move, but who are, we gather, communicating not verbally, but via a form of telepathy—Without words…the mutual language, understandable for all souls.
Informing the visitors that Mars has been monitoring Earth for many thousands of years, the Elder presents Avanti with a globe of his planet by way of a greeting gift. He then invites the strangers to the dining-garden, where they are offered various fruits, which seem to be all the Martians eat. The Elder confirms this, prompting Avanti to order canned goods and wine brought from the ship. (Curious: that the men were forced to drink water was one of Dane’s grievances.) The Elder is unimpressed by the wine, and rather horrified by the contents of the can: Meat? Dead meat? How do you procure that?
And Avanti – the Earth’s best and brightest, remember – whips out a gun and shoots dead a bird flying overhead, by way of demonstration.
As you do, when you’ve just made first contact with a 100% vegetarian society.
The Martians react as you’d expect, although mixed in with their shock over the killing of the bird is another kind of shock at the sound of the shots. Confused and panicky, the many people who had been milling around and looking on at the interaction of the strangers with the Elder suddenly surge towards their meeting-place—and the humans, misinterpreting their fearful curiosity as a threat, respond by lobbing a grenade at them.
Homo sapiens: what a bunch of boneheads.
The curse of blood…must it be born again on this planet of peace? mourns the Elder, before ordering the Earthmen taken to the House of Judgement. A Martian badly wounded by the grenade blast is also carried into this elaborate stone hall; so too the dead bird.
The Martians pause outside the hall, raising one arm and covering their eyes with their other hand in what we take to be a gesture of justice. A young woman then turns to the Elder, her father, and asks his leave to speak for the strangers: to act, in effect, as their public defender. Permission granted, Marya is draped in a ceremonial robe, “The garb of mercy.”
As the injured Martian is treated, Krafft, who threw the grenade (Earth’s other best and brightest), collapses and weeps, sick with remorse. He rises again as Marya enters: at first he and Avanti take her for their judge; but, as she informs them solemnly, they must judge themselves—and by these means come to self-knowledge.
She leads Avanti and Krafft to the far end of the hall, where on a screen-like device (a clever and well-executed special effect) she is able to summon up images of Martian history—showing the men that Mars too had long ages of warfare and bloodshed, indeed from its most primitive societies through to far more advanced stages of civilisation (from the planet’s pre-historic times to its Middle Ages, in effect); but that with the coming of a prophet bearing a message of peace and love, of the sinfulness of bloodshed, they were able to “fight through the darkness”.
Thoroughly chastened, Avanti and Krafft share a long look—then surrender their weapons and solemnly vow never again to kill any living creature.
The rest of the crew follow their example, laying their guns and grenades at Marya’s feet.
Immediately, they are rewarded with good news: the Martian injured by the grenade is not as gravely wounded as first thought, and will live.
(As he is helped up by his companions and Krafft, we can see that the injured Martian is played by a very young Nils Asther.)
Their atonement fulfilled, Avanti and Krafft are clad in “robes of innocence”, white capes cast over their dark suits, with a distinct sense of them having been “born again”; Avanti mentally compares Martian justice to the Earth system.
The humans are then accepted into Martian society. The “weeks pass like days”, we are told, in these “beautiful and clean” surroundings; though we are given no inkling of how the men are actually passing their time.
One evening, Marya invites Avanti and Krafft to observe “the dance of chastity”. This scene of “purity and innocence”, as Avanti considers it, prompts him to make unflattering comparisons with the way things are on Earth—and here A Trip To Mars stumbles rather amusingly as, presumably due to the Danish government’s firm crackdown on what could and could not be shown in film at this time, Avanti’s reflections upon human depravity can conjure up nothing worse than various (ahem, black-clad) individuals committing some relatively minor misdemeanours, and in some cases not even that: this at a time when one or two rather more serious matters were still playing out across Europe…
Somewhat counterintuitively, we might feel, Marya’s invitation to the dance of chastity prompts an impassioned declaration from Avanti. She responds by leading him to an isolated spot by a lake, where she explains to him that he must rest beneath “the tree of longing”: If your longing for me fills your dreams, I shall be yours! She then leaves him, to undergo his mystic experience on his own.
