A Reluctant Hero of Mars

How was the new JOHN CARTER movie?

The short answer: if you have not read, or do not particularly adore, the source material, the movie is a fine, if unexceptional, entry into the Space Princess genre of space opera. There is action, humor, spectacle, swordfights, gunfights, flying machines, mystery, romance, monsters, and everything a Space Princess story should have, including a space princess.

The only thing it lacked was John Carter.

The long answer: I cannot answer in detail without spoiling some surprises. Since the movie is, on balance, worth seeing, you might want to go see it after reading a less spoilerific review than this one.

Spoiler Warnings! READ NO FURTHER! For after the break, I am making no attempt to keep the surprises fresh, because I cannot say what I disliked without actually mentioning the plot twists.

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As the founding member of the titanic, world girdling Space Princess movement in Science Fiction, which, at the time of this writing consists of me and Canadian SF writer Edward Willett, let me freely confess that I had unrealistically high hopes for this film.

I have been waiting one hundred years to see this film. The book was written in 1912. It is now 2012. Okay, perhaps technically speaking, I personally was not waiting all that time, particularly the years before I existed, or before the motion picture camera was invented, but fans of Barsoom have been waiting and hoping.

Those hopes were dashed.

Even so, the film is not without merit, and I might, with great reluctance, recommend it, but only to someone warned aforehand of its drawbacks.

Let me bellyache about the bad before commending the good.

A PRINCESS OF MARS is, after all, not merely the ur-novel or primordial precursor for all American science fiction, it is the foundation-stone and guiding star of the Space Princess movement.  The incomparable DejahThoris is, after all, the prototype, archetype, and stereotype of what a space princess should be.

And John Carter is the prototype, archetype, and stereotype of what a earthling hero should be: stalwart, honorable, manly, devout, courageous to the point of recklessness, but carrying the civilized values of Earth to those older planets, like Mars, whose inhabitants of dry sea bottoms and super-scientific ancient cities have forgotten the finer and nobler sentiments of civilization in their eon-old decay, or carrying the civilized values of Earth to those barbarian and younger worlds like Venus, whose inhabitants of dinosaur infested and cave-men haunted swamps and cycad jungles have not yet learned them.

What John Carter is not, and never has been, is a reluctant hero, someone unwilling to fight. That point is emphasized over and over again in the books, even from the first scene where Carter rushes headlong into an armed Apache camp to recover the body of his friend, tortured to death at savage hands.

The book very carefully shows the progression from captive to war-leader among the barbaric and savage six limbed Green Men of the dead sea bottoms of Mars.  John Carter, in one feat of arms after another, impresses the Tharks, obeys their savage rules and violent customs, and rises in their ranks, earning first their reluctant and then their enthusiastic respect.

Likewise, the savage calot or Martian dog Woola, Carter treats with compassion and respect, and wins the simple and savage creature’s simple and savage love.

One of the most touching and moving things of all, however, is the discovery of Sola, the one Green Martian women of all the race who knew the love of her mother and the identity of her father. It is carefully explained in the book that the Tharks and other Green Men raise their eggs communally, weeding out the weak ruthlessly, and distributing the hatchlings to nurses who have no motherly affection for their charges. The inhuman system breeds the whole race, deprived of family love, a deep seated cynicism, bitterness, and lust for death, an unparalleled savagery.

And John Carter from the outset of his advent on Mars is willing, nay, eager to fight to the death with a grin on his lips and a light in his eye, for trifles of honor or for the all-important love of his life, whom he loves at first sight, and awkwardly cannot bring himself to woo, the incomparable Dejah Thoris.

The one thing John Carter in the books is not, is unwilling or unready to fight.

The John Carter in the movie is so exactly opposite this that I was dumbfounded.

