A Trip to Mars

Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars) (1918): Denmark – directed by Holger-Madsen

Not rated by the MPAA – contains a total lack of modern science

This is a science fiction movie before science was invented.  It’s an odd little treasure, a Danish movie about space travel even before airplanes were commonplace.  It was made in 1918 and recently restored by the Danish Film Institute.  Since it was made well before 1927 it is silent, though there is an excellent piano accompaniment.

At some point I must write something more about silent films.  I am ashamed to admit that they are one  only type of film I struggle to sit through.  There are true classics made without sound, with Chaplin and the German Expressionist films being among them, but I often struggle, personally, with sitting through a silent film.  This is a fault I must work to overcome.

So, tonight, when the fancy struck that I might enjoy a silent film, I chose this one.  It was a good choice, I thought, being only 80 minutes long and a bit of a science fiction curiosity at the same time.

The story, you see, involves Avanti Planetaros (played by Gunnar Tolnæs.)  He’s just back from a year-long expedition.  His father, Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), and sister, Corona (Zanny Petersen), great him.  Before long (and I mean that, since the movie moves at breakneck speed) he takes up piloting.  Not long after that he realizes his true vocation in life: reaching Mars.  So he enlists his father and sister’s suitor, Dr. Krafft (Alf Blutecher), to help him.  Two years later they have built a spaceship, capable of reaching 12,000 kmh (this was before they realized you had to go a fair bit faster to escape Earth’s gravitational pull.)  They hold a meeting at the Scientific Society to explain the plan to the scientific community and enlist a crew of young men, willing to give their lives to explore a new planet.

Among them is David Dane (Svend Kornbech.)  We can tell he is an American because he is large, clumsy, rude, and ill-mannered.  Also at the meeting, however, is a vocal naysayer, Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen.)  He has been friends with Professor Planetaros in the past but he thinks the Mars voyage is a foolish endeavor.  However, his doubts are not enough to prevent the mission, and soon Avanti and the crew are off.

They fly an odd spacecraft.  It looks like a dirigible and a tri-winged plane mated and had a baby.  It has sliding doors about an inch and a half thick.  It has giant wheels that steer and fly it, and tubes the captain uses to issue commands to the crew, just like an old submarine.  On the way to Mars, though, the American begins a mutiny, since the trip has been long and he is prone to drink.  But soon enough they are rescued by the people of Mars, who help them quickly travel the rest of the way.

You see, Mars has been inhabited for thousands of years.  Its inhabitants are exactly like us, except they wear funny headbands and dress in white.  This is because they are pure and innocent; they use to have war and sin and bloodshed but have become enlightened and peaceful.  They are now a hippy commune, and pretty soon the explorers have to learn their ways.  At the same time Avanti meets and falls in love with Marya, the Martian leader’s daughter (played by Lilly Jacobson).

The plot sounds pretty ridiculous, and might be if the film was not so deadly serious.  Nothing is played for laughs; it is instead a serious drama and morality tale, explaining how humans’ violence and shooting is terrible.  It takes the science fairly seriously, too, attempting to explain how the ship travels to Mars.  The explorers even put on oxygen masks before exiting the spaceship, until they realize the atmosphere is breathable.

From the viewpoint of a modern science fiction movie, this is an utter failure.  But it is not a modern science fiction movie; instead it is a fascinating insight into how the earlier part of the last century thought about Mars and space travel, 40-odd years before it became a reality.  I have often felt, too, that silent films are harder to judge in this modern age.  Sound added an entirely new sensory experience to movie-going, and certain silent movies cannot be viewed the same way as other films.  There are exceptions, of course, particularly with the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

There is still the visual aspect, however.  A Trip to Mars is nicely composed, with some particularly striking shots involving dramatic silhouettes.  The acting seemed fair enough, but I am not experienced enough in silent films to recognize good silent acting when I see it.  It all seems like over-acting to me, which it was, I suppose, since that was the only method of conveying emotion available to the actors.

Is the film good?  Is it enjoyable?  I think it is good, though not great.  I don’t know enough about other films from the 1910’s to compare, but it still seemed rather overt and obvious with its message.  Simultaneously, it does not succeed in building strong drama or suspense, and the overall theme gets less focused as the film progresses.  As for how much I enjoyed it…  Well, it was very interesting to watch as a snapshot into that particular historical period.  I would have a great amount of trouble recommending to anyone not interested in the history of Danish films or science fiction films (and even hardcore fans of the history of science fiction would probably struggle through it.)  Think of it as an historical oddity, and if you are a cinephile you might enjoy it.


4 thoughts on “A Trip to Mars

  1. Ryan

    Hello there! I would love to watch A Trip to Mars. I was recently given a book entitled 101 Sci-Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die, and this was #2 on the list to view (the books goes in chronological order). Any idea where I can get my hands on this film? I’ve tried Google, Amazon, Youtube, and Ebay, and struck out everytime. Thanks!

  2. Tim Irwin Post author

    Good news, Ryan. After some very intense searching I found that the Danish Film Institute remastered and released the film to DVD. It is available from their website, and is listed on this page http://eshop.dfi.dk/Shop/ItemList.php?CategoriSelect=6 Scroll about halfway down and you’ll find a double feature with “Himmelskibet” included. Looks like it’s about €13. I hope you can get it and watch it, it’s a must-see for fans interested in the history of science fiction.

  3. Ryan

    You’re a true master of the search engine, Tim; thanks for spotting this one for me! Looks like I will be able to continue my quest through the 101 sci-fi movies afterall. Nice to see it’s a two for the price of one deal no less. Excellent review on the movie by the way. Thanks again!

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