The Film-makers of Mars
The discovery of forty reels of a lost 1911 movie adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, impossibly well-made and yet ineluctably old, is…weird. But for the journalist protagonist of “The Film-makers of Mars,” by Geoff Ryman, that’s only the beginning of the weirdness to come...
This story originally appeared on Tor.com in 2008.
The films just started showing up, everywhere, old forgotten silent movies turning to jelly in warehouses all over SoCal: Anaheim, Burbank, Tarzana.
I got a call from Al at Hannibal Restoration. “They’re mindblowing!” The old hippie.
Eight reels of a film about Santa Claus from 1909. Filmed in Lapland. And forty reels of a film it says was produced by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In 1911?
Cinefex sponsored a program at the LA film festival. They invited me, of course; Hannibal invited me as well. I gave the second invitation to my friend Amy.
I don’t know what I was expecting. L. Frank Baum went bust producing Oz movies. They’re terrible and have very silly special effects, but you couldn’t film them now, or even fake them. They just look like they’re from their era, or even maybe from Oz itself, if Oz were poverty-stricken.
We all sat down. Al’s partner Tony came on and mumbled something through his beard about provenance and how grateful he was to the sponsors, then Hannibal screened the first film about Santa Claus. For all his work, Al only had one reel to show.
Hannibal had done a beautiful job. The team had remade each frame of film digitally, filling in scratches, covering up dirt, enhancing contrast—sharp, clear, monochrome images. It was like going back in time to see the premiere.
They had Santa Claus bronco-busting reindeer. Santa was pretty damn robust, a tall rangy guy in a fur-trimmed suit. The reindeer were not studio dummies but huge, rangy antlered beasts. Santa wrestled them to the ground, pulled reins over their heads and then broke them in bareback like it was a rodeo.
Think Santa Claus western—snow drifts between evergreen trees. Santa chewed tobacco and spat, and hitched up his new team behind a sleigh pulled by even more reindeer.
The next shot, he’s pulling the team up in front of Santa’s palace, and the only thing it could possibly be is a real multi-story building made entirely from blocks of ice.
So far, I was saying to myself, OK, they went to Lapland and filmed it almost like a documentary.
Then he goes inside, and it’s not a painted set, the ice blocks glow like candle wax. Santa finds that the elves have been eating the toys.
Remember the first time you saw Nosferatu, and the vampire looked like a crossbreed between a human and a rat? Well Santa’s Elves looked like little Nosferatus, only they were three feet high and deranged. One of them was licking a child’s doll between her legs. You could hear the whole audience go Ew!
Rat teeth stuck out; fingernails curled in lumps like fungus. One of them snarled at Santa, and the old guy cuffed it pretty smartly about its pointed ears, then knocked it to the ground and gave it two smart kicks to the groin.
Then the reel ended.
Amy looked at me, her face seesawing between wonder and disgust. “That was a children’s film?”
The festival director bounced up to a lectern, trying to look spry. He joked about the movie. “It was called The Secret Life of Santa Claus and I think that must be the first X-rated Santa feature.”
He introduced a representative of the Burroughs family, and a fresh-faced college student hopped up onto the stage. He was, the director said, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s great-grand-nephew. He couldn’t have been older than twenty—sun-streaked hair and baggy trousers that sagged just sufficiently below his underwear line to be cool. He had that Californian polish of sun, wealth, opportunity and honed parenting.
Appropriate. I knew that everything this guy did would be appropriate. His name was the perfectly appropriate “John Doe Burroughs,” and he made a perfect and predictable speech about how much he admired his famous forebear and how the film had been found inside a family safe.
“It really had been shut for about ninety years. It was recorded in the ERB estate inventory with a request not to try to open it, so we didn’t. Then strangely, the safe appeared to open itself.”
Oh yeah, sure.
“And inside were about forty reels of film, in other words about 3 hours’ worth.”
In 1911? That would make it an epic on the scale of Intolerance, only Intolerance was made in 1916.
Then my friend Al came up on stage. Soft-spoken, sincere, a fan of old radio shows, a native Angeleno who remembers the Brown Derby restaurant, Al had been my mentor. For a while. Where do nice guys finish?
He talked for thirty minutes about the restoration. I know, restoring old films is an art, but an art that’s best when it shuts its mouth. It’s like all those DVD extras about costume design.
Al gave us film history. The producer was Burroughs himself and the director was called Nemo Artrides . . . unknown and probably a pseudonym. The actor, however, was known. He was Herman Blix who stared in one Tarzan film in 1927 and then married Edgar Rice Burroughs’s daughter.
So what was he doing in 1911? “More questions than answers, but the biggest mystery is the technical achievement of the film itself.” Al, sweet Al, smiled with pleasure.