If you look up ‘the reluctant hero’ on Wikipedia (which, as we all know, is as reliable as asking a total stranger at a bus stop his opinion) you will see Arjuna from the Mahabharata (who at the opening of the Bhagavad Gita throws down his weapons, ashamed to fight and kill his own teachers and cousins, the Kuvaras) as the archetypal example of the reluctant hero. His charioteer, the demigod Krisna, must explain to him all of cosmic philosophy before the mighty hero takes up his all powerful weapons and faces the fray.

Also listed, you will see Rand al-Thor, Bilbo Baggins, Han Solo, Ash “This is my BOOM STICK” Williams, and Neo from the Matrix, as reluctant heroes. Aragorn son of Arathorn in the movie version was also self-doubting and reluctant to fight. Aragorn son of Arathorn the real version was not, no, not in the least.

John Carter the real version is like non of these people, except, perhaps, Aragorn the real version.

However, there is many a man who does not like unreluctant heroes. This is a typically Christian notion: that the hero should be humble, until his own merits or the exigencies of fate propel him into the fore. There is also a Politically Correct notion that war and fighting are evil unless helping the underdog against an oppressor, and so the reluctant hero satisfied both Christian and Postchristian notions that a hero should not crave heroism, or know himself to be a hero.

Moreover, the film-makers perhaps thought that the story arc of the hero learning to face and want his destiny would make for more depth of character than the cardboard figure of an Earthman who falls in love at first sight and is willing to kill and die for his beloved Princess.

The notion of a reluctant hero is not itself a wrong notion. But it is so wrong, so very wrong, for the formula of a Space Princess novel.

Let me tell you the formula:

In a Space Princess novel, or a Planetary Romance, you take an Earthman who is supposed to represent every man, especially every man who feels hemmed in by the growth and overgrowth of civilization.

You transport him by plot device to an unknown and alien planet, but not a scientifically realistic alien planet, where he would no doubt fall over choking on methane gas or freeze instantly in sub-arctic cold, no, the planet, for some reason that need not be explained, is as similar to the ancient Rome or ancient China or ancient Babylon as you can possibly get away with, so that you can have opulently rich cities in one spot and barbarian hordes following herds of space animals covering countless miles of prairie or steppe.  You can have rayguns or radium guns provided they are not the weapon of choice: the weapon of choice is the sword.

There is a princess, who is not merely gorgeous, she is the most beautiful woman on two worlds, and the Earthman, without knowing anything about the customs, rules, politics, wars, laws of physics, lay of the land, or whathaveyou falls instantly and totally and absurdly in love with her, and slaughters her enemies like a Cuisinart blender on overload, spraying gallons of blood and severed limbs in each direction. Space Princess is abducted, preferably by a blackhearted villain eager to violate her honor and marry her against her will, so the hero has all the most primal motivations every primate can understand.

There is one other element. The hero has to be an Earthman who is disgusted with the lack of honor found on modern earth, and who therefore fits in well, nay, fits in perfectly with the glorious barbarian codes of honor of the far world to which fate casts him.

Got it? Good. That is how you write a Space Princess yarn.

The one thing, I would say, the only thing, you cannot have in a Planetary Romance or Space Princess novel is a reluctant hero. Notice the list above: Arjuna is from an epic, and from a civil war; Bilbo is a short fat little burglar who is not built for heroism even if he craved it down to his furry little toes; Neo is from a cyberpunk reality-bending story, combination paranoid thriller and messiah stories (and all messiahs should be reluctant, or at least reluctant to be killed); Rand al’Thor is from the Tolkienesque fantasy;  Ash Williams is Bruce Campbell, who makes me laugh my ears off no matter what he is in, but he is not in a Space Princess story. All these reluctant heroes are from different kinds of stories where reluctance makes sense.

The whole point of throwing an Earthman onto another planet is that he is a total fish out of water, and therefore he throws himself into the fray without knowing or caring what is going on, because he knows that, despite the laws and customs of the barbaric world, the political situation, the weird gods and strange tech and whatnot, he has got to save the girl.

