Flight to Mars is a 1951 science fiction film directed by Lesley Selander, who made his name in Hollywood primarily directing Westerns. In his 30+ year career, Selander directed over 100 features, as well as multiple episodes of the television series “Laramie” and “Lassie”. His sole horror credit (as far as I can tell) was 1945’s The Vampire’s Ghost, while Flight to Mars would serve as his only science fiction credit.
Flight to Mars was produced by Walter Mirisch, who would go on to produce multiple films that many consider among the best ever made, including The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, West Side Story, In the Heat of the Night, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and more. The film was one of “poverty row” studio Monogram Pictures (later United Artists) early attempts to evolve past its reputation as a purveyor of low-budget fluff, and to be seen as more of a “big time” player. As such, Flight to Mars was given a higher budget than most of the studio’s previous affairs, although the film is still very much a modestly budgeted production. This is clearly evidenced by the film’s somewhat lower-end special effects. Some may even say “the lack of” said special effects. That said, is worth noting that Flight to Mars is believed to be the first sci-fi film shot in color.
As the film opens, Earth is preparing to embark on its first rocket flight to Mars. Granted, we hadn’t even been to the moon by this point, but hey… this is America! We aim high!
Taking part in this flight are the scientists and engineer (Arthur Franz – Monster on the Campus, Invaders from Mars) who planned the project and developed the rocket, the engineer’s assistant and “sorta, kinda” love interest (Virginia Huston – Flamingo Road, The Racket), and a reporter (Cameron Mitchell – The Toolbox Murders, Blood and Black Lace).
The first third of the film is dedicated to the voyage itself, with very little time wasted before the crew blast off. However, little of note happens on this trip outside of the short-lived threat of a meteor shower, leaving the runtime to be filled with plenty of introspection from the crew. Mitchell, as journalist “Steve Abbott”, spends the trip (and, essentially, the entire film) trying to woo Huston’s character, “Carol”. However, when that does not seem to get him very far, he changes gears, alternately berating and guilt-tripping the woman into trying to fall for him. He’s so dedicated to this cause that he gives little care to the fact that Franz’s character, “Dr. Jim Barker”, is usually still in the same room. To be fair, Barker doesn’t seem to care as he is much more concerned and focused on the trip than he is the woman who is helplessly devoted to him.
When the meteor storm damages the rocket’s landing gear, the crew is forced to crash land into the side of a mountain upon reaching the “Red Planet”. This causes an avalanche, which buries part of the ship. However, the crew can see a series of towers in the near distance. Upon inspection, the crew is greeted by a Martian “welcoming committee”, led by Martian elder Ikron (classic B-movie regular, Morris Ankrum – Earth Vs. The Flying Saucer, Giant from the Unknown). The Earthlings are led tp the planet’s surface, where the Martians have built their cities. Coincidentally, the Martians look just like us and speak our language (in this case, English) perfectly, having received our radio signals for years.
After a brief summary of how the Martians live, the crew asks the Martians to help rebuild the rocket, to which they agree. The crew is then shown to the quarters in which they will be spending their stay, where we are treated to a scene that seemingly only exists to show that the Martian’s advanced technology will keep Carol from the responsibility of “womanly duties”, such as cooking and washing dishes.
Unbeknownst to the Earthlings, Ikron and his council of elders have only agreed to help with the rocket’s repairs so they can then kill the humans and use the rocket for an invasion of Earth. It’s revealed that the planet is dying and that the Martians hope to make our planet their new home. One member of the council, a peaceful Martian named Tillamar, is strongly against the plan, instead hoping to establish working relations with Earth and its people.
To help with the rocket’s repairs, Barker is assigned a Martian assistant: a tall, attractive woman named Alita (Marguerite Chapman – The Seven Year Itch, A Man’s World). Alita is dressed in a goofy-looking blue suit (that I assume is supposed to look “futuristic” by 1950’s standards), which (as with all the women of Mars) is cut super short in order to show off her legs. The producers obviously knew that their audience would be predominately male and wanted to ensure that they had that audience’s attention. It also gets Barker’s attention as he quickly forgets about ol’ “what’s her name?” (Carol).
Soon, Alita discovers Ikron’s true intentions and warns Barker, which forces him to expedite his repairs to the rocket. This sets into motion a plan to deceive the Martian council by making it appear that the rocket has suffered even more damage. This hasty escape from Mars leads to the film’s only real moments of “action”. Unfortunately, these moments are all crammed into the film’s final five minutes. Because of this rushed nature, there’s solid argument that the film ends with no real sense of resolution. However, as the film ends with a shot of Earth, it’s fairly safe to assume the crew’s fate.
Unlike some of its cinematic brethren, Flight to Mars is much more a case of “science fiction” than “science fact” as much of what we now know about interstellar travel does not apply in the slightest here. Then again, as the film was produced during the early days of the 1950s, we really knew little to nothing about the subject, so consider this flight to be very much a “flight of fantasy”. The first clue should be when the crew launch while still in their street clothes.
Performances are surprisingly solid throughout, with Mitchell and Huston as the film’s standouts. However, it’s Chapman who receives top-billing… even if she doesn’t show up until more than halfway through the film. Even then, “Alita” is really a secondary character.
The real star of a film like this is the special effects. In this regard, Flight to Mars is a little underwhelming. The film’s primary effect, the rocket, is fairly hokey even by that era’s standards and would probably be deemed downright laughable by today’s standards. Fans of classic sci-fi cinema may be interested in knowing that the rocket (and/or its interior) were previously used in Destination Earth and Rocketship X-M, both of which were released a year prior in 1950. Other effects from the film were later reused in 1958’s Queen of Outer Space, as well the notorious 1953 schlocker Robot Monster.
Truth be told, Flight to Mars is actually quite dull, but far from what I would call unwatchable. That said, I can’t say that I ever felt the urge to turn the film off. This may be because the film plays quite a bit like those early day sci-fi serials, such as “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger”, or even the Buster Crabbe-era “Flash Gordon”, both of which I quite enjoy. In fact, the costumes for the Martian council feel quite reminiscent of something Ming The Merciless would wear.
Flight to Mars is not one that I can recommend to the majority of viewers, but fans of classic sci-fi may still want to give this one a spin. The film was released to blu-ray by The Film Detective in July of 2021, and features a clean (if not overly sharp) transfer. The film is available to watch in lower picture quality on Youtube, but otherwise is currently unavailable on streaming sites.