A Message From Mars
UK (1913) Dir. Wallett Waller
Recently restored by the coalition of the BBC and BFI (British Film Institute), this silent film from 1913, based on the stage play by Richard Ganthony, is widely regarded as Britain’s first sci-fi film although as we soon discover, its sci-fi credentials are tenuous to say the least.
Pretty much an early but just as shameless rip-off of A Christmas Carol as the many which will follow over the years, the basic plot sees a misbehaving Martian by the name of Ramiel (E. Holman Clark) exiled from his home planet by the God Of Mars (R. Crompton) and forbidden to return until he encourages a selfish earthling named Horace Parker (Charles Hawtrey) to redeem his ways.
Before we go any further this is NOT the Charles Hawtrey many of you will be thinking of – the bespectacled camp star of the Carry On films wouldn’t be born until the year after this film. This Charles Hawtrey was a respected stage actor and writer long before film arrived and would only make two more films before passing away in 1923 aged 64.
Yet as Horace Hawtrey is surprisingly the least theatrical of the lot in terms of acing, with Clark being the worst offender as Ramiel, presumably a deliberate tact by the wonderfully named director Wallett Waller – who would only enjoy a two year career in cinema himself – to make Ramiel appear more menacing and otherworldly.
Considering aliens were an unknown quantity at this time, this would be indicative of how people would perceive alien behaviour to be and would carry on in films well into the 50’s albeit with a lot more restraint. Similarly the setting of Mars is basically a Roman-esque chamber and the costumes are both rudimentary with hooded tops and tights with Egyptian inspired accoutrements, yet somewhat inspired, with the shoulder pads formed of clawed hands.
Back on Earth and we are treated to a glimpse of early 20th century London still showing the residue of Victorian England in terms of fashion and culture, except with cars now sharing the roads with horse drawn coaches. Our first shot on terra firma is a rare quiet moment in Trafalgar Square (with bemused onlookers in the background) featuring the film’s only panning shot, arguably the truest slice of history shared here.
Horace is young and wealthy (Hawtrey was 55 at the time of filming!) but also miserly and very uncharitable. He is engaged to the younger Minnie (Crissie Bell) with whom he is supposed to be attending a dance but fakes a cold to avoid it. Instead Minnie goes with the dashing and more agreeable Arthur Dicey (Frank Hector) and begins to question her relationship with Horace.
Enter Ramiel who wastes little time explaining his mission and showing off his alien powers to Horace. Basic it may be but to create the effect of Ramiel’s abilities the image is sped up as Horace freaks out while Ramiel stands still and is oddly effective in a rudimentary fashion. Along with simple cuts to make Ramiel appear and disappear, and some impressive early split screen work, this is the extent of the special effects found here.
One scene which relies on the good old skill of acting sees Horace trying to walk away from his deal with Ramiel but instead of walking forward he is forced to walk backwards (a sort of proto moonwalk if you will), providing some rare light humour in what is a simple and deftly executed moment.
The story doesn’t really need any forensic exploration as the outcome should be fairly well known by now. Horace is forced by Ramiel – who we assume is not visible to anyone else as no-one seems to comment on the strangely attired man standing with Horace – to hand over his money to a hit and run victim and is transformed into a tramp to learn some humility.
With Horace on the road to redemption we are treated to what is a bizarre moment in which our newly reformed curmudgeon takes in a family caught in a house fire, and sits them down to recoup in front of his fire! Surely the last thing these traumatised folk want to see are more flames, even if it is cold outside? Still, all’s well that ends well as they say.
The original release of this film was said to have run time of 69 minutes but this restored version is only 58 minutes long and even then, the story is rather rushed. Horace’s trial by Martian is covered in roughly twenty minutes which is disappointing considering it is the central plot, and his turnaround happens a bit too quickly for any lesson to be truly learned.
But we have to look at this in the context of the period and in 1913 very few films were in the habit of running beyond twenty minutes, so this would already be an epic under those circumstances. This same consideration is required when assessing the acting, which, as discussed early, is replete with the stagey affectations and wild gestures of its original source, which is synonymous with the perception of silent film.
For many the big question will be whether this can qualify as a sci-fi film. Strictly speaking it doesn’t as we only get one very bare setting and the naive designs for the alien costumes to represent Mars. But Ramiel is from another planet and possess inhuman powers so how much more sci-fi can you get?
This will be a debate for the ages but what cannot be challenged is that A Message From Mars is an important piece of British cinematic history. It might not be much of a paradigm shifter to modern eyes but for a 1913 production, there is a definite competence and infectious confidence about it that makes this an essential historical document to be recognised and cherished by dedicated film fans.