D: Wallett Waller / 60m
Cast: Crissie Bell, Kate Tyndall, E. Holman Clark, Charles Hawtrey, Hubert Willis, Frank Hector, R. Crompton
On Mars, Ramiel (Clark), an acolyte of the Martian King (Crompton), is found to have committed a grave misdemeanour. His punishment is to remain in exile on Earth until he can redeem someone. That someone is Horace Parker (Hawtrey), a wealthy businessman whose selfish, and self-serving manner has attracted the Martian King’s attention. Horace is engaged to Minnie (Bell), but when he refuses to attend a dance with her, and ignores her entreaties, Minnie realises there’s no future for them as a couple and she returns her engagement ring. Horace isn’t too upset by this, but he is by the sudden appearance of Ramiel who quickly reveals his identity and his purpose on Earth. Forced by Ramiel’s powers to acquiesce, Horace still does his best to get out of being selfless, but the Martian is too strong for him, and too determined to get back to Mars. A second encounter with a tramp (Willis) who came to him for help earlier, leads to Horace finally understanding what it means to be unselfish and thoughtful of others, all of which has a profound effect, not just on Horace, but those around him…
Though it’s widely regarded as the UK’s first science fiction movie, A Message from Mars isn’t strictly speaking a science fiction movie. Yes, the framing story is set on Mars, and once on Earth Ramiel does show an aptitude for spontaneous teleportation, but the bulk of the movie is a sub-Dickensian drama with romantic overtones that will remind viewers much more of A Christmas Carol than anything else. Horace equates to Scrooge, and Ramiel is a thinly veiled conflation of Jacob Marley and the three ghosts (you could stretch this idea even further and have the tramp standing in for Tiny Tim). This familiarity – which to be fair might not have been so obvious to audiences of the time – makes the movie hugely enjoyable as each development in Horace’s transformation from miserly misanthrope to fine upstanding philanthropist plays out with the kind of rote predictability that only a hundred years and more of similar movies and plays and television programmes can engender. This may not be the first version of Richard Ganthony’s stage play – a one-reel version was released in New Zealand in 1903 – but it has a freshness about it, and a vigour, that’s aided by the play’s opening out to include contemporary London street scenes, and some rudimentary but effective special effects.
For the time, the acting is more than acceptable too. Though Clark overdoes the whole declamatory style of acting – watch what he does when he returns to Mars in triumph – the rest of the cast acquit themselves more naturally, with Hawtrey giving a spirited, sharply observed performance that never once strays into caricature or artifice. That the movie holds up so well is a tribute to its overall quality, including a well judged screenplay by original writer Ganthony and uncredited director Waller, convincing production design that belies the source material’s theatrical origins, and Waller’s canny, unfussy direction. All comparisons to Dickens aside, A Message from Mars is a hugely enjoyable gem from the silent era that, fortunately, has been lovingly restored by the British Film Institute, and features the original tinting and toning. As such it’s a movie that probably looks even better than it did on its original release; there’s only an occasional missing frame, and it doesn’t have the jerky, speeded-up quality that poorly projected prints of silent movies are often subjected to. So, if you’re a fan of silent cinema, this is one to check out as soon as possible.
Rating: 8/10 – with its science fiction trappings serving as an extra dramatic layer for the main storyline, A Message from Mars is classy silent fare that works on several different narrative levels, and doesn’t even appear to be trying too hard; the Martians may look and behave like over-dressed members of Ancient Rome, but they do bring with them a range of science fiction staples such as mind control and interplanetary space travel, and it’s embellishments like these that add further lustre to a movie that still sparkles over a hundred years after it was released.
NOTE: Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a trailer for A Message from Mars.