The movie makers messed up the beginning something royally. To show that our hero was both tough as nails and unwilling to fight, the movie has him being harassed  in an admittedly well done and funny scene where the Cavalry officers try to recruit him to fight Apaches. Unlike the real Carter, the movie version, whom I will hereafter call Anticarter, voices the cynical comment that the human race is corrupt, and is willing to jump through windows and turn horse thief to avoid a fight.

Because the movie makers have politically correct gunk between their ears instead of brains, when the Apaches do come on stage, a panicky White Man shoots one of them during a parley, thus showing the White Men are both cowardly, and dishonorable, and undisciplined, and the Injuns are the victims.

Well, at least the Indians get to kill a few White Men to show that they are not the helpless victims the PC niks would like them to be.

Once on Mars, John Carter spends half the film trying to go home, not because he had anything at home, but because he has found a cave of gold, and wants to return to his empty life and spend his money — perhaps the least noble motivation every devised in the history of moviedom for an alleged good guy.  Even Han Solo the pirate had a bounty to pay off.

I forgave all my misgivings for exactly one second. When Dejah Thoris, her airship shot down over the Thark territory, falls screaming, John Carter, whose Earthly muscles allow him to make prodigiously superhuman leaps under the lesser gravity of Mars, leaps hundreds of yards to catch her in midair. Landing, he then faces the scores and scores of foes, places the maiden behind him, and says, “Stay behind me ma’am, this could get dangerous.” And draws his sword.

I swear my chivalrous heart swelled with pride to bursting. For a moment, I was deceived into thinking the movie makers actually understood and even liked John Carter and what he stood for.

It was as if I heard trumpets blare, and a voice call out: And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods ? For thee, my princess crowned, this sword I lift, or this life lay down.

But, of course, it was a hoax, a joke.

Xena the Warrior princess, Amazon, the equal of any man with a blade, shoves the stoopid male chauvinist pig to the side, and with the same realism of a story in which a dainty female cheerleader tackles the biggest professional linebackers in the NFL, makes mincemeat in short order of the baddies.

The line is repeated later in the movie, when Dejah Thoris tells Steve Trevor (or whoever it was — it sure ain’t John Carter) to step behind him. This was gratuitous, just to rub my nose into the “PC-fact” that chivalry toward the gentler sex is stupid and ugly, and women are as tall, and strong and hairy and aggressive as men, and love bloodshed just as much.

And the line was repeated to emphasize the fact the Hollywood, and all right thinking people, mock and hate the notion that men want to protect our lady wives, mothers, sisters, and fair daughters from the misery and ghoulish slaughter of combat.

(Note on neologism: a “PC-fact” is like a “fact” in that it is asserted with every authority that can be invented or garnished, but unlike a fact in that it is not merely untrue, but a an insolent and deliberate opposite of the truth.)

Don’t get me wrong, Dejah Thoris in the book is no shrinking violet or fainting damsel. Barsoomian women always carry a dagger or a radium pistol, and are not afraid to use them, and there is at least one scene (it is Tara of Helium in CHESSMEN OF MARS) where a masher trying to impose upon the honor of the gorgeous half-unclad Martian princess ends up with the girl’s  stiletto in his liver, dead in one stroke.

Martian women are not supposed to be weak sisters. They are “with your shield or on it” style Spartan women. But the Martian Men are supposed to be Spartans and Apaches, this is, the most ferocious fighting men imaginable, training in arms from before they can walk, and none of them dying of old age in bed. If you want to show a Martian princess slaughter a room full of blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers from France, fine, I’d believe that. But not fighting warriors of Mars from the blood-colored planet of the war god and emerging without a nick on her perfect skin or her hair mussed.

But, being a modern movie, there were females in combat, the very persons no real race dying of loss of planetary water would expose to combat. They were in the background and foreground of several scenes, well displayed in their bosom-shaped chest plates and a full head shorter than the male soldiers around them. Every time my eye fell on one, I was jarred out of the movie.

There was even one scene where Anticarter during a melee backhands a girl soldier across her face to flip her out of his way. She falls out of the porthole of the airship to plunge to her miserable death.  She was shorter than him, and for all I knew she was wearing glasses.