From the three hours of film, so far he had twenty minutes to show us.
The lights went down. Up came the first frame. A black-and-white panel, hand-painted with about ten pieces of information in one screen. . . title, Edison company logo, all in that art nouveau lettering.
Directed by Nemo Artrides from the histories by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Filmed by permission of the incomparable Jahde Isthor.
No cast list.
The first scene looks like what you’d see through a spyglass. There’s a cotton gin, plants and black slaves. The spyglass opens out and we see on opposite sides of a cotton field rows of troops, one side in gray, one in the dark uniform of the Union army.
“So,” I whispered to Amy. “It is D. W. Griffith.”
She chuckled. “Ssh.”
Herman Blix in Confederate uniform rides into shot. He manages to swagger while on horseback. Like old photographs of General Beaufort, he looks crazed, with huge whiskers and a mad stare, and thick, dirty, plastered-down hair. From amid the rows of cotton, a slave stares up at him.
That’s when I first sat up. There was something in that face. You couldn’t paint it on with makeup; you couldn’t buy it from Hollywood.
The slave looked as old as the Bible, starved and gnarled. His neck was thin in strands, his chin had no flesh on it; and the skin around his eyes, his cheeks, and even on his nose was crisscrossed with lines of repeated stress cut as deeply as whiplashes. His eyes swam with misery, outrage, a lifetime of abuse.
In the book, Burroughs bangs on about race. His history of Mars is a history of racial triumph and decline; race explains culture. His hero is a warrior for slavery and an Indian fighter; the opening of the book swiftly combines all of America’s racial catastrophes.
Our supposed hero raises his sword and strikes the old black man down.
I sat back in shock. What the hell was that supposed to be? A racist assault? An apology for it?
There’s a gap, a break I guess, where the film was unsalvageable. Somehow we jump to Mars.
We see a huge thing with six legs and swivel-eyes hauling Blix by a chain around his neck.
The brain processes at high speed. Mine said, No. This is never 1911, this is CGI, now. The glassy frog-eyes turn on stalks; the thing has six perfectly functioning limbs with hands for feet. A Thark, in the books. As I watch, it drops down onto its middle set of legs and starts walking on those as well. The motion is perfect, the design totally disorientating. The thing’s scrawny and bloated at the same time; it moves as tensely as an erect cobra.
The ground all the way to a near horizon is carpeted with spongy fungus. Herman Blix doesn’t walk across it; he bounces blearily, like he’s on a trampoline.
He’s stark, bollock naked. Unswervingly naked. You can see he’s circumcised, and even weirder for 1911 Hollywood, his pubes are shaved smooth.
The audience rustled.
The title panel said:
No water on a Mars that suffers from climate change.
In the low Martian gravity, he does not know his own strength.
Blix stumbles, fights to regain his balance and springs up into the air, out to the end of his chain, like a guy in weightless simulation. The Thark jerks him back, and he slams down into the moss. He lands badly, rolls, and nurses his knee.
Distance shot. A caravan lumbers and sways and ripples with a myriad of limbs. It looks like one living thing, a giant centipede. I’d say a hundred extras at least.
Back to close-up. A Thark rides something that at first is difficult even to see, shapeless and wrinkled. An eyeless, featureless wormlike head splits open, its mouth lipless, like a cut. It seethes forward on what look like thousands of grappling hooks.
One of the Dead Cities of Mars, says a title.
The city looks like a chain of deliberately dynamited municipal parking lots, only with statues in the corners and mosques attached.
“No, no. No, no,” I said aloud.
This wasn’t a matte painting held in front of an unmoving camera. This wasn’t a miniature. The actors did not troop past some dim rear projection of models. No silvered masked stuffed lizards stood in for monsters like in The Thief of Baghdad. No well-designed full-size dragons moved stiff puppet jaws like in Siegfried.
An accidentally good set of swivel-eyes I could take. Maybe, like Babylon in Intolerance, they just built the Martian city for real. Maybe they found the young Willis O’Brien to animate the Tharks.
But not all of it, all at once.
“This is a fake,” I said deliberately loudly. “No way is this 1911!”
But the thing was, the film didn’t look like Now, either.
First off, the star really was Herman Blix.
Herman Blix was twenty-seven in 1927, so he could only have been eleven in 1911. OK, so they got the date of the film wrong. More like 1928 maybe, when he’d already married the boss’s daughter. But Blix didn’t look twenty-eight either. His hair was brushed back, which made him look craggier and older. Older and somehow mummified. Maybe it was all the dry desert air. But in close-ups, there were thousands of tiny wrinkles all over his face. The eyes looked fierce, almost evil, the mouth a thin downward turning line. And the eyes. The old film made his eyes, probably blue, look like ice. You could imagine them glowing slightly as if sunlight shone into them.