At this critical juncture, we cut back to Earth, to a harsh Danish winter, and to Professor Planetaros and Corona trying unavailingly to cheer each other up. The Professor has noticeably aged, by now needing help up the stairs to his observatory; nor does the continuing series of nasty newspaper articles, which take the loss of the Excelsior with all hands for granted, help his state of mind. His guilt becomes overwhelming.
From this we cut rather cruelly back to Mars, where Avanti is dreaming of Marya in a stylised “forest of love”. She is with him when he wakes, and he declares to her rapturously that his dreams were all of her. She leads him away, revealing that the strange forest of his dreams is real enough. The two stand before a burning brazier and, Martian-fashion, declare their love for one another. The laying-on of hands is actually a little uncomfortable, when it comes to him doing it to her; though when matters develop to Avanti kissing the base of Marya’s throat, there is an erotic charge to the moment totally at odds with all the kneeling and head-cradling that has passed so far for a love scene (and will again).
This is all very well for Avanti, of course; but meanwhile, Krafft and Corona are, separately, living on the memory of that single kiss. Krafft finally confesses his state of mind to the Wise Men, begging for their assistance in at least sending a message home, to let Corona know that he is alive and thinking of her. The Martians agree to help, arranging for “seven strong signals” to be sent towards the Earth from seven different locations…
Back on Earth, night after night, Professor Planetaros monitors Mars through his telescope, looking for a sign, any sign—so far unavailingly.
Now, however, as Corona glances through the telescope more from habit than in hope, she sees seven lights appear across the major land mass of Mars, together making a familiar pattern:
It is a constellation, the so-called “northern crown”: Corona Borealis…
(Avanti and Marya can keep their dance of chastity and their origami forest: this got me in the feels.)
In the wake of this, Krafft makes up his mind that he must go home. Avanti, conversely, has made up his mind to stay, to be with Marya.
Krafft is dismayed, though he understands; he goes to gather the rest of the crew. Most of them, though not unaffected by their time on Mars, welcome the plan to return home—all but David Dane, who knows that his time on Mars – All the beautiful things that I have seen here – have made him a better man. However, albeit with some reluctance, he joins the others in their preparations for the journey back to Earth (including stocking the Excelsior with “the natural products of Mars”).
At the last minute, Marya makes an unexpected offer: she tells Avanti that she knows how he longs for his planet, so he will go—and she will go with him.
But she must ask her father’s consent. The Elder is at first horrified by the thought of Marya on a planet “thousands of years behind” Mars, socially and morally, until Marya tells him that she hopes to act as his messenger: to carry Martian enlightenment to Earth.
On this basis, the Elder gives Marya’s hand to Avanti—and chooses this moment to announce that he, too, is going on a long journey; his last journey.
Although the human characters do plenty of kneeling and praying to go along with their reaching for the heavens, and Providence is more than once evoked, A Trip From Mars shies away from depicting the Martians as also conventionally religious. Though they do plenty of heaven-reaching themselves, there’s no moment when, for instance, the Martians recognise that they and the Earthlings worship the same God. Nor is the viewer given any particular reason to interpret the robed prophet who turns the Martians away from violence as a Christ-figure. Perhaps, as again we see in other narratives that dabble in this area, we are to conclude that the Martians have evolved beyond the need of such worship and its attendant rules—being shown instead as practising a sort of all-embracing mysticism.
There is, however, a straightforward declaration of a “superior life” after death. Even so, Avanti is somewhat taken aback by everyone’s happiness for the Elder, as he embarks upon his departure from regular life. This is indeed depicted as him setting out upon a journey, with all of his friends throwing him a going-away party first; while he in turn toasts them from “the cup of eternal remembrance”.
