A scientist floats to Mars and is captured by Martians in this early American short film. Not a masterpiece, but a well made and intriguing little film. 5/10
A Trip to Mars. USA, 1910. Silent short. Directed by Ashley Miller. Loosely based on H.G. Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon. Produced by the Edison Company. IMDb Score: 6.1. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
Along with the Edison’s 10 minute rendition of Frankenstein (review), A Trip to Mars was one of USA’s first science fiction films, and perhaps the first all-out sci-fi. It was also one of the very first films about a trip to Mars – in any country. Both these films were released in 1910, and both were produced by Thomas Edison’s powerful conglomerate. At the time American movie studios were stepping up their efforts to produce fantastical films, as the endless stream of French movies into the US market had subsided somewhat with the introduction of the American movie trust, effectively shutting out foreign operatives. While the influx of foreign films were a problem for American film companies, but also a boon in an age that Nickelodeons started demanding daily changing programs. American film companies were mainly organised for copy and distribution, and for years didn’t possess either large enough studios nor the effective organisation to satisfy the production requirements of multiple high-quality films a months, even a week.
But things were changing in the new decade: Edison had just built its new film studio in the Bronx, NY, and slowly new talent was joining the studio’s sole artistically merited director Edwin S. Porter. 1910 was perhaps the artistically most vibrant year for Edison before the studio shut down after its monopoly had been broken up by court decision in 1918. That year Porter directed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and new top director J. Searle Dawley made A Christmas Carol and the first ever adaption of Frankenstein (review). It was also the year that Ashley Miller directed Edison’s first all-out sci-fi movie A Trip to Mars. Ashley had joined Edison in 1909 and was one of the companies’ trusted directors, even if rather anonymous, until he left in 1915. He is perhaps best remembered for directing two films in 1917 for Erbograph starring Swedish movie star Anna Q. Nilsson.
A Trip to Mars is, as were quite a few early short sci-fi films, a more or less blatant ripoff of French pioneer Georges Méliès’ groundbreaking masterpiece A Trip to the Moon (1902, review) However, this film is not without a few original touches. At 5 minuted in length, A Trip to Mars is a lot less ambitious than Méliès’ 13 minute mini-epic – the sets are mostly nondescript and there isn’t much of a plot.
The film takes its cue from H.G. Wells’ 1901 book The First Men in the Moon, inasmuch as a scientist creates a substance that reverses the effect of gravity – and makes a chair float in the air to test it. H.G. Wells’ “cavorite” had been toyed with before, by Gaston Velle in A Voyage Around a Star (1906, review). But here is really were the similarities end. In he film, the scientist throws some powder in himself, and floats up to Mars. Here he walks through a sinister forest of gigantic Martian tree-like beings who finally captures him. One of the giants hold him in the palm of his hand and breathes freezing air on him, until he is encapsulated in a giant snowball. The Martian then heats the snowball over a flame until it explodes, and the scientist tumbles back to Earth. Furious, he throws the remaining powder on the floor, and the whole house starts to shake and tilt. The End.
The costume and makeup designs of the Martians are quite impressive – the Martian forest is actually quite imposing. The trick filming isn’t at all bad either – with the exception of the scenes where the scientist is supposed to be flying through the air. It is obvious that the actor is lying on his back on the floor, flailing his arms and legs. Here for example Spanish director Segundo de Chomón was a lot more inventive in his 1909 film A Trip to Jupiter (review). The superimposition shots used to make he Martians appear huge are very well done, even though trick film of this kind was a bit archaic when they were used just for the effect even at this time.
The story is a bit garbled: exactly why the Martian chooses to create a snowball out of the poor scientist and then melt him is unclear, and no title cards are inserted for any explanation. Overall, the absence of explanations give the film something of a psychedelic, surreal feel, which gives it a strange draw. A contemporary review bu Rush at Variety was not positive: “The reel does not stand up to the ‘fair’ standard, even.”
Ashley Miller also made another sci-fi short called Sky Splitter in 1923, which seems to have been rather ambitious, but doesn’t seem to have been preserved. Miller directed a few dozen films even after the Edison Company had more or less withdrawn from movie making when directors like D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille championed a more serious, realistic style of filmmaking in early Hollywood.
There is a story going around on the internet that A Trip to Mars was re-edited from around 40 000 paper stills. The story behind this is that films weren’t in the realm of copyrights until 1912, but photographs were. So by developing paper copies of every frame in the film, the filmmakers could in effect copyright the whole film. Despite the fact that this sound utterly ridiculous, I can find no real confirmation of this. The original claim apparently comes from someone who as uploaded the film to Youtube. I find the claim highly suspicious, mainly because Edison was a driving force behind the new regulations on motion pictures, and the company probably wouldn’t have approved of a system that would have required them to make paper copies out of every frame of their films. And that’s what they would have done with every film, unless this was some sort of an exception, and I don’t see why it would have been: it was made by Edison, at Edison by an Edison director. However, I do believe that the film may probably have been digitally restored through photographing every frame of one or several old prints or negatives.
A Trip to Mars. USA, 1910. Silent short. Directed by Ashley Miller. Loosely based on H.G. Wells’ novel The First Men in the Moon. Produced by the Edison Company.