From the June 2003 issue

Mars in 20th century American pop culture

Twentieth century pop culture provides an array of American views on the Red Planet.
By | Published: June 4, 2003 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Mars has captivated imaginations long before Mariner 4 imaged the first up-close surface details in 1965. Subsequent missions have revealed more about the Red Planet, yet the fascination with our planetary next-door neighbor remains. Listed below are a few examples of Mars represented in American pop culture.
John Carter of Mars
Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote Tarzan of the Apes, brought us John Carter and his heroic deeds, culminated in a series of 11 books, John Carter of Mars, published from the 1910s to 1940s. The story begins with the ex-Confederate soldier being chased into a mine while prospecting. With the assistance of a noxious gas, Carter is transported to the Red Planet, where he is taken captive. Carter eventually marries a martian princess, rises in politics, and attempts to save the dying planet.

Burroughs also created other fantasy books using Mars as a subject. He envisioned the planet as topographically decaying rock with warring factions covering its surface. Burroughs’s son, John Coleman helped to write and illustrate these tales, whether in comic strip or book form.

The War of the Worlds
Orson Welles and his program Mercury Theater on the Air became nationally famous with a CBS Radio broadcast shortly before Halloween in 1938. With the help of writer Howard Koch, the Mercury Theater presented H.G. Wells’s story of martian invasions as a series of updated bulletins. The result was so realistic that many listeners believed the broadcast and were swept into a panic. The next day Welles and his troupe were front-page news.

H. G. Wells’s classic was recreated numerous times in different formats. The War of the Worlds was made into a movie in 1953, starring Gene Berry and Ann Robinson. In 1978, songwriter Jeff Burton crafted a musical of the story, featuring Richard Burton.

martian chronicles
The Martian Chronicles
Bantam Books
The Martian Chronicles
Ray Bradbury, America’s legendary science fiction writer, wrote the definitive book about the Red Planet in 1950. His tales describe Earth’s attempts to explore and colonize Mars as the disappearing indigenous inhabitants try to repel the invaders. With his trademark blending of social criticism and science fiction, the author paints a futuristic, yet nostalgic, extraterrestrial world while commenting on mankind’s moral bankruptcy, the threat of nuclear war, xenophobia, and censorship.
Invaders from Mars
Released in 1953 at the height of the Red Scare, Invaders from Mars struck at the fear of Americans. Only this time it wasn’t communists, but martian aggressors. The first sci-fi film in color, this movie is a classic in the genre.

The nightmare begins when David, a young boy, sees a flying saucer land. As adults are quickly brainwashed and controlled by the invaders, David must enlist help from his school’s nurse to confront the menace.

stranger in a strange land
Stranger in a Strange Land
Ace Books
Stranger in a Strange Land
Mars inspired author Robert Heinlein to write such books as Podykayne of Mars and Red Planet. His most famous work, Stranger in a Strange Land, reflected his fascination with the planet. In this story, the infant sole survivor of Earth’s first colony on Mars is raised by martians. As an adult, Valentine Michael Smith travels to Earth, oblivious to the customs and mores of Western society. As a messianic figure, he creates a new religion, alluding to Heinlein’s own beliefs.

Not only a sci-fi book, Stranger in a Strange Land was so widely appreciated that it reached the New York Times bestseller list.

Total Recall
Douglas Quaid, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Fox’s 1990 film, is an average 21st-Century guy, except for one problem. This construction worker is haunted by dreams about Mars. After attempting to have memories of a trip to Mars implanted, Quaid soon realizes a hidden meaning behind those visions of Mars. With armed thugs trying to kill him, the muscle-bound fugitive heads to Mars, hoping to reclaim his identity.

Based on Philip Dick’s short story We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, Total Recall was a box office success. Filled with action, special effects, science fiction, and even love, this movie seems to have something for everyone.

mars attacks!
Mars Attacks!
Warner Home Video
Mars Attacks!
Director Tim Burton, famous for Batman and Edward Scissorhands, used an all-star cast in his over-the-top 1996 homage to 50s sci-fi cinema. With bulb-headed aliens zapping every human in sight with ray guns, this film spoofs its predecessors while poking fun at politics, celebrities, and American institutions.

With the talents of noted composer and former Oingo Boingo leader Danny Elfman, Mars Attacks! possesses a amusing soundtrack seamlessly mixed into the wacky plot. The zaniness ends with the martians defeated and Tom Jones crooning his hit “It’s Not Unusual.”

red planet
The Red Planet
Warner Home Video
Mission to Mars and The Red Planet
The year 2000 brought us two major-release Mars films: Mission to Mars and The Red Planet. Both were promoted with much hype but didn’t live up to studio expectations. The former dealt with the possibility of extraterrestrial communication, the latter, a sci-fi thriller focused on Mars as an ecological system.

In The Red Planet, the Earth is dying and mankind’s survival rests with successfully terraforming Mars. A team is sent to the planet to investigate why the project is failing. For this crew, everything that can go wrong does — and an iniquitous robot sure doesn’t help matters.