The entire community then escorts the Elder to the Cave of the Dead. (The procession scene here, with the people silhouetted against the setting sun, suggestively foreshadows some of the visuals of The Seventh Seal.) Reassuring Marya than he will soon be reunited with her mother, he parts from Avanti by urging him to carry to Earth the promise that it may one day be as Mars…
The Elder passes through the Cave of Death, climbs into a boat waiting on the shore beyond, and sets out for the Isle of the Dead, where some ghostly loved ones welcome him.
Marya then prepares to undertake her journey, being seen off by crowds of Martians waving elaborate flower fronds. The omission of a Martian wedding-ceremony seems odd; however, the visuals are unmistakable, with Marya looking distinctly bridal and clutching a bouquet. The travellers are sent on their way with a Martian song of love, peace, hope and the perfectibility of society.
The Excelsior then departs—I like the whip-turn that the ship does here, with Avanti and Marya still standing at the open door!—and we discover that somehow, in the cramped conditions onboard, Avanti has managed to prepare for Marya a bridal bower.
Back on Earth, despite the message sent to Corona, hope deferred has sickened the heart of Professor Planetaros, until one day he collapses. A chuckling, gloating Dubius chooses this moment to call. Planetaros ignores Corona’s suggestion of denial and allows him to come in, even shaking hands with the unwelcome visitor; though Corona turns a cold shoulder.
Sure enough, Dubius has come to make sure Planetaros didn’t miss the latest issue of the Astronomic Journal, in which the trip to Mars has been denounced as “the fraud of the century”.
But relief is imminent: from telegraph offices around the world, news is transmitted of “a strange space object”…
It does not, however, reach the Planetaroses quite soon enough. The scene with Dubius has brought the Professor to breaking-point and, as soon as he can escape his daughter’s observation, he attempts suicide.
Fortunately, he stops a moment to apologise to God—and Corona is in time to prevent him from swallowing the fatal dose. And just then, word is received that the space object has been identified as the airship Excelsior…
Wild celebrations break out in the street outside the Planetaros house. And it is Dubius, if you please, the hypocritical old goat, who carries one of the distributed handbills to the Professor. Corona is having none of it, however: she denounces him, and orders him out of the house.
He goes, all right—all the way to the expanse of land where the Excelsior is expected to land, to the cliff-top from which he hurled imprecations after it when it took off.
As the Excelsior approaches, it is suddenly caught in a terrible storm. Krafft must fight to keep control, barking orders through the vessel’s speaking-tube to the rest of the crew. The men are frightened – more outright frightened than they were during space travel – but the sight of a serene Marya calms them: Where she is, intones David Dane, there will be no danger!
The storm does claim a victim, though: as he shakes an impotent fist one last time, Dubius is struck down by a bolt of lightning…
And with that, the storm ends, the sun comes out—and the people all rush to the landing area, cheering and waving hats and handkerchiefs as the Excelsior touches down.
At the Planetaros house, Krafft and Corona are reunited; while Marya looks around in delight at the many vases of flowers that greet her arrival. And between the cheering crowds, a delighted father-in-law, and those flowers – lots of flowers – she ends up with a better first impression of Earth than the joint deserves.
Oh, well. She’ll learn.
It is important to be quite clear about the approach of A Trip To Mars, especially for those of us who categorise it as science fiction rather than fantasy. Much of it, self-evidently, is fantasy; but the space-travel elements, though not realistic, are taken seriously—and this is the critical point. Though much is passed over with a hand-wave, there is a sense in this film of people – people, mind you, just mastering aviation – beginning to grasp that the concepts presented in-film were not out of the realm of future possibility. For all of the film’s absurdities, a giant step is taken here—away from the charming but less-than-serious space visions of Georges Méliès, and towards the more grounded imaginings of space flight found in Woman In The Moon and its descendants.