And the audience couldn’t stop giggling at his willy. It was a very nice willy, even retracted. But it made the film feel like a silent, slow-motion Flesh Garden.
“Pre–Hays Code,” Amy murmured, amused.
Blix is now wearing a helmet, the hollowed-out head of a Thark. There’s bits hanging down, and speckles of gore on his shoulders, but Blix looks bemused. He starts forward in surprise.
The silver screen fills with the image of a woman. Her head is lowered. Then suddenly she looks up, jerks in quick time as if the film were speeded up. The audience giggled. But not like they do at Princess Beloved in Intolerance. This was a nervous blurting chuckle. Because one stony stare from that woman and something around your heart stopped.
The Incomparable Jahde Isthor, said the titles.
Think Garbo, or Hepburn, but with no makeup. No 1920s bee-stung lips, no ornate metal twirls to cover the nipples. The cheekbones are too high, too large, and the eyes look like a plastic surgeon has pulled them too far back, all the way to the ears.
THE PRINCESS OF MARS!
Her tongue flickers like she’s tasting the air. She wears what looks like a cap of snow white feathers.
The camera pulls back and she’s naked, too, but her pudenda have a fan of white feathers clamped over them.
Amy giggled. “She looks like a stripper.”
The Princess sees Herman, and all the feathers on top of her head stand up, like the crest of a cockatoo.
Jahde Isthor was no kind of actress. She bounced forward, a kind of bunny-hop, and you could see her glance down at the floor.
She was looking for her mark.
The hero moves closer to her and bows, but she isn’t looking at him. She’s peering right into the camera, as if wondering what it is.
Right, first find your deformed Greta Garbo and make sure she can hop. Acting might be well down your list of priorities.
That’s what I’m thinking when, gathering herself up, Jahde suddenly jumps two-footed like a giant robin onto the top of a table. She reaches up for a hanging lamp and under her arms is a web of skin, like she has residual wings. They’re tufted with flightless feathers. Jahde Isthor holds up the lamp and points it at the human.
The camera looks at his illuminated legs, his genitalia held in an unflinching gaze.
Our hero’s face moves to speak and a title panel intervenes.
I am a man but not of this world
“This is unbelievable,” said Amy.
I am Herman, Lord of the Tharks.
At that point, the audience just loses it. They howl.
The camera eyes up the Princess’s legs. Her knees double back in the wrong direction and she has the thick thigh muscles of a swan. Her shins are as long and thin as a walking stick, covered with scales. She has the feet of a whooping crane.
“It’s different from the books,” I said. “She laid eggs, but she didn’t have feathers. She had ordinary legs.”
“She laid eggs? Yuck!”
“Her name is different, too. All the names are different.”
Jahde Isthor looks at the camera with the expression of an ostrich, and snaps forward. She’s pecked at the lens.
The film ended suddenly, bang.
There were forty reels of that? It would have cost millions even at 1911 prices. In 1911, Edgar Rice Burroughs was still selling pencil sharpeners in Chicago and the story was only just being serialized in magazines for the first time.
In 1911 there was no film grammar for something that long. The Birth of a Nation had not yet been made. Naw, naw, naw, that was 1927 at the earliest.
The applause was light, scattered. People were in shock. It had been too good. It had been too weird.
I knew I had my story. “That’s a fake, and I’m going to prove it.”
After the next screening, a particularly nauseating silent version of Jack the Ripper, I talked to Mr. Appropriate. God, was he ever. Fresh-faced, I would say, like Andy Hardy on smart drugs.
He was indeed a distant relative of Burroughs and he claimed with UCLA-freshman directness to have gone to do the inventory himself. So I said how convenient it was for everybody that the safe opened itself.
I couldn’t dent his wide-eyed innocence. “That’s the weirdest thing! It had a time-lock and it could only be only opened from the inside.”
He made me feel old and mean, and down and cynical, but I thought, “Gotcha, kid!”
I looked him up in the UCLA directories and found him, guilelessly open to public inspection. It said he was studying dentistry. Come on, I thought, you’re a film major.
Like I’d been. So now I’m a journalist. Who only writes about film.
I know how it goes. Nobody gives you a break, so you fake something to get some publicity, maybe get your toe in the door. What’s your story? You got a famous relative? Your, what, great-great-uncle twice removed? Cash in!
The family papers had indeed been kept in a SHOguard storage facility in Burbank. The guard at the entrance was huge, Samoan, and well, guarded. He said hardly anything, except that yes, the safe had been stored with his company and other chattels from the ERB estate. I showed him my press pass; said I was doing a story on the film. How long had it been stored there? He said he didn’t know, but gave me names to write to. I did, and got a simple letter back. The Burroughs family inventory had moved there when the previous company upped sticks from Hollywood in 1965. I got the name of that company and the old address. The building was now an office block. The story, as far as I could push it, checked out.