Look, friendly reader, if you like the idea of women in combat, then you think heroic men should heroically smash evil soldier girls in their pretty little faces, stab and dynamite and defenestrate them, and that this is a proper, normal, and heroic behavior for grown men to teach to their boys. You might as well, while you are at it, teach little boys it is heroic to push a cripple in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.

Now, hunters do not even treat dumb animals this way, because they spare fawns and does. So, if you like the idea of women in combat, you are on a lower moral plane than a hunter who kills beasts for sport.  I am just saying.

One reason why I so enjoyed reading these hundred year old books to my boys is because I want my boys to understand how women are supposed to be treated, which is the opposite of what the insane modern world with its insane pretense that any member of the distaff sex can be Xenia Warrior Princess merely by a decree of Congress.

Again, don’t get me wrong: the Martial Maiden is a trusty, tried and true trope of the epic genre. From Camilla to Britomart to Supergirl, I have no objection to reading about or seeing cute little girls cutting heads and limbs off of men bigger and bulkier than they are. All I ask is that there be some explanation to overcome my suspension of disbelief. Let the girl have been trained by the Ancient Masters of Tibet, or a blessing from their father the war-god Ares or from the Primordial Slayer,  or make her from planet Krypton (or Argo, if you insist) or give her a magical golden lance. Anything will do.

But if you make the Space Princess face a problem she can solve by herself, for what the hell reason do you need to bring a clean limbed fighting man all the way from Earth, across the abyss of space?

In the movie, Dejah Warrior Princess surrenders calmly to the Tharks, entirely undercutting how ferocious and terrifying they are supposed to be.

There follows some scenes where Dejah Warrior tries to get Anticarter to join up and fight for Helium, which I found pointless to the point of embarrassment.

In a proper Space Princess story, the Earthman takes up his arms for his love of her, as if driven by madness, for no other reason than that. It is not something you can talk someone into.

In this movie, Dejah Warrior gives Anticarter no reason to join her aside from ‘Unknown city on alien planet Number One is good; Unknown city on alien planet Number Two is bad’ — and then to cement the persuasion attempt, she tries to bring him to a mysterious spot where some clue about how to return to Earth might be found, and when, despite her skepticism, such a clue is found, she refuses to translate it for him.

The whole thing is appalling. Remember what I said about the second element of the Space Princess novel? The barbarians of the barbaric world can be worse than the Earthmen back home in every way but one. They have to be honor-bound. They have to be men who do not break their word. They have to be women who never lie.

Edgar Rice Burroughs understands this quite well, and emphasizes that the Martians, first, never fight dishonorably, and, second, never lie. To have the incomparable Dejah Thoris lying to an Anticarter who is not in love with her was painful to my eyeballs.

It was as bad as, in the film version of THE TWO TOWERS, making Faramir, who cannot be tempted by the ring, into the Antifaramir, who is.

Let me mention things that were awkward, but did not offend me.

First, the Red Martians simply were not red enough. I have always assumed from the book that they were as scarlet as a woodpecker’s head. They should have at least been red enough that the White Man from Earth or the White Thern from the South Pole would stand out starkly in the crowd. Had it been mine to do, in order to make it obvious at a glance that John Carter was not at home, I would have cast Suzee Pai as Dejah Thoris, Victor Wong as her father Tardos Mors, Dennis Dun as Kantos Kan, and James Hong as Sab Than.

Despite the healthy running length (over two hours) the movie did not actually show us the utterly necessary set up scenes: everyone from dog to princess to savage warrior chief acts as if John Carter is the very ideal of manly battle-hero and faithful friend, but he never is shown onstage being anything but a surly stranger with a pair of superleap legs.

Woola is entirely loyal, but Carter never wins his loyalty.

DejahThoris is convinced Carter can turn the tide of battle against the evil city of Zodanga, but there is no evidence that she is right about this, and she is not in love with him. He is not, in the film,  her rescuer from imprisonment, torture and rape, as he is in the book.

