Historically, the various Abrahamic religions have not gotten along very well. Indeed, factional rifts and doctrinal controversies have plagued monotheism in The West (and Middle East) since the age of Constantine. The petty (well, if you don’t think the souls of all mankind hang in the balance at least) squabbling of the Arian Controversy set the tone rather nicely for rest of the history of Christianity. The church would split into two separate bodies, the Western Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Middle Ages. Then the Western Church split once again, this time splintering off into a vast array of splinter Protestant Churches. Each upheaval, split, or heresy was accompanied by a great deal of religious violence, sometimes just random individual crimes and other times great wars that entangled whole nations in the fighting. Indeed, it’s rather ironic that modern leaders use the Crusades as the ultimate example of religious violence; historically Christians have been much more likely to direct their religious intolerance at other Christians. As for the Jews living in Europe throughout these epochs, their persecution and suffering is so well know that I doubt anyone reading this has not encountered it in some form. Yet, in the middle of the 20th Century all these disparate Judaeo-Christian sects found themselves united in purpose. As it turned out, all they needed was a common enemy.
Communism from the very beginning held itself as antithetical to organized religion, which was regarded by the adherents of the new creed as a tool of capitalist oppression. When Lenin and the Bolsheviks conquered Russia they began to actively attack the Eastern Orthodox Church that had previously flourished there. The process of secularizing Russia was mostly accomplished through re-education of the people and anti-religious propaganda; but the Soviets wouldn’t balk at locking up or killing priests who made trouble. When the Red Army annexed Eastern Europe the process was repeated. Prominent Catholics, Protestants and Jews in America watched these events with horror. Seeing Communism as essentially a secular religion, Church leaders reasoned that America could not emerge victorious over this enemy without some form of spiritual guidance. Many of the nation’s secular leadership agreed, despite belonging to a wide array of churches themselves (Hoover was a Presbyterian, Truman a Baptist, Charles Spellman a Catholic, etc). It was deemed vital that Americans be religious, what particular religion they belonged to no longer seemed to have much significance. A new Great Awakening was born from these ideas, one that was completely blind to the sectional strife that had defined Western religion for more than a thousand years. The end result was that, as William Lee Miller put it, a great many Americans were “very fervent believer[s] in a very vague religion.” Big budget movies like Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Ben-Hur (1959) are the better-known products of this same social phenomenon; yet none of them captures the essence of the new unified American spirituality as well as today’s film: Red Planet Mars.
Not that the theological implications will be apparent any time soon, for Red Planet Mars begins like any other sci-fi film of the era: with a scientist working on some new wiz-bang gizmo that promises to catapult mankind into an uncertain future. In this case the scientist is one Chris Cronyn (aided by his wife Linda), and the invention that threatens to overturn all of human civilization is a newer, more powerful radio capable of contacting the planet Mars. Recent telescopic evidence of the red planet has confirmed the 19th century visions of the Martian Canals, meaning there must be an advanced civilization living there. Cronyn is even getting responses back from Mars; only problem is that all he receives is the same transmission he sends out repeated right back at him. The pentagon has taken an interest in the Cronyns’ project, and dispatches Admiral Bill Carey to lend a hand with finding some way to communicate with the Martians. The two scientists and one admiral don’t come up with anything, and amusingly enough it’s the Cronyns’ eldest son Stewart who figures out that they can establish a dialogue with the Martians by transmitting the digits of pie, and letting the Martians add on to the sequence once they’ve finished. Having thus established a line of communication, the Cronyns and their allies from the Pentagon are able to establish a common language with the Martians. Arrival (2016) it ain’t, but all the same, but all the same it’s nice to see the problem of inter-species communication treated as an obstacle, rather than something to be tossed aside with a handwavium universal language translator or a line about how the aliens have been monitoring our broadcasts for many years.
Unbeknownst to Cronyn though, he isn’t the only one listening in to the Martian broadcasts: Franz Calder, the Nazi scientist who originally devised Cronyn’s radio has also built a radio for talking with Mars. Calder was sprung from prison by KGB agents, whose bosses in the Kremlin are interested in making contact with Mars before the Americans. The logic goes: whoever gets their hands on Martian technology first will be able to use it to fashion new and more terrible weapons. Stalin and his magnates are sick of being stuck in 2nd place and are willing to take a chance on a drunken war criminal like Calder if it means they can get a strategic edge on the Americans. Cronyn’s rapid progress means that Calder won’t be the first to contact the Martians, but he can still listen in on the American radio communications without their knowing. Calder’s KGB handlers are happy enough with that.
