The Martian City in Britain’s First Science Fiction Feature Film

The BFI has just released (on BFI Player, their online platform) a newly restored copy of Britain’s first feature length sci-fi film, A Message From Mars (Waller, 1913). Based on a contemporary stage play, the film is a kind of morality tale (a reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) in which a Martian is sent to Earth to teach Horace, a selfish middle aged man, how to be a better person and win back his estranged fiancée. The film is a fascinating example both of early feature film form and of the sci-fi genre. I am most interested in the film’s portrayal of extra-terrestrial space, and the Martian city in particular. In this respect, A Message from Mars stands out in the sci-fi landscape of the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s.
Mars and its imagined inhabitants captured the public imagination in the USA and the UK at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, frequently appearing in literary fiction and even in early trick films. Martians were frequently portrayed as terrifying, bellicose monsters and their planet as an unforgiving desert-scape. Warwick Goble’s depiction of the Martian invasion of Earth that accompanied H.G. Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’, when it was first published in Pearsons Magazine in 1897, shows the Martians as giant squid-like creatures, monstrous warriors, empire builders with futuristic flying saucers. Goble’s images became the archetype. [1] In another early cinematic incarnation, appearing in Thomas Edison’s 1910 trick film A Trip to Mars, the planet is an uninhabitable wasteland, peopled by ice-giants.
     A Message from Mars presents the viewer with a very different kind of extra-terrestrial space. The film begins on Mars (Fig 1.) We see the court of the Martian God or King. The spaces are flat and two-dimensional (perhaps a relic of the story’s theatrical roots), with geometric shapes and columns creating the illusion of depth. The painted backdrops resemble neo-classical colonnades, reminiscent of the Forum Romanum, or even Grecian temples. This reference to the Ancient world makes the space vaguely familiar, earthly, and idyllic. We are on Mars, but we could be in Greece during its Golden Age. These visual references effectively neutralise the threat posed by this Martian Other. The representation of the Martians themselves has a similar effect. They are immortal, but human in form, men in a built environment, wearing medieval robes, and chain mail that wouldn’t look out of place in Medieval England. Mars becomes, then, in the world of the film, a kind of masculine utopia in our solar system. When the diegesis-proper begins, these super-men become a civilizing influence. These aliens are instilled with good old-fashioned Christian values. Their interest in the earth is not a colonising but a charitable one.
The utopian Martian city is quickly replaced by a terrestrial setting. The bulk of the plot unfolds in Edwardian London. We are whisked through period interiors (Fig 2.) while the Martian (named Ramiel) undertakes the noble, positively Victorian task of teaching a man to be a better person. As a result of the Martian influence, Horace learns moral values. He feeds and clothes a homeless man and rescues sleeping children from a burning tenement. Contact with outer space is therefor theorised as positive, a didactic experience by means of which humans effectively learn the ideal of citizenship. The film thus reflects a contemporary interest in space exploration and new technology and even hints at a time when space exploration has lost the sting of fear, while simultaneously upholding the largely conservative mores of the middle classes in early twentieth-century London. As well as providing us with an unusual image of a Martian capital, A Message from Mars can be viewed as an intriguing document of the very real spaces and places of the middle classes. We drive through London and walk along its streets. We inhabit opulent interiors and we are given a glimpse of Trafalgar Square amid signs of a changing landscape: electric signage hangs in the corners of the frame (Fig 3.) With its images of terraced housing, bowler hats, motorcars and even an example of street theatre, A Message from Mars is science fiction at its most down to earth and unusual.

[1] Examples of the illustrations can be found at http://www.ericrettberg.com/wells/omeka/items/show/93 (Accessed 6/1/15) and more detail on early pictorial representations of Outer Space can be found in Holland, Steve ed, Sci-Fi Art: A graphic History, New York, Collins 2009.

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