Tars Tarkas and Sola both feel loyalty and compassion for John Carter, but the scenes where he wins them over are missing.

The scene where the savage customs of raising eggs communally is missing; the scene where Sola risks her life by telling Carter her secret, that she knew family love, is missing, the motivation and triumph of Tars Tarkas is missing, and the scene where Carter wins the admiration and respect of Tars Tarkas is missing.

Ditto for the entire Thark horde. They cheer riotously when Carter offers to lead them to war, but, up until that point, he had not done the things he did in the book to show them that he was an honorable warrior.  Such as, for example, be willing to fight.

You see the paradox, I hope. The reluctant hero has to have some extraneous reason for the others in the tale to think he is the hero who has the power to save them. It can be anything from a prophecy, to, uh, another type of prophecy, but there has to be something to provide the belief in him the reluctant hero does not have in himself.

The other thing the movie was missing was the explanation from the book tying everything together: because Mars is a dying planet, his seas drying up, he is covered with dead sea bottoms and empty cities, and all the inhabitants must become as warlike as possible, fighting without pity or quarter over the every dwindling resources, because every fight is a fight for survival.

In all fairness, I cannot condemn the bad without praising the good. One or two things were very good. There are some decisions the movie makers make which, while deviating from the book, I thought were clever and necessary, and even brilliant.

The McGuffin in this film is the disintegration ray (I assume) taken from Phor Tak from A FIGHTING MAN OF MARS, here oddly enough called the Ninth Barsoomian Ray, which (in the book) is the one used to render the atmosphere breathable.  I am not a purist when it comes to such a point: having the big bad wolf possess an evil superweapon or Death Star is dandy with me, and gives the plot some drive missing from the book.

But then you need to explain why the big bad does not merely disintegrate the hero in the final scene, which explanation is missing from this film. You need to have an antiMcGuffin-Mcguffin, such as hoover vacuum cleaner shaped droid carrying the secret battle plans, or the One Ring which can end the Dark Lord’s life if destroyed, that only the hero possesses, so that all hopes turn on him. This was absent from the film: John Carter was not disintegration proof, nor did he have a plan, or even a clue, as to how to stop this weapon of weapons.

The movie sets up that Deja Thoris, with her scientific training (that is not a PC addition; in the original book, she is a scientist) is investigating the weapon, so if she had discovered a defense it would have nicely fit into the plot and explained why the baddies were so eager to kill her. But no. The substance that Phor Tak uses in FIGHTING MAN to neutralize his own death ray does not put in an appearance here.

The Therns, which are, to be frank,  underexploited and inexplicable in the book, in the movie take on the role of an interplanetary conspiracy of super-scientific Illuminati, who can either change shape or cast perfect disguises on themselves, as well as being able to levitate, bind heroes in invisible chains, teleport across space both planetary and interplanetary. In the film, they are cosmic vultures, ageless without being immortal (they can be shot) exploiting the death throes of dying worlds for their own unguessed purposes.

I thought this was the way coolest notion I have ever seen in a film. Ever. It is a brilliant idea, which at once explains their aloofness, their patience, the indirectness of their methods, their nonchalance toward worldwide disasters. I am sure to steal the idea for my next book. (Of course, my next book will also have a prayer-powered mecha designed by Papal super-science fighting the sea-monster Leviathan, so I am sure I can fit in the cosmic vulture idea also.)

The eerie opening of the book has John Carter die and wake up alive on Mars, knowing instantly where he is. Much as I like it, I like the movie version just as much, because while less eerie, it makes a great deal more sense: in the movie, Carter fleeing from Apaches, stumbles across one of the interplanetary way stations or safe houses of the Therns, kills the operator, and accidentally activates the interplanetary-transmitter amulet, which he then loses upon arrival, and spends all of act one and act two trying to recover, as this amulet is the key his trip home.

