Flight to Mars (1951) | The Film Detective trailer screengrab

Buckle-up for a Retro Future in ’50s Sci-Fi Film ‘Flight to Mars’

Philosophical, rich with eye candy, and powered by historical context, ‘Flight to Mars’ is an orphan amid an army of sci-fi films blasting out of 1950s Hollywood.

The Flight to Mars
Lesley Selander
The Film Detective
20 July 2021 (US)

Lesley Selander’s Flight to Mars (1951) is something of an orphan amid the army of science fiction movies blasting out of 1950s Hollywood. Its modest if definite pleasures can be appreciated in this attractive Blu-ray from Film Detective, which scans a 4K restoration from the original 35mm Cinecolor separation negatives. Let’s take a look.

A poetic opening finds two men dwarfed by a huge telescope that seems to project out of the screen as if it’s a 3D movie. The men use it as a tool, with authority, yet it dominates them. One of them stands posed in his business suit like an Egyptian hieroglyphic while the other sits peering. We’re presented with his view of the heavens and Mars as they speculate on the coming expedition.

They must have inside knowledge, for only in the next sequence does the US government make a surprise announcement of an imminent flight to Mars. This creates a flurry of controversy and Congressional questions quickly described as a debate between “isolationists” and “interventionists”, highly suggestive terms harking back to the recent WWII era and newly relevant in the Cold War.

Fortunately, the film alludes to these controversies without wasting any of its 72 minutes on them, and the first half-hour still feels padded with lots of uniformed military types yakking in rooms until we arrive on the Red Planet. WWII is relevant because it was among the filmmakers’ few reference points for films about flight. Thus, the American astronauts (a word never used) dress in plain khaki with padded flight jackets suitable for a bombing run. The only space suits are worn by–whoops, let’s not give it away yet.

Ignoring all public inquiries due to their special dispensation from somewhere, the five-person crew consists of two grey-haired fuddy-duddies and a younger romantic triangle. Cameron Mitchell is top-billed as Steve Abbott, a reporter who “earned” his passage with his reputation as a top WWII correspondent. There’s WWII again, or rather still, as though it never stopped.

Mitchell is the “name” star whose character is supposed to be the audience’s regular all-American surrogate, the one who doesn’t think too much. As Don Stradley points out in his commentary, the film partakes of the anti-intellectual suspicion of eggheads that can be found in many of these science-dependent dramas.

I suspect this cultural trait combines several factors: the atom bomb, which won the war while introducing new nightmares; the Frankenstein myth, another expression of the same fear and fascination; the fact that rocketry icon Wernher von Braun was being busily rehabilitated from his Nazi associations; and because scientists and “intellectuals” were suspect for being too smart to always fall in line with the political program without question. The case of Alger Hiss made headlines in 1950, and J. Robert Oppenheimer would lose his security clearance in 1954.

So Abbott is somehow our starring lead despite a glaring irony: he does nothing. The leader who gets everything done, saves the day, and weds the heroine, is Dr. Jim Barker (Arthur Franz), a boffin who even smokes his pipe on the flight. First, he must be rescued from the suspicion that he’s too sciency to have a sex life, and that brings in the long-suffering, long-simmering Carol Stafford (Virginia Huston).

Carol is one of the genre’s stalwarts: the “lady scientist”. “For a lady scientist, you aren’t very objective” is one of Steve’s asinine remarks. Jim calls her a “smart girl” who was taught by her brother and “learned spaceship engineering in only three years”. He thinks of her as a Gal Friday and forgets about their dates, while she keeps carrying that torch. Apparently, she only puts up with this science nonsense to be near Jim.

Fortunately for Jim, and perhaps for Carol, he’s confirmed as “normal” by the film’s second Lady Scientist, Alita, who’s played by the other top-billed name, Marguerite Chapman. She shows up in the second half of the plot in mini-skirt and bodacious high heels, and when she explains which minerals are best for heat expansion, Jim nearly passes out from his own heat expansion. By this point, he’s handily dominating the story while Abbott stands out of the way, except for making the occasional move on Carol as her consolation prize.

Okay, we’ve gotten to the good part: Mars. The pastel Cinecolor shot by Harry Neumann; the sleek rocket design by Chesley Bonestell; and the futuristic city designed by future Oscar-winner Ted Haworth, as openly inspired by William Cameron Menzies and H.G. Wells‘ Things to Come (1936). The spiffy if obviously low-budget matte paintings and animated effects are from the uncredited team of Jack Rabin and Irving Block, contracted by effects supervisor Jack Cosgrove. All these things offer a world of charming eye candy even apart from the Martian women with their heels and pointy shoulder pads.

If this is surprising for the low-budget studio Monogram, it was all part of the grand plan of producer Walter Mirisch from the start of what would become one of the most legendary award-winning careers in postwar Hollywood.

The studios were launching their own space race with the dueling 1950 releases of Destination Moon (produced by George Pal, directed by Irving Pichel, co-written by Robert Heinlein) and Rocketship X-M (directed by Kurt Neumann). The legacies of Bonestell and Things to Come were all over these films. Mirisch decided Monogram should have its own ship in the race, using props and sets from both of the 1950 films, and that it should be the company’s first Cinecolor production.

Possibly the most unfortunate choice was director Lesley Selander, whose career was overwhelmingly devoted to B westerns and who mostly seems to have acted as a traffic cop, adding little inspiration to a film that relies on design and dialogue. Stradley makes a just contrast with the stronger visual charms of Edgar Ulmer’s even cheaper film of the same year, The Man from Planet X, and another comparison might be made with Ulmer’s stodgier Beyond the Time Barrier (1960).

Stradley, whose commentary is rather tough on poor Flight to Mars, opines that this film gets neglected because it’s not among the era’s best examples (true) and yet it’s too good and professional to be among the alleged campy trash. There’s no denying a level of flat talky dullness that often goes with this territory, yet I’d argue that the talk in Arthur Strawn’s script touches on interesting topics of philosophy and politics.

While sitting around the rocket in flight, the oldster Dr. Lane (John Litel) suddenly brings up a concept that would be explored in Jack Arnold and Richard Matheson’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957): “If space is limitless and endless, then don’t you see the opposite must be true, too. Smallness never ends either, but continues being tinier and tinier just as the enormity of the universe becomes more and more enormous.” That’s a heady idea, even if not pertinent to this story.

Later they discuss the existential question of survival vs. the mission and they all express thoughtful points of view. The other senior, Prof. Jackson (Richard Gaines), frankly doesn’t expect to live but wants to carry on just because that’s what he’s doing. Carol is startlingly resigned, assuming they’ll die either way.

On Mars, which is ruled by a possibly elected oligarchy with factional squabbling, a paranoid aggressive style of politics embodied by Ikron (Morris Ankrum) is opposed by an idealistic, Adlai Stevenson-esque style embodied by Tillamar (Robert Barrat). There’s even a mini-McCarthy-esque inquisition on Alita’s loyalty. As usual, sci-fi worlds metaphorically reflect the society that invents them. We also get a third major woman character in Ikron’s spy Terris (Lucille Barkley).

Two bonus shorts discuss Mirisch’s career at Monogram, which included relabeling itself Allied Artists for its more prestigious projects, and a look at early ’50s space movies. The result is a very reasonable package for a film that, while it won’t be regarded among its era’s classics of sci-fi cinema, has enough brisk charms to attract those of us who can’t get enough of the retro future.