Two films nullified the ’50s productions values of sci-fi films: 20th Century Fox’s Planet of the Apes and MGM’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, both released in April 1968, respectively. To a lesser extent: there was the Robert Altman-directed Warner Bros. production of Countdown, released a month later, in May. And to an even lesser extent: there was Hammer Films — in conjunction with Warners — with their failed “space western” Moon Zero Two, which made it to screens in October 1969. Then, in November 1969, Columbia threw their hat into the space race ring with Marooned, directed by — of all people — John Sturges of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) fame. (If you haven’t seen them: Countdown and Marooned, while accurate, realistic space race dramas, are bone-dry; Moon Zero Two is best described as a goofy, swingin’-mod version of 2001.)
But no one told television director Nicholas Webster that the sci-fi times had changed (and a couple other directors, as you’ll soon see). Then there’s Webster’s less-prestigious pedigree: his first forays into theatrical features was with the crazed Christmastime movie (and his third film) Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (we love this 1964 movie so much, we’ve reviewed it, not once, but twice).
Also released the same year in the U.S. was Italian pirate and western purveyor Primo Zeglio’s woefully already-behind-the-times sci-fi’er Mission Stardust — a film that is closer-in-style to Antonio Margheriti’s early ’60s “mods in space” romps Assignment: Outer Space and Battle of the Worlds, along with Margheriti’s four mid-’60s “Italian Space Movies” produced for direct syndication on American UHF television stations: Known as the Gamma One series, the films included Wild, Wild Planet, War of the Planets, War Between the Planets, and Snow Devils in America (each carry alternate titles). A fifth film in the Gamma series — backed by MGM (!?) with Margheriti co-directing with revered Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku (Tora! Tora! Tora!) — was another woefully out-of-date space flick in 1968: The Green Slime. Each of these films are pure fantasy and lack in any realism triggered by 2001 and the Apes. Can we mention the weirder-to-worse, celluloid cousin to Mission Stardust, 2+5 Mission Hydra, which bounced around the world marketplace from 1966 to 1968? Sure, why not.
If you are familiar with 2+5 Mission Hydra, wrap your head around this for a moment: While Stanley Kubrick was in production on 2001, Pietro Francisci was making his space epic — which had Planet of the Apes-inspired apes, a film that was also in production at the same time. Crazy, right?
However, despite 2001’s ability to transcend its spiritual-and-psychological-confusing themes about a man’s journey through his “inner space” and find box-office success, the major studios held steadfast to their belief: science fiction was a low-budget genre lacking an analogues audience appeal to the westerns and war movies churned out by the majors (which is why Countdown and Marooned are bogged down with more “western” style drama-bickering instead of amazing sci-fi imagery). And it’s true: There was the more inept Missile to the Moon (1958) and Mission Mars (1968) flicks produced than there were Forbidden Planet (1956) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) styled flicks on the big screen in the ’50s and ’60s. Then there were the Earth-bound ones, such as Beginning of the End (1957) — starring a giant, back-projected grasshopper invasion over photographs of Chicago. So goes sci-fi in the ’50s and ’60s.
The plot-similar Countdown (both with Cold War-era space race, fretting wives, bickering military and astronaut drama), which was adapted from Hank Searls’s best-selling 1964 novel The Pilgrim Project, benefited from Searls’s reputation as a respected military and aviation-themed novelist and screenwriter, as well as realism afforded by NASA renting out their facilities in Cocoa Beach, Florida. And from having a score composed by Leonard Rosenman (the Apes and Star Trek film franchises).
Meanwhile: Mission Mars had a Decca Records-tie in with a theme song (that had nothing to do with the film) “No More Tears” by the Queens, New York, garage-psych group, The Forum Quroum (Discogs / Rockasteria). (Well, there’s a subplot about the astronaut’s wives having foreshadowing-nightmares about their hubbies not coming back, so there’s the “tears,” we guess. And you may get “tears” from the “futuristic” ’60s-style jazzy electric keyboard noodling heard throughout the film: I’m picking up “bad vibrations!”)
Webster’s film was produced by Sagittarius Productions as the first film produced at Studio City, a scrappy facility cobbled together in Miami, in a failed, hodgepodge effort by Florida to become the “Hollywood of the South.” (One of Trump’s failed pre-President ’90s deals was to build a film studio in Homestead, Florida, back before the state rescinded its film production tax incentives program later in the decade.) And instead of being based on a best-selling novel, like its three celluloid brethren, Mission Mars was co-penned by Micheal St. Clair and Aubrey Wisberg, who collectively gave us The Body Stealers (1969) and The Man from Planet X (1951) — two films so obscure, the B&S team never encountered either film on UHF-TV, VHS home video, or a Mill Creek box set. (The second and final film produced at Studio City in Miami was William Grefe’s The Wild Rebels. Gus Pardalis from The Forum Quorum also composed the soundtrack — the band also provided songs from their lone album to the film — on Sagittarius’ third feature, 1969’s The Candy Man.)
