Color, 1951, 71 mins. 38 sec.
Directed by Lesley Selander
Starring Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, Arthur Franz, Richard Gaines, Morris Ankrun
The Film Detective (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
The huge success of 1950's Destination Moon not only kicked off producer George Pal's career in sci-fi but immediately inspired a wave of space race-era tales of astronauts blasting out into the great beyond or aliens heading the other direction to make contact with Earth, as seen in such 1951 films as When Worlds Collide, The Man from Planet X, and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Wedged right in the middle of those is the colorful quickie Flight to Mars, which was still a relatively ambitious outing for poverty row studio Monogram Pictures. Recycling some props and sets from another Mars-themed sci-fi favorite just before it, Rocketship X-M, this one hits all the expected highlights including intrepid American space travelers, a duplicitous alien race, and a conflicted female alien forced into a moral tight spot by the arrival of our heroes.
The Pentagon is abuzz about the first "rocket propelled flight to Mars," which has recruited former war correspondent Steve Abbott (Blood and Black Lace's Mitchell) to ride along and cover the human drama of the astronauts willing to risk death: project head Dr. Lane (Litel), Professor Jackson (Gaines), chief engineer Jim Barker (Invaders from Mars' Franz), and assistant Carol (Out of the Past's Huston). Of course, Steve is smitten with Carol immediately, though that isn't enough to reduce his alarm over the realization that they may not survive the journey back. After their communications and landing gear are taken out of commission in a meteor storm, they decide to forge ahead and crash land on Mars to obtain data. Upon arrival they're welcomed by a group led by Martian President Ikron (Ankrum), who explains that they've learned English through received transmissions and can show them the entire underground, hi-tech world they've built complete with an oxygen-style breathing system. Together they come up with a plan to salvage the ship while also sharing information with the Mars council courtesy of their head scientist, Alita (Chapman), but the Martians have their own secret plans to save their dying planet...
Shot in the quickly declining process Cinecolor (which has an unearthly, powdery look to it not unlike early two-strip Technicolor), Flight to Mars was an early project for young producer Walter Mirisch, who would soon guide Monogram into its more ambitious successor, Allied Artists, where he oversaw such films as Invasion of the Body Snatchers before starting the multiple Oscar-winning The Mirisch Company (Fiddler on the Roof, In the Heat of the Night). This film is obviously modest with a focus on limited, sparse sets, but it also has some bursts of visual imagination here and there along with some fun special effects during the flight sequences. The characters are all pretty much stock types (Mitchell and Franz are basically jerks despite their "hero" status), though the frequent undercurrents of post-WWII trauma give it some interesting shadings about the nature of sacrifice and the families left behind. As usual for atomic age sci-fi films, the female characters play a little strangely today with Alita wearing one of the shortest skirts in movie history while playing an extremely competent and intelligent scientist. From a scientific standpoint things are kept very vague (the mission's point isn't really spelled out at all, and Steve doesn't get to tour the rocket or even get any sort of training until less than 24 hours before launch!), but of course that's all part of the pulpy fun here.
Owned by Wade Williams, Flight to Mars first emerged on DVD in 2005 from Image Entertainment as part of its line of his mostly '50s sci-fi and horror titles (following their much earlier laserdisc release). Despite some frequent damage on the print, it was a pretty decent presentation for the time and still looks watchable enough today; extras on that one include the theatrical trailer and that omnipresent Cameron Mitchell interview (52m4s) with David Del Valle from his public access show, The Sinister Image. In 2021, The Film Detective issued this film on Blu-ray and DVD as part of its deal with Williams (which will hopefully still be followed by many, many more), featuring a much-improved presentation from a new 4K restoration undertaken by the Paramount Pictures Archive according to the packaging. The first reel before takeoff looks much grittier than the rest of the film, but it's all in excellent shape and presumably offers an accurate representation of the dreamlike Cinecolor process. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also in excellent shape, and the film also comes with an excellent, very thorough commentary by Justin Humphreys that covers all the essentials involving Monogram, Mirisch, and particularly the visual effects, as well as connections to other early '50s sci-fi films. He doesn't try to hide the film's shortcoming (including an amusing bit about the obligatory "romantic mumbo jumbo") but makes for solid viewing company throughout. In a nice touch, the film includes not only English SDH and Spanish subtitles for the film itself but both options for the commentary as well. Ballyhoo Motion Pictures' "Walter Mirisch: From Bomba to Body Snatchers" (14m8s) takes a look at the early career of the legendary producer including an overview of Monogram at the time as explained by C. Courtney Joyner, running the gamut through jungle adventures, horror quickies, and much more on the way to its transformation into the much more prestigious Allied Artists. "Interstellar Travelogues: Cinema’s First Space Race" (10m30s) features sci-fi artist/historian Vincent Di Fate examining the evolution of the early outer space travel films starting with Fritz Lang's Woman in the Moon through the depictions in films like this one, Rocketship X-M, and Destination Moon. A very handy insert booklet features an essay by Don Stradley focusing on the extensive (and sometimes very amusing) history of Mars-related cinema and featuring tidbits about most of the essential players in front of and behind the camera.
The Film Detective (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on August 1, 2021.