By Tony Williams
“Entertainment offers the image of `something better’ to escape into, or something that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realized.” (Richard Dyer)
John Carter is that rare creature in Hollywood Cinema: a well-crafted, professionally made, work of entertainment lacking either the infantile regressive features of the Star Wars films (with the honorable exception of The Empire Strikes Back co-scripted by Howard Hawks’s collaborator Leigh Brackett) or the bloated pretensions of Avatar. Unlike the George Lucas franchise, it is a film that can appeal to both adults and children. It never attempts to insult the intelligence of the audience. Nor is it a weak film derived from other sources that have treated the subject matter much better, such as Run of the Arrow and Dancing with Wolves. It is not dependent on 3-D special effects to make it technologically significant in the twenty-first century. It is more of a high budget B-movie of the type associated with past masters such as Samuel Fuller, Joseph H. Lewis, and Howard Hawks in its aim of telling a story simply, but none the less meaningfully. Currently available in theatrical 2-D and 3-D versions, it represents a unique alliance of form with content in a balanced type of representation. This is as equally true of the special effects contained within the 2-D version and the extended perception of the 3-D version. In Howard Hawk’s phrase, the film does not “annoy” the audience in bombarding them with special effects, “high-tech” devices that distract from the narrative.
Directed by Andrew Stanton, a long-time fan of pulp fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs — popularly known as the creator of Tarzan — John Carter follows both the spirit and content of the original source novel in a unique manner. Unlike the exploitative and gratuitous appropriation of a Quentin Tarantino, Stanton treats his source material with respect. Despite sporadic criticisms by Burroughs fans concerning fidelity to the original, a concept extremely difficult to follow in any form of cinematic adaptation, the film honors A Princess of Mars (1912) to a greater, rather than a lesser, degree. This is because of its origins in the world of pulp fiction. Once a despised genre according to the guardians of high culture, whether in American New Criticism or F.R. Leavis definition of a “Great Tradition,” this area saw the emergence of writers such as James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hamett, a trio whom a past establishment would not even allow admission to the far side of any literary canon. Their stylistic and thematic operations have long received recognition by informed critics.
By contrast, no such case could ever be made for Edgar Rice Burroughs. His fiction lacks any characteristic form of literary style equivalent to Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway – to say nothing of Henry James. Yet, what Burroughs lacks in literary embellishment he more than makes up for by well-crafted adventure stories involving heroes and heroines fighting for causes more noble than those characterizing recent decades in our own historical period. Burroughs was a craftsman but a good one. Days have long passed where we elevate auteur (whether Bergman, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lang etc.,) above lowly metteur-en-scene such as Richard Brooks, John Huston etc. They all have their virtues (and vices) in one degree or another. John Carter is a work of cinematic craftsmanship by a director seeking to tell a good story in the manner of Howard Hawks and never annoying the audience – unless they regard box-office returns as the only guarantee of quality.
Richard Dyer once wrote about the musical representing the yearning for a better world in his pioneering article “Entertainment as Utopia.”1 John Carter operates in similar directions by returning to utopian, rather than dystopian, premises of science fantasy/fiction in its hopes for a better word. It eagerly desires new worlds for old according to the title of Michael Moorcock’s important British journal New Worlds. But to discover any new world, one must not only escape from the old one but also discern the inherent nature of its problems to ensure they never occur again in whatever type of journey results.
The film opens in a dystopian vision of the urban environment of New York in 1881, a world characterized by bleakness, rain, and interminable crowds where one person pursues another. We will learn the identity of both characters as the film progresses. But what is of interest in this opening scene is its links with the future world of Blade Runner. Rain falls, clouds cast darkness on the streets making New York a city of perpetual night predicting the bleak environments of a dystopian future presented in so many literary and cinematic works. The pursued man (whom we learn is millionaire, former Virginian Cavalryman John Carter) writes a letter to his nephew who travels by train from William and Mary College arriving too late and finds his favorite uncle dead. After standing before a sealed tomb, locked from the inside, he begins to read Carter’s journal.