Do you see where this is going?
While the films Nicolas Webster (who returned to television, never to make another feature film — and stayed away from science fiction) was attempting to copy benefited from location shoots, along with sets and costumes made from scratch; Webster heavily relied on NASA stock footage. And he “reversed” his space footage — two effects for the price of one effects shot — for the Mars launching/landings. And he built his first “Mars” outside: then a tornado ripped through the Liberty City neighborhood and destroyed it. Then shooting was delayed when a dump trunk delivering sand to recreate the Martian set indoors, fell through the sound stage floor. The crew’s spacesuits were a hodgepodge of motorcycle helmets and white-rubber scuba suits. (It seems Sagittarius was unable to rent out authentic Air Force pressure suits and helmets, unlike its more inept cheapie-brethren, 1960’s 12 to the Moon.) Their blue, red-and-white shoulder-striped astronaut mission tee-shirts were actually popular off-the-rack ’60s wares that lasted into the ’70s (Bobby Brady even wore one!) — only with name tags and American flags sewn on the chest and sleeves. (There’s a great, 2011 anecdote from Lance Webster, the director’s son, then 24 and just out of college, threaded on the IMDb regarding the production.)
Do you see where this is going: Mission Mars is more Primo Zeglio and Antonio Margheriti — who coped Roger Vadim’s “mods in space” romp Barbarella — than Arthur P. Jacobs and Stanley Kurbrick. (And with a lesser budget, to boot!)
As with The Green Smile: of course we get goofy aliens. But in Webster’s verse: they’re spindly, one-red-eyed Martians (that look like — and are — dolls shot in close up and inspired by the far superior War of the Worlds aliens) firing up their red eye to either brainwash or fry the Earthlings to a cinder. And there’s the big, rocky-silver orb that splits open to suck in the astronauts. But there are a few nice touches: Mission Commander Darren McGavin (Yep, Kolchak, The Night Stalkler and Old Man Parker from A Christmas Story) and soon-to-die third wheel George De Vries (Deathdream) drop yellow pills and a shot of water into metal steamers to make eggs. And their elevator-platformed capsule is pretty convincing. And the frozen cosmonaut they find — and defrost — is a decent enough effect. The launching of “marker” balloons to find their way back to the ship, is smart. And the alien orb, while a clumsy, in-camera effect, brings a nice what-the-hell-is-that alien mystery to the proceedings that reminds of director Sidney W. Pink and writer Ib Melchoir’s (superior) Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), with its mystero aliens illusion-duping the stupid Earthmen with fake women and lush landscapes on Uranus.
While watching Mission Mars all these years later, it certainly stirs the ol’ UHF ventricles and VHS cockles, but there’s no denying the cheesiness and low-tech tomfoolery of it of it all, with its same old space ship interiors of Bulova clocks and reel-to-reel tape players on the walls. (Motorcycle helmets and wet suits? Astronauts strapped onto massage tables instead of into Lap-Z-Boy recliners?) In fact, if Mission Mars was shot in black and white, instead of color, you’d have a ’50s-era film that ranks right up there with Project Moonbase (1953), King Dinosaur (1955), Destination Space (1959) and Space Probe Taurus (1965). And, if there was a woman on the ship, we could have had another well-intention but Bechdel test failure like The Angry Red Planet (1959) (a personal favorite, courtesy of Ib Melchoir), but me thinks that film’s funky red-filtering and film tinting photo-trickery was beyond Mission Mars’ budget — more so after having to build Mars, twice, and crane a dump truck out of a hole in a sound stage floor.
Okay, well, maybe Mission Mars isn’t as bad as King Dinosaur (at least they didn’t nuke Mars). However, while the always likable McGavin keeps us watching (he returned to Mars twelve years later in NBC-TV’s The Martian Chronicles), it’s easy to see why Nick Adams (in his last-released film before his death) was never able to consolidate his “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar nod for Twilight of Honor (1963) to reach the career hires of his old roommate, James Dean, and close friend, Elvis Presley, only to ended up doing low-rent sci-fi for Toho Studios (Frankenstein Conquers the World, Monster Zero) to pay off his divorce and child custody bills. (It’s said that Presley’s manager, Col. Tom Parker, concerned of Nick’s friendship with Elvis, was behind the undermining/bad mouthing of Nick’s career as a troubled “bad boy” and homosexual.)
You can watch Mission Mars — unripped by MST3K — with a very clean DVD rip on You Tube. If you’re a kid of the ’80s and remember your Saturday afternoons with Commander USA’s Groovy Movies, that version — complete with commercial and Commander vignettes, is also on You Tube. Of course, if you just want the “sci-fi Mars” parts, then you can burn through the movie in eleven-minutes, with the highlights reel, embedded above. Oh, and here’s “No More Tears” as a standalone track on You Tube.