REVIEW: A Trip to Mars (1918)

triptomars_posterAn ambitious war hero (Gunnar Tolnæs) leads a mission to the red planet in Danish filmmaker Holger-Madsen’s ambitious silent feature A Trip to Mars (1918).

A Trip to Mars was released just 16 years after George Méliès’ iconic A Trip to the Moon, and clearly draws much inspiration from it. It is one of the earliest science fiction films ever made, and with an original length of 97 minutes is almost certainly the first feature-length SF adventure to be produced (sadly only about 80 of those minutes have survived to the 21st century). It pre-dates Fritz Lang’s famous Metropolis by almost a decade.

Like all silent films, it deserves to be appreciated in context. The broadly simple plots and characters are typical of the period – as is the exaggerated dumb show acting – but allow yourself to sink into them at you will find an artful and effective adventure film. The sets and locations give A Trip to Mars an expansive, almost epic feel, and Holger-Madsen demonstrates a strong depth of field in his direction.

There is a strong sense of planetary romance about the film. The grandly named Captain Avanti Planetaros (Tolnæs) commands his skyship Excelsior to Mars and finds an entire civilization living there. The Martians have a visible culture, follow vegan diets, and have renounced violence in all of its forms. They even observe euthanasia. It is a sharp contrast to the world Palentaros has left behind, and surprisingly progressive for an early 20th century film.

Given the film’s age, it is understandable why A Trip to Mars has such a haphazard representation of science. Despite this, unexpectedly prescient references and observations creep in. For example, the Excelsior’s launch is specifically timed to enable the shortest route between two planets orbiting at different speeds. That this is explained in the same scene that reveals the Excelsior itself as a sort of steam-powered aeroplane simply makes the film’s technical naivete all the more charming. Also hugely enjoyable is the film’s portrayal of space travel as a rough-and-tumble gentleman’s pursuit, in which none of the crew are scientists but in which they do pack both revolvers and alcohol for their journey. Given the current prevalence of real-life billionaires spending monstrous amounts of money on upper-atmosphere ego trips, A Trip to Mars may not be too far from the truth.

The performances vary, but there are highlights – not just Tolnæs as Captain Planetaros but also Svend Kornbeck as the alcoholic engineer David Dane, and Alf Blütecher as Dr. Krafft. Frederik Jacobson makes for a wonderfully hissable villain as the amusingly named Professor Dubious.

A Trip to Mars is an odd aberration in the history of Danish cinema, since another science fiction film did not emerge from Denmark until Reptilicus in 1962. Within a decade of release it had largely been passed over in favour of Lang’s one-two punch of Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (1929), and remained half-forgotten for almost a century. A 2006 restoration enabled modern-day viewers to discover its immense charms and technical achievements. With the Danish Film Institute making this restoration available for free on its website, science fiction fans and cinema enthusiasts can freely experience what just might be genre cinema’s most unfairly forgotten chapter.

A Trip to Mars is available online as part of a range of restored silent films presented by the Danish Film Institute. Click here for more information.

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