Another deviation from the book I heartily applaud was the use of Edgar Rice Burroughs as the framing character. There are quaint and eerie scenes at the opening, showing bowler-hatted men in the rain scurrying from steam trains to mansions filled with curios and artifacts, as the mystery surrounding Captain Carter’s sudden death and eccentric burial instructions unfolds. We return to Burroughs in the final scene with a plot twist so well done I would not dream of revealing it.  The odd burial instructions are exactly those taken from the book: Carter is buried in an open coffin in a mausoleum which can be unlocked only from the inside.

Granted, there are no shapechanging Therns in the book, but the scene where Woola the super-dog rescues Carter from one of them, or where Carter is pursuing his Thern foe through several faces and shapes in the middle of a battle field crowded with friend and foe were brilliantly done.

What else did I like about this film?

I liked Woola the Martian calot. Nay, I loved Woola. In the movie he is faster than the Road Runner and as loyal as Woola from the book. I cheered every time he showed up.

I liked Kantos Kan. Nay, I loved Kantos Kan. Again, a scene not from the book where Kantos is trying to fool the Zodagan guards into thinking that Carter has taken him prisoner is playing for laughs, and played well.

Finally, despite all my bellyaching about this film, let me describe one scene, if I have the power to put it into words, which I think not only worth the ticket price, but also worth paying the ticket price of your date who wanted to see a chick flick JOY LUCK CLUB OF MADISON COUNTY playing next door, but you talked her into this one, and the price of both your over-expensive coke and popcorn bucket, and hers.

During their escape by thoat, Cater, Dejah Thoris, and Sola are being overtaken by the ferocious horde of  Green Martians. Meanwhile, we have found the reason why John Carter is reluctant to fight: the perfectly understandable reason that his wife and daughter were killed only a few years ago. His conscience overcomes him, and his natural heroism, and so Carter dismounts, tells Sola to take Dejah Thoris to safety, and he faces the entire horde alone.

Alone, that is, except for Woola the monster dog, who will not leave him. Did I mention that I liked every scene with Woola? I wish they had called the film WAR DOG OF MARS.

As the painful images of Captain Carter of Virginia flash through the agonized memory of John Carter of Mars, we see him, at once, throwing himself headlong into the midst of his foes, making an unholy slaughter, and (in his memory) striking the earth to dig a grave, smashing a cross to mark the spot, roaring in pain. And, at the same time, with almost the same moves, as the music roars to a crescendo, and ichor of Martians flies across the screen, Carter goes berserk like a Viking, before falling to the superior numbers of the foe.

I loved that scene. And it is not the last scene in the film. Carter does not die at that time. A superdreadnaught of the skies descends like an angry god, blasting the horde with radium-gun fire. It is Tardos Mors, grandfather of Dejah Thoris and jeddak of Helium, swooping to the rescue.

Then there follows a stupid scene where Dejah Thoris agrees to marry the Big Bad Wolf, and I guess that is the time to go to the lobby and refill your date’s drink and popcorn bin.

But rush on back, because there is plenty of spectacle and action after than point, including a chase scene on flying machines, weaving under the monstrous mechanical legs of a walking city, and the spectacle of Dejah Thoris in her wedding gown, which she fills out nicely. There are battles and alarums and excursions.

I liked the look of the props and settings very much, and the description of the airships ‘sailing on light’ and the delight of Dejah Thoris hearing about the ships of Earth sailing on bodies of water called seas was a nice touch.

There is one other very tiny thing I liked. The author Burroughs mentions that the six limbed Green Men both walk upright and can run like centaurs, using their intermediary limbs as hands or feet as needed. There was a scene in the film where some of the Greens, during a cavalry charge, dismount and barrel forward like terrifying apes on four and six limbs, which is something I never saw any cover artist ever put in an illustration of the books.  I thought it looked cool, and it is something I have been waiting for some illustrator to illustrate.

So, despite one or two annoying missteps, it is good but not great movie. It is just not A PRINCESS OF MARS, which is a great book, and well remembered and beloved for a reason.