Friday, 25 September 2015

The bringer of peace… A Trip to Mars (1918)

“We will never more kill living creatures and we will never more use weapons!”

When did alien worlds start being more of a threat than a promise? It says much about the times that this film’s Martians are an evolved civilization who want to help bring peace on Earth… so think again Gustav Holst.

Released in early 1918, Himmelskibet (literally Heaven-Ship but more often referred to as A Trip to Mars) was a plea for patience (and it is quite slow-paced) and pacifism at a time when the ending of the Great War was still some way off with both sides still in with a chance of victory (with or without the USA) and therefore still murderously competitive.

It is the most deliberate of allegories with this much being obvious from the names of the main characters; Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), the astronomer who believes and his counterpart Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen) who not only does not have faith he actively tries to destroy it in others.

Planetaros believes that there is life on Mars and enlists the help of his son, ocean adventurer Avanti (Gunnar Tolnæs) and his friend Dr. Krafft (Alf Blutecher) who is also in love with Avanti’s sister Corona (Zanny Petersen, who’s eyes are so electric blue they translate in monochrome as sheer white).

Alf Blutecher, Zanny Petersen and Gunnar Tolnæs
The Planetaros begin the construction of their great ship and name it Excelsior in tribute to the lofty heights of their dream. Naturally, Professor Dubious makes many attempts to undermine their project and – bizarrely – to lampoon it arriving just before take-off to ask them to deliver a letter for him…

They gather together an international team including an American lug called David Dane (Svend Kornbeck) who has a weakness for liquor (what were they trying to infer?!)… there may be trouble ahead.

Planetaros and Dubious
Avanti and Krafft take off with their crew in the 1918 version of the space shuttle, a propeller-driven bi-plane that presumably has a rocket as well. The effects are well done and all the more so given that there had been few feature-length films about space craft – although there were seemingly plenty of interplanetary shorts between this and Georges Méliès and there's an excellent summary on the  Silents, Please! blog: To the stars and beyond: movies dream of outer space, 1898-1910.

Taking what they knew the director Holger-Madsen and screenwriter, Sophus Michaelis, were breaking some new ground…certainly in trying to create a serious science film with a message.

Nothing dates in culture more than the view of the future and whilst there’s a period charm in the mix of old-new and old what the film achieves in conveying the wonder of connection with an alien culture undures: that aspect of science fantasy does not change and still drives the genre onwards.

State of the art...
The space ship may make Flash Gordon’s look like the Millennium Falcon and there really is no science at all in the fiction but the film really impresses with the gathering of Martians once the Earth men arrive… the hills lined with white clothed figures and topped off by well-designed temple (God is Love and is on Mars as in Heaven…).
Life on Mars
The Martian Leader (Philip Bech) and his balletic daughter Marya (Lilly Jacobson) move in a state of grace and are able to communicate to the astronauts through use of the perfect language – an interplanetary Esperanto that can be understood by all; pure meaning.

Don't worry, Nils will be alright
They offer the Earthers food, which is naturally vegetarian and when they reciprocate by shooting down a bird to show them the pleasures of fried poultry, the Martians are shocked. One thing leads to another and a young Martian (a very young Nils Asther) is almost killed as the men are briefly imprisoned.

The leader’s daughter takes up their cause and soon is making sweet music with Avanti… after wearing the Cloak of Mercy which allows them to judge themselves as innocent even though they did fire the first shots on Mars for millennia and threw a grenade at the advancing Martian crowd.

Marya wearing the garb of mercy...
Martian techniques enable them to look beyond the fear and ignorance behind the men’s actions and even the drunken David Dane, who tried to start a mutiny en route, begins to see the light.

Again the film scores with the wonder stuff, as Martian techniques relying on self-revelation and inner truth reveal that Avanti has fallen in love with the merciful Marya. There’s a beautifully lit Dance of Chastity which pretty much does the job for Avanti – these Martians can move.

The Dance of Chastity
Meanwhile back on Earth there is no sign of the adventurers and both Planetaros and Corona are beginning to fear for the worse. As Dubious revels in the hope of mission failure he drives Planetaros further into depression and physical decline. But Corona stands firm and defends her father … the women are starting to turn things around.

But still… the Professor is very ill and it is a long way back from the Red Planet…

“On Mars, everything is pure and innocent but on Earth…”
A Trip to Mars is a vision of a peaceful, pastoral future that is more about religious faith and eternal truths than technology. To this extent it has a far more developed “business case” than most modern science fiction with its obsession with delivering the technology without focus on the human process gains behind it.

The acting is less Asta Nielsen and more Astral Traveller with large sweeps of intrepid arms, vexed hands held to brows and bitter fists punched in professorial futility at the heavens.

It is very earnest but then that was important at a time when the truly incredible was very much earthbound in the everyday muddy hell of Western Europe.

“Do not fear death, it is just the beginning of a superior life!”
I watched the 2006 Danish Film Institute restoration which features a sparkling new piano score from Ronen Thalmay. It’s available direct or from Edition Filmmuseum and comes with The End of the World (1916) which doesn’t sound anywhere near as optimistic.

“Go and rest under the tree of longing. If your longing for me fills your dreams, I shall be yours!”


  1. I have this one on DVD - fuzzy memory of it, but it did have some pretty cool special effects and compositions.

    I took note of this sentence: "The effects are well done and all the more so given that there had been few films about space craft – not much between this and Georges Méliès?"
    I know this is naff (I try not to be 'that blogger'), but, I actually wrote on this very topic earlier this year - have a look here if you like. :)

    1. Blimey so quite a lot between Méliès and this one! I loved your post - so much colour and invention!

      In my defence you could say that this one, and to a lesser extent, Message from Mars where longer-form science fiction efforts with more serious than comic intent.

      BUT... a lot of other space fantasies I need to catch up on! Someone should do a themed box set!

      Thanks for you comment and for reading!

      Best wishes