A Message from Mars (1913) A Silent Film Review

“A Christmas Carol” gets a science fiction makeover in this adaptation of the stage favorite of the same name. A Martian is stripped of his rank and won’t get it back until he has taught a wayward human how to be unselfish.

Your friendly neighborhood Martian

While alien invasion films are generally in the majority, members of helpful and wise alien races have made appearances in science fiction from the beginning. Whether warning humans of an inevitable nuclear holocaust… by making zombies… Okay, so maybe Plan 9 From Outer Space wasn’t the best example but it did rip off the message of The Day the Earth Stood Still, an absolute masterpiece.

Onesie action on Mars!

In the silent era, Himmelskibet, Denmark’s foray into the feature length space opera, revolved around a wise and ancient race of Martians teaching humans to give up their selfish ways. Martians were just as awful as humans in the Soviet classic Aelita Queen of Mars and merely sadistic pranksters in the Edison film A Trip to Mars.

We could go on and on and on but it’s time to talk about the portrayal of Mars in this 1913 British science fiction film. It’s one of the very earliest science fiction features, though it cannot count as a space opera because it lacks the required derring-do. Instead, it is a sci-fi fable, the kind of thing that could have been a Twilight Zone episode with a few tweaks. Or, contrariwise, it is the kind of thing one would find in an off-brand performance of A Christmas Carol.

Martians take a dim view of stiffing buskers.

Ramiel (E. Holman Clark) has been a very naughty Martian and has lost his privileges until he completes a penance. He must contact unpleasant human Horace (Charles Hawtrey) and help him to lose his selfish ways. Horace doesn’t buy matches from street sellers, refuses to tip at a Punch and Judy show and wants to sit on soft cushions instead of taking his fiancée, Minnie (Crissie Bell), to the dance as he promised. She is so tired of his antics that she returns his ring.

Hawtrey was on the shady side of fifty when this movie was made and so the mystery to me is not so much how he will win her back as it is how he landed such a young hottie in the first place. Surely she would have taken his money into consideration when dating him? While I like Hawtrey in the role, he does seem to be rather too old for the immature jaunts of Horace.

Seems legit.

Anyway, Ramiel shows up through the wonders of interplanetary travel and in-camera special effects. (I am sure the Starfleet science department would want to talk to his about his impressive transportation capabilities.) He informs Horace of his mission and declares that he will make a new man of him. And with that, our adventures in redemption begin. Ramiel may not be able to summon ghosts but he does have the power to show Horace that Minnie has moved on and to change him from a well-to-do man about town into a beggar.

Will Horace be redeemed? Will Ramiel ever get to return to the Martian court and wear a onesie again? Watch A Message from Mars to find out!

Ramiel shows Horace what he’s missing while Minnie finds a new love.

Oddly enough, the play was the subject of a lawsuit between author Richard Ganthony and leading man Charles Hawtrey regarding author credit and rewrites. Whoever was in the right about ownership, I’m not sure that it is all that much to brag about. Its close resemblance to Charles Dickens’ popular Christmas Carol was noted when the play was still new and the sci-fi trappings don’t do much to save the basic low stakes of the story.

Simply put, Horace doesn’t seem bad enough to warrant interplanetary interference. I mean, he’s unpleasant and selfish but he seems to be doing a pretty good job of punishing himself. He lost his lovely fiancée because he wouldn’t put down his magazine long enough to give her a lift to the dance, for heaven’s sake. I wouldn’t want Horace as a neighbor but it strikes me that Earth would have been better served by a Martian visit to a certain Willy and Nicky, who were rather famously managed to start a world war via telegram. Or, if that is too prescient for you, maybe get Teddy Roosevelt to stop picking on Colombia?

Who needs a fire department when you have Horace?

Further, Horace’s redemption (spoiler) consists of him living the life of a beggar for about five minutes and not liking it. After that, he brings his new homeless friend home (fine) but then becomes some kind of amateur fire brigade, personally saving a boatload of kids from a burning building. Forgive my Bah! Humbug! but I find that to be pretty unconvincing. A small stakes redemption should be just that. I believed that Horace would help his new friend but turning into a one-man fire station just rings false.

Still, this was neither the first adaptation (the earliest I can find was made in New Zealand) or the last (Hollywood took a stab at it in the 1920s with Bert Lytell in the lead) so that says something about the play’s popularity, inexplicable though it seems to me. (Unlike this picture, the Lytell film takes the “it was all a dream” route.)

Dig that funky Martian style, dudes!

Let’s throw in some well-deserved praise. I absolutely love the goofy, glorious design of Mars and the Martians. The hoodie/onesie combination with clawed shoulders tickles me pink and the whole Plantagenet vibe is a nice relief from the Greco-Roman Martian look. The design is cohesive and distinct. From what I can tell, it’s pretty much what was used on the stage, so well-done there.

The film also avoids the usual problems of a stage adaptation. Stuffiness is kept at bay by taking the show outside and the exterior shots open up the film considerably. I am not sure how the visions were handled on stage but double exposure and other special effects further add to the cinematic feel of the picture. There are no other fireworks in the cinematography but it’s a very attractive and confidently-directed film from J. Wallett Waller. Another well-done.

Horace isn’t getting away that easily.

While some of the performances, particularly the Martian court, feature flailing arms and melodrama, most of the actors show an awareness of the movie camera and do not overplay their roles. Charles Hawtrey proves that his reputation was not exaggerated with an unlikable but funny performance as Horace. Nonetheless, I was invested in his redemption and did worry about him in the fire scenes, superfluous though they were. (Still, as stated above, he definitely was too old for the part, which is one way in which the stage to screen adaptation fails.) E. Holman Clark is a bit more stagey as Ramiel but he is playing an alien so broader gestures are acceptable. I would have loved to have seen his Captain Hook.

A reconciliation between Horace and Minnie.

So, while the story lacks a bit of sophistication, there is plenty to enjoy for anyone interested in stage adaptations, the roots of science fiction and British silent films. While the film is not perfect, it is still an enjoyable watch and an enjoyable way to spend an hour.

Where can I see it?

Released for online viewing on the BFI player in the UK. For those of us living outside the area, well, Google is a thing. Hint hint. The BFI score is extremely modern, by the way, and it kind of takes things a little far even for me. I hope to see this on home media as part of a roots of British sci-fi set but perhaps with the option of more traditional music.

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