During the opening scenes of the flashback, viewers enter the world of the western, a genre that has now merged with the science fiction film as Outland (1981) and the Star Wars saga exemplify. Yet Carter is neither Dustin Hoffman of Little Big Man nor Costner’s cavalryman who chooses to live with the Indians in Dances with Wolves. 2 He is alienated from society, seeking merely to find gold and remain aloof from all causes. When pressured by Colonel Powell to aid the military against warlike Apaches, Carter responds, “You all started it. You finish it.” He is no Lt. Dunbar of Dances with Wolves, since he rebuts the accusation that he has “Gone native”. Carter rejects both the Union and Apache cause, seeing all humans as “a savage, warlike species. I want no part of it.” This definition of human savagery, whatever racial group is involved, is no gratuitous reference, since it foreshadows the role of the Therns in stimulating conflict on Earth and on Mars. Like the novel, the film mentions that Carter fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War but changes him from Burroughs’s “typical southern gentleman of the highest type” to somebody who has been traumatized by War, as the Civil War flashback sequences — indebted to Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1975) — reveal. As Burroughs tells Carter’s attorney Dalton,” My mother said Jack never really came back from the war. That it was only his body that went west.” Stanton’s John Carter is a traumatized veteran suffering from P.T.S.D. in all but name (the condition was never recognized medically until the Vietnam War) rejecting society and seeking isolation, never again to engage again in any cause. However, Carter will find such isolation impossible when he travels to a world very similar to his own in sharing identical militaristic attitudes, ones which continue into the twenty-first century.
Carter escapes. He tries to avoid a conflict between his pursuers and a band of Apaches but efforts fail. A cavalryman shoots an Apache. Carter then contradicts his isolationist tendencies by rescuing the wounded Colonel Powell who notes this change in his character. “I thought – you didn’t care.” Seeking refuge in a cave dominated by the carved image of a nine-legged spider that halts the Apache pursuers, Carter takes Powell inside before avoiding death by shooting a strange robed figure bearing a medallion with the spider design. Repeating the last word of the dying figure, Carter takes up this medallion and begins his strange journey. In contrast to the novel where Carter uses a method of astral projection to travel to Mars, the medallion is a scientific device, one linked to the experiments Princess Dejah Thoris uses to attempt to save her people, the nine legged spider imagery having rational scientific, rather than mystical, overtones. John Carter, despite its science fantasy origins, emphasizes science and technology, rather than the myth and religion the Therns use to enslave chosen subjects across the galaxy. As unseen forces, they use religion to further their own political agendas very much in the manner that the Koch Brothers and conservative Republicans do today. The film’s heroine is no maternal figure associated with spiritual realms of science fantasy but one who is Regent of the Royal Helium Academy of Science yearning for former days when heroes would fight for noble causes.
Rescued by Tars Tarkas, leader of the aggressive Thark tribe, Carter witnesses a society dominated by violence and war, akin to the Apaches he encountered in the Arizona desert and Union soldiers he once fought against. However, differences exist within that society exemplified both by its leader and Soja whom we later discover is Tars’s own daughter. Both exhibit qualities of sympathy and sensitivity to the stranger in their strange land as opposed to Tars’s rival Tal Harjus who is totally aggressive. Mars is a society trapped in the realm of eternal war as seen in Thark culture and the conflict between Helium and Zodanga whose leader Sab Than becomes a puppet in the hands of the Therns. Yet, exceptions exist even in Thark culture. Brought before Tars after violating the precincts of a holy shrine, the Thark leader criticizes Carter for placing Sola in a dangerous situation that will result in her death. As a former parent himself, Carter intuitively recognizes that Sola is Tars’s own daughter preserved against tribal customs by her mother. “Sola is the last flicker of our ancient greatness”. Thark father and daughter represent the last remnants of a society once completely different from its present incarnation now devoted to violence and bloodshed in a manner paralleling a contemporary American society engaging in constant war. They will eventually conquer their cultural fears overcoming phobias against technology to aid Carter in his final victory.
Zodanga appears to be the instigator of a conflict that has destroyed everything in its path except Helium. The tide of battle looks like turning against Zodanga until the appearance of the technologically superior Therns who will keep the conflict alive by recruiting Sab Than for their own unscrupulous ends in a manner evoking American support of Saddam Hussein against Iran several decades ago and other similar strategies. Thern politics has several close parallels to American imperial aims in past and present aimed at making war a continuing part of the human condition and recruiting puppet figures to this end. Unlike the novel, Carter discovers a Thern in Arizona and later realizes that they have also been active on Earth as well as Mars. When captured by Thern leader Matai Shang, Carter learns something about their activities that bear more than a passing resemblance to those contemporary corporate forces who remain in the background to manipulate historical events for their own ends. Matai describes Therns as a myth as if admitting that religious motivations underlying wars, whether promoting the interests of a “City on the Hill” or “holy wars” are actually irrelevant. “The Therns do not exist .I do not exist. Indeed I work very hard at that.” Matai recognizes Carter’s Southern origins. “The Carolinas? Virginia? It’s Virginia, isn’t it. Lovely place.” When Carter asks if he knows it, Matai replies, “Not well, yet. But I will.” Although the film must have gone through the last stages of post-production before the recent Republican primary elections, the notoriety of Virginia as a state now hostile to women’s control over their bodies and South Carolina’s population containing 60% of evangelical Christians are parallels too striking to ignore. Whether these similarities are conscious or unconscious is beside the point since, due to recent events, the references are undeniable. A particular political segment of the population in both states have announced their willingness to engage in further military conflicts despite the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of Viet Nam several decades ago.
