Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The bringer of peace… A Message from Mars (1913)

Science fiction has always been more about Right Here rather than Out There and the late-Victorian/Edwardian vogue for the genre often focused on the military threat from other worlds. There may be a line between War of the Worlds, imperial expansion and the boom of the 1950s which was arguably more about the insidious threat of creeping communism than invasions from space. Get to the sixties and, well, the enemy was definitely our own governments as the new wave of Philip K Dick, Harland Ellison et al struck out against totalitarianism in our name.

Alien races could also use their advanced states to help rather than humble… as this recovered relic from 1913 demonstrates. Aliens were to be admired, better versions of ourselves and proof that improvement can be continuous: our conscience… reminding us of social responsibilities and of the gap between the rich and the deserving poor.

E. Holman Clark and the orginal Charles Hawtrey
A Message from Mars is Britain’s first feature-length science fiction film – maybe even her first feature film - and has now been restored to full length following painstaking restoration based on two shorter versions and a tinted print by the BFI National Archive. The film simply hasn’t been seen in its original length and format for a century and makes for strangely familiar viewing… Mars is studio-based and looks a little like ancient Rome with Martians dressed in the kind of clothes favoured by Alistair Crowley for his weekend hobbies whilst there are stunning shots of Trafalgar Square and London streets more of the nineteenth than twentieth century: a window on a lost world.

The silent streets of London
The film was based on a popular stage play from 1899 by Liverpool-born writer Richard Ganthony and adapted for the screen by director J. Wallett Waller. The film’s star, popular theatre player Charles Hawtrey (no relation to the Carry On star who changed his name for the association…) recreates his stage role with relish playing Horace Parker a self-obsessed gentleman about town who has no time for anyone but himself.

Events begin on the Red Planet where the court of Mars is about to find Ramiel (E. Holman Clark) guilty of transgressing one of their most sacred laws. Using a viewing device the court looks down on their neighbouring planet to observe Parker’s repeated acts of un-kindness as he barges a poor match seller away at Trafalgar Square, refuses to pay after watching a Punch and Judy show and spurns the pleas for help of a worthy tramp (Hubert Willis) who has fallen on hard times.

Such a mean old man...
As punishment Ramiel is sent to Earth to change the course of Parker’s lamentable existence… he must get the Earthman to act out of kindness in order to win back his place in Martian society.

Parker is so self-engrossed he refuses to make himself ready to take his pretty fiancé Minnie Templer (Crissie Bell) to a party but when she arrives with her Aunt Martha (Kate Tyndale), Minnie lets him off and makes sure he’s comfortable… you can see how their relationship works (even though he looks twenty years too old for her). Things backfire as smoothie Arthur Dicey (Frank Hector) arrives and offers to take Parker’s belle to the ball… but he’s too lazily complacent to notice.

Busy doing nothing
Cue Ramiel’s timely apparition at Parker’s front door… he looks around then disappears again to re-appear in the corner of Parker’s study. Parker tries to bluster his way past the Martian with a mission but is buffeted by telekinetic waves – a smart special effect from Waller that still looks pretty cool today.

Ramiel uses the Force
Ramiel forces Parker outside and in the direction of unfortunates… he begrudgingly buys a posy from a tearful flower-seller, gifts a tramp some money and eventually – reluctantly – gives a wad of cash to aid a man mown down by a motor vehicle: he looks like a lost cause.

Summoning the spirit of Christmas present, Ramiel shows him the impact of his selfish ways on Minnie who is beginning to enjoy Dicey’s company at the Clarence’s shindig… but he still doesn’t look like budging.

Parker is shown Minnie dallying with Dicey
No spoilers… In desperation Ramiel transforms Parker into a pauper – a tramp just like the man he refused to help. Hungry and with his wealthy sheen removed will this be the move that finally changes his thinking? Can he win back Minnie, find his compassion and help Remiel recover his own place back on Mars?

A Message from Mars is clearly of its time but from A Christmas Carol through It’s a Wonderful Life to Groundhog Day (even The Lego Movie!) we all love a little magic realism that holds a mirror up to our own guilty lives: a quick fix – well an hour or two – that shows us that even though we’re bad we’re not all that bad.

It’s fascinating to watch a British feature from this period and Waller shows himself to be up to speed with the latest innovations in his choice of shots – the narrative flows seamlessly as characters’ eye-line’s lead onto each scene shift, the camera pans and the actors use the framed space to maximum effect. There’s even a superb shot of a fire engine tearing through Edwardian streets.

The acting is a little stagey but very well done with Hawtrey the stand out as the puffed-up Parker – a rich man fighting for his right to go through life with the snooze button switched full on. He has range though and he’ll get to show it.

E. Holman Clark is grumpily ethereal as Rameil – a man-Martian intent on rescuing an alien’s life rather more than his own (we never find out what it was he did to deserve this) whilst Crissie Bell fizzes as the patient Minnie somehow infatuated with London’s laziest…

The restoration looks stunning given the age and there are some frames that are so clear it almost looked like this was some kind of practical joke – a modern pastiche – but no, that’s what you get for six months of painstaking diligence. There’s a short feature on the work on the BBC arts page: a frame-by-frame labour of love.

Chrissie Bell: Edwardian elegance
The film also features a new score from Matthew Herbert, Creative Director of the New Radiophonic Workshop. Herbert used a genuine 1913 piano to create scratchily ambient music along with a welter of “found sounds” from motor cars to burning wood. It’s not to everyone’s taste perhaps but it works well for me in highlighting the uncanny extra-terrestrial intervention: another red world...

A Message from Mars was released on 12th December on both the BFI and BBC Arts players and is available to watch for free! So, go ahead and fill your boots and thank both organisations for this early present: A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!


  1. This looks like fun! And do I detect a "Mean Mr. Mustard" reference? :)

    1. Yes indeed! I should put Beatles lyrics in every post! ;-)

      It's a great reconstruction and thanks to BFI and BBC for making it free to view!