My best-selling book—I mean, the book that sold the most copies though it remained well below the Borders threshold of perception—was called A History of Special Effects.
If the film was a fake, I knew all the people who could have done the work. There are only about forty companies in the entire world who could have animated the Tharks. I wrote to all of them, and visited the five or six people who were personal friends. I told them what I’d seen.
There had been at least two serious attempts to make an ERB Mars movie in the ’80s. Had anybody done a particularly fine test reel?
Twice I thought I’d found it. Old Yolanda out at Pixar, a real pioneer now doing backgrounds, she told me that she’d been on board a John Carter of Mars project. She still had some of the production design sketches. We had a nice dinner at her place. I saw the sketches. The princesses all wore clothes. The clothes showed off their lovely and entirely human legs.
I visited Yong, a Thai animator who now worked for Lucas. I told him what I’d seen.
“I know, I heard,” said Yong. He’d done some work on a Burroughs project in the ’90s. “Look, you know that only us and a couple of other companies are that good. And if it wasn’t that good, somebody like you, you’d spot it straight away.” He nodded and chuckled. “It’s gotta be a publicity stunt for a new movie.”
“Well whoever did it, they’re hot. This stuff was the finest FX I’ve ever seen. But the weird thing was the whole style, you know, of the titles? That was all perfect for a silent movie.”
Yong chuckled. “I gotta see this. It sounds good. Really, really good.”
I went home and took out some of my old scripts. Those would have made perfect little films. Only they didn’t.
One was about a mother whose son and his boyfriend both had AIDS. She gets over it by counseling the boyfriend’s mother, an evangelical. Would have been a great two-hander for Streep and MacLaine. Way ahead of its time. I had the delight of seeing it starring Sallie Anne Field, made for TV. Somebody at the agency just ripped it off.
Another was a crisscross Altman thing about race in LA. Sound familiar? The script is just dust on a shelf now.
One of my best isn’t even dust. It was a new take on the Old South. Now it’s just iron molecules on a scrambled hard drive. Always do your backups. That script now is as far away as Burroughs’s Mars.
At twelve I was an ERB fan. I still had some of my old books, and got one down from the shelf. It was the Ace edition with the Frank Frazetta cover.
I’d forgotten that Burroughs himself is a character in the book. He says he knew John Carter, a kind of uncle. His uncle disappeared just after the Civil War and returned. He stood outside in the dark, arms outstretched towards the stars. And insisted that he be buried in a crypt that could be opened only from the inside.
Something else. John Carter never got older. He could not remember being a child, but he could remember serving kings and emperors. And that was why, somehow, he could waft in spirit to Somewhere Else, Barsoom, which even if it was some kind of Mars, did not have to be our Mars.
I got a call from John Doe Appropriate. “There’s been some more film show up,” he said. He sounded like someone had kicked him in the stomach. “In the mail. It’s . . . it’s in color.”
Even he knew they had no color in 1911.
“Can I say that I’m not surprised?” He didn’t reply. “I’m coming over,” I said.
When he opened the door, he looked even worse than he sounded. He had a line of grey down the middle of his cheeks, and the flesh under his eyes was dark. When he spoke, it sounded like slowed-down film. “There’s somebody here,” he said, and left the door wide open behind him.
Someone was sitting with his back to us, watching a video. On the screen, a cushioned landscape extended to a surprisingly close horizon. The ground was orange and the sky was a deep bronze, and a silver zeppelin billowed across it, sails pumping like wings.
The man looked back over his shoulder, and it was Herman Blix.
Herman, as he looked in 1928 or 1911 or 1863, except that he had to lean on a cane. He heaved himself out of the chair and lumbered forward as if he had the bulk of a wounded elephant.
Did I say that he was stark naked?
“Not used to clothes,” he said gasping like he wasn’t used to breathing.
Your world turns over.
I saw as he spoke that he had tiny fangs, and that his eyes did glow. Looking into them made me feel dizzy and I had to sit down. The strangest thing was that I knew at once what he was, and accepted it. Like meeting those little Nosferatu elves. No wonder he could waft through space: he wouldn’t need a life-support system.
“Can you make films?” he asked me.
His eyes made it impossible to lie, and I heard myself say yes, because it was true, I could. The kid bled next to me, expendable.
“You’re coming with me.” Blix bore down on me, hauled me off the sofa, hugged me, and everything gasped cold and dark.
Mars was only the beginning.
“The Film-makers of Mars” copyright © 2008 by Geoff Ryman
Art copyright © 2008 by Gary Kelley