For modern audiences, the stumbling-block in A Trip To Mars is likely to be neither its mistaken concept of space flight nor its overwrought melodrama, but simply its artistic choices. The broadness of the acting – the posturing, the gesticulation, the eye-rolling and the heaven-reaching – becomes unintentionally risible even if we understand what the film was attempting. At the same time, there are compensations: like so many Scandinavian films, A Trip To Mars is beautiful to look at, and full of memorable imagery.
But in 1918, audiences that two years earlier had been prepared to listen to August Blom’s suggestion that maybe the human race was kind of asking for it, were even more inclined to accept Holger-Madsen’s counter-suggestion that enough was enough.
A few naysayers who found it ridiculous notwithstanding, A Trip To Mars was generally well-received around the world, and as much for its message as for its space elements and its depiction of Martian society. It was warmly praised in America in particular, somewhat curiously to my way of thinking, given the country’s suspicion of homegrown genre films and its demand for explained-away horrors. There doesn’t seem to have been any objection to the journey to Mars not turning out to be “just a dream”.
Sadly, however, shifting economic forces and the rise of significant competition across Europe almost put an end to the Danish film industry post-war—and above all to Danish science fiction. A Trip To Mars would in fact be that country’s last science-fiction film for more than forty years—
—until – ulp! – Reptilicus.
I took a lunch / TV break while I was doing the screenshots for this: guess which Star Trek episode was on? 😀
In the picture of the Elders looking through their telescopes, is that an Ankh on one of their robes? Speaking of Chariots of the Gods (which I read in 8th grade, and even then thought there was some major flaws in the logic)
It is, and I wondered about the implication of that too.
“Planetaros.” “Dubius.” Artificiality again, and to my mind a peril in stories that are trying to stand for something bigger.
Yeah, that whole “Japanese = glasses” thing seems to have been a big part of the stereotype all the way up to WW2. Never really made sense to me. Was it perhaps a fashionable “Western” thing in Japan to wear glasses even if you didn’t need them?
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It seems like the glasses thing has a pretty simple explanation: General Tojo wore glasses, and he was the leader and most caricatured representative of Japanese militarists. Interestingly, there’s a bit of historical basis to the caricature of Japanese officers as unusually small. A lot of them actually were, because the sons of militarists were often sent to brutal military schools where they were put through all sorts of physical rigor and basically starved, according to some sort of misguided perversion of the Bushido ideal. To the extent that it actually stunted the growth of many adolescents who became officers in the war.
That really only accounts for the glasses-wearing stereotype during the second world war, though.
As this movie shows, that stereotype had already existed for decades at that time. Tojo didn’t even reach the rank of General until 1934- this movie’s from 1918. I doubt the filmmakers or most of their audience had any idea who Tojo was. (I tend to think that it was more that, at the time, the Japanese were often perceived in Western culture as being somewhat “nerdy”, and the association of “nerdiness” with glasses goes back a long way.)
My guess, and it is just a guess: glasses come relatively late to Japan (presumably after Perry in 1854, while they’ve been in Europe since the 1500s at least and in America from the start), and don’t have the same cultural baggage of physical weakness, so they’re widely adopted as a symbol of modernity rather than people with marginal vision doing without. A few bespectacled Japanese people are seen in the west, and that’s enough to start the stereotype.
Anyway, not really what we’re here for. It’s interesting to me that one can easily picture another chapter of this story – Avanti and Marya try to bring Martian peace, love and understanding to Earth, something like Stranger in a Strange Land four decades early.
To me it’s like the stereotype of the Jewish lisp, in that it started much earlier than you might think yet lacks an obvious origin-point.
And you can even more easily picture them throwing up their hands in despair and going back to Mars.
Wow! Humans sure do suck in this movie. Then again, can’t blame a director for being so pessimistic during WWI.
“You suck, but you can be better” isn’t such a bad message given the circumstances, though.