The fact that the Therns have established an outpost in Arizona is not accidental. According to Alan Sharp, screenwriter of Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972), the brutal conflicts characterizing the American Southwest from 1860 to 1886, especially Arizona, “represented one of the most terrifying periods in all recorded history.” 4 It resembled the later Vietnam War, as director, screenwriter, and star (Burt Lancaster) were at pains to show. Unlike A Princess of Mars, John Carter has Colonel Powell attempt in vain to recruit Carter to fight the Apaches. The film’s opening scenes contain undeniable parallels between both worlds. Individual earthly inhabitants seen in the opening scenes of the flashback certainly fall into the category of a “savage, warlike species” like the Tharks. But exceptions exist even on Mars such as Tars and Soja as well as Helium inhabitants forced into a conflict they did not start.
Matai also refuses to answer Carter’s question “What — what gives you the right to interfere?” Instead, he denies that the Therns even have a cause, choosing instead to say, “We are everywhere. We’ve been playing this game since before the birth of this world, and we will play it long after the death of yours.” The Therns represent a perversely destructive version of Vance Packard’s “Hidden Persuaders” manipulating people in perpetual conflict. “You see, we don’t actually cause the destruction of a world. We simply manage it … feed off it, if you like. But on every host world, it plays out the same way. Populations rise, societies divide, wars rage. And all the while, the neglected planet slowly dies.” Unlike William H. Whyte’s “Organization Man of the 1950s, these deadly descendants of the managerial bureaucracy no longer promise security and a higher standard of living in exchange for the surrender of democratic hopes and ambitions. Instead they offer a state of eternal warfare characteristic of George Orwell’s 1984, a text more relevant to capitalism and Obama’s Imperial Presidency actively engaged in making people give up their freedoms in exchange for insecurity and permanent war 5 Despite generic science fiction associations, the Therns represent contemporary behind-the-scenes managerial bureaucratic forces controlling politics and institutions for their own deadly ends. They also embody the dangerous threat of a Death Instinct, one that Freud recognized in his later writings as threatening the very nature of human existence with the aid of technology used for destructive ends. 6 The film is not as escapist as some of its supporters presume. It also reveals that technology can be used progressively.
Carter uses a technological device unfamiliar to him in flying to Deja’s rescue. Sola overcomes her hesitation over flying. “Tharks do not fly.” Even her father will fly to Carter’s rescue later in the film after the victorious hero announces in the area following his victory over the giant apes and Tal Hajus. ”We must throw off the yoke of old hatreds. Tharks did not begin this, but by Issus, Tharks will end it!” His penultimate sentence indirectly suggests Thern responsibility for making the Tharks into a bloodthirsty nation engaging in perpetual conflicts and enjoying “blood and circus spectacles” like an audience envisaged by corporate forces controlling Hollywood who use Lucas, Spielberg, and Tarantino in the same way as the Thern manipulate Sab Than. Carter wins a battle but the final victory is still not his since Matai Sheng returns him to Earth where “the Therns were a presence on this world as well as Mars.”
Filmed from a novel written a hundred years ago, two years before World War I, John Carter is more than an escapist fantasy. Like the best works of science fiction, it has much to teach us today if only by showing that opposition is possible rather than succumbing to the pessimism surrounding the defeat of former causes. At the climax, Carter can return to his beloved Barsoom. We cannot, since we are still bound to our own world. But John Carter reveals that we can exchange a new world for an old one if only by struggle and choosing a cause to fight for. Carter will finally return to Mars, a world where he can fight for a cause again, leaving his nephew and others to choose what cause they will choose to fight for on Earth. John Carter is a utopian film in the best sense of the word. Rather than embracing the despairing and nihilistic tones of dystopian science fiction, it offers a sense of possibility not just for its fictional hero but those in the audience. Subjected to undeserved criticism and a promotion mismanaged by Disney (one wonders if John Carter is the Heaven’s Gate of its era?), sabotaged by its own production company, (perhaps by malevolent design on the part of some corporate Thern existing in an organization wanting to ensure that no alternatives exist in a contemporary Hollywood collaborating in perpetuating the worst tendencies of our contemporary political structure?), the film deserves a receptive audience. Whatever the financial fate of the theatrical version, John Carter will continue to exist on DVD and other formats and perhaps inspire a better type of Hollywood cinema than we have experienced in the past few decades.
1. Richard Dyer, “Entertainment as Utopia.” Movie 24 (1977): