Growing up in my parents house, I was able to access their sizeable library of books – largely fiction, largely in paperback. However, there were a few hardbacks and among the Denis Wheatley and Nevil Shute novels I discovered a hardback with a rather lurid mauve cover entitled ‘Thuvia, Maid of Mars’. This was a novel written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, and part of a cycle of novels set on a fictional version of the planet Mars with an earthman called John Carter as their main protagonist.
Burroughs had attempted to build a career in the US Army and had actually served with the US 7th Cavalry in Arizona before being discharged with a heart problem when in his early 20’s. He drifted through a series of menial jobs and ended up with a wife and 2 children back in his native city of Chicago. It was at this point that he began reading some of the ‘pulp’ magazines that were so popular at the time and declared that if people were going to read what he described as ‘rot’ in such magazines, and if publishers were prepared to pay good money for the aforementioned ‘rot’, then he could provide them with stories that were much more entertaining and of a higher quality. He was as good as his word and his first story, ‘Under the moons of Mars’ was published in 1912 to considerable acclaim.
This was the first of Burroughs ‘Martian Cycle’, which eventually ran to 11 or 12 such novels. Burroughs became even better known for his Tarzan novels, the first of which was also published in 1912 and eventually spawned over 20 sequels.
As a youngster, I readily consumed the one ‘Martian’ novel in my parents’ library, then set about reading as many of its companion volumes as I could, courtesy of the local Library. In truth, there is little to distinguish the books in terms of the quality of the writing or the depth of the characterisation. John Carter, the earthman who is the principal figure in most of the books is a fairly straightforward ‘man of action’ whose ‘martial demeanour’ finds echoes in the conflicting societies he finds on Mars. Most of the female characters in the books are conventional beauties with plenty of spirit but a weakness for a ‘real’ man who is clean of brow, mighty of thew etc etc….you get the idea.
So, it might be as well to enquire what drew people to these tales of derring-do on a parched and dying planet. In the early years of the 20th Century, the planet Mars was still shrouded in mystery. H.G. Wells had already used Mars as the home of his hostile invaders in ‘The War of the Worlds’ as far back as 1898 and there was huge interest in ‘The Red Planet’.
In the early years of the 20th century, the astronomer Percival Lowell wrote a series of books about Mars, suggesting that the markings we can see on the planet’s surface – usually referred to as the ‘Martian Canals’ – might signify a network of canals constructed by an advanced civilisation. Burroughs built on this; the Mars of his early books is an almost completely desert landscape reminiscent of the Arizona he might have experienced whilst serving there with the 7th Cavalry. The canals in these books are generally irrigation devices with strips of farmland around them.
Burroughs’ Mars (known in the novels as ‘Barsoom’) is sparsely populated by two warring races – the Green Martians who capture Carter when he first arrives and the Red Martians who seem to all intents and purposes to be bronzed versions of ‘homo sapiens’ except that they are oviparous. However, these 2 races are themselves just fragments of an earlier and greater culture; Mars, it seems is a dying planet with the atmosphere constantly leaking away into space and the desiccated landscape composed of the dried-up beds of huge oceans that once graced a far greener world. Carter spends much time travelling through this eerie world with its deserted cities and their hazards – from fierce tribes of Green Martians to predatory white apes. For all the limitations of the rather predictable characters and their rather hackneyed interactions, Barsoom itself is a fascinating place to explore.
Amazingly, given the number of movies that have been made based on Burroughs’ Tarzan novels, 2009’s ‘Princess of Mars’, released directly to DVD over here, is the first of the ‘Barsoom’ stories to be made into a film. Clearly, the alien creatures – particularly the Green Martians, who have two sets of arms in the novels – would have represented something of a challenge to any movie-maker who aspired to accuracy. But that never stopped Hollywood- and so it proves here, with the Green Martians represented as being of standard human size; essentially, we are talking standard ‘men in rubber suits’ here. In fact, none of the special effects are particularly impressive as Carter fights his way past giant bugs and spiders of a fairly pedestrian nature.
On most levels, ‘Princess of Mars’ is strictly B-movie standard and no more so than in terms of its heroine – the Martian Princess Dejah Thoris, usually described as ‘incomparable’ by Burroughs in the novels and played here by former porn star Traci Lords, aged 41 according to her official biography, but looking older, frankly. When Carter encounters Dejah Thoris for the first time in the novels it is in ‘Princess of Mars’ where she is depicted as very much the essence of lissom innocence; a young and fragile flower barely out of her teens. With the best will in the world, Traci Lords’ teens are well behind her now and with a blonde Bonnie Tyler fright wig, she just looks like the proverbial ‘Mutton dressed as Lamb’…..although, given her costume it should perhaps be ‘Mutton undressed as Lamb’. Fortunately for her, those around her are little better; Antonio Sabato Jr is predictable and wooden as Carter, Chacko Vadaketh a cardboard cut-out villain and Matt Lasky loud and jolly in the Chewbacca role as the friendly Green Giant. Of course, none of this is necessarily the fault of the actors, but I fail to see how Lords got this part when there are no doubt younger and more photogenic actresses available – who are probably better actresses as well; heaven knows that wouldn’t be difficult.
Traci Lords – the oldest Princess on the block…
Anyway, it’s back to the drawing board for the Barsoom movies because Princess of Mars is a total clinker on most levels. Then again, this was a ‘pulp’ novel when Burroughs published it back in 1912, so maybe it deserves no better. In a couple of years we are promised another Barsoom movie – Andrew Stanton’s ‘John Carter of Mars’ has what looks like a better cast (including Willem Dafoe) and financial involvement from Pixar & Disney. It will allegedly be released in 2012.