The first few broadcasts are exactly what you would expect from a superior civilization: They have limitless energy, vastly expanded lifespans, and are able to produce almost limitless food. News of this throws the Western economy into a panic, as investors flee from traditional industries for fear that Martian technology will disrupt them. In an amusing montage we see business leaders and politicians fretting about extreme longevity will do to Social Security, or limitless energy to the nation’s coal interests. A particularly deadpan lobbyist even demands to know that in light of the news from Mars will the government “continue to support the price of potatoes.” The Western world descends into economic depression and near anarchy. The command economies of the Soviet East fair better, this being the 1950s they have limited commercial contact with the West, and fear of the Gulags is sufficient to keep the machines of their own industry running along at a steady hum.
However, things really get odd when Cronyn asks the Martians how they, with ubiquitous access to atomic power, keep from blowing each other up in the squabbles that inevitably arise between sentient creatures. Rather than respond with some well-reasoned policy of diplomacy, or mutually assured destruction, or means of regulating and limiting atomic power for personal use, the Martians send back a passage from the New Testament. “It’s the Sermon on the Mount… from Mars” Linda Cronyn says, stunned by the development. The American leadership has no idea what to make of this strange new message. The president decides that this message must be shared with the world, no matter the cost. His Secretary of Defense tries to talk him out of it, saying: “You can’t hitch your wagon to that star, Mr. President.” To which the president replies in extremely hokey but nonetheless charmingly earnest fashion: “We’ve switched stars, Mr. Secretary. We’re following the Star of Bethlehem.”
It is here the film betrays both it’s own hopeless naivety and the naivety of Americans at the time. Rather than sparking a fresh round of pogroms and crusades, news of biblical message from Mars instead leads to a peaceful, worldwide, religious revival. This is because the filmmakers, and most of their audience, believed that all religions were essentially the same: exhortations to love goodness and hate evil. It is no longer possible for any thinking person to approach the subject of religion with such enviable optimism; the intervening years have made that impossible. Yet, when I look on the message of Red Planet Mars, even a person with no particular religious beliefs, I find myself envying the characters their faith and optimism. In 1950s it was possible to imagine a world where doctrinal strife played no major role, and the world’s religions were capable of coexisting in absolute harmony. All the worse for us that we know this cannot be.
In the Soviet Union, word of this biblical message it sparks a full-on peasant uprising, which spreads like wildfire despite characteristically ruthless suppression by the Soviet authorities. In the end the Stalin (he is not named but it’s obvious that it’s who we’re dealing with) and his cronies are toppled almost overnight, and the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church is installed as the head of an interim government. In his first acts as leader of the new Russian nation, he declares the independence of the Eastern Block nations and the end of religious persecution in the Soviet world. The Cold War is over, as it turned out, all we needed was a little faith. The only fly in the ointment left is Franz Calder, who stealthily makes his way to the Cronyn home/laboratory with a secret that can undo everything.
There is little love for Red Planet Mars today. It is an obscure movie, totally devoid of any of the attributes (rubber-suited monsters, hokey special effects, absurd gaps of logic) that make many films of its genre and era so beloved. The best that is usually said about it is that it is an interesting cultural artifact, a time capsule that shows the silly outdated thinking of a bygone era. This may be true, but for my money it is also one of the finest intellectual sci-fi films of its age, sanding on the same level as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). It’s a film that takes the time and effort to explain some of the science behind its technology and plot. A film that bothers to at least ask the question how can we communicate with beings from another world that do not share our language, culture or even biology. It is a film that asks serious questions about mankind’s uncertain future. A film that, despite it’s gloomy setting and existential stakes, dares to believe in the possibility of a peaceful solution to mankind’s woes.
Red Planet Mars also captures perfectly the core tension of the 1950s: a Fear of nuclear annihilation coupled with a dogged belief that life is getting better and the mankind is essential good and humane. The two Cronyns capture the central duality of the age. While Chris Cronyn dreams of what a better place the world will be with Martian technology, Linda quakes in fear of what weapons this science will allow men to build. As she puts it: “We all live in fear, it has become our natural state. Fear our sons will have to fight another war or fear they’ll face worse.” The threat of global war was never as immediate as Linda makes it out to be in the 1950s, yet for the regular folks lacking even a conception of the concept of mutually assured destruction, it must have felt close indeed. Yet, Red Planet Mars does not succumb to despair, but instead maintains a strong, hopeful message: There is no reason why mankind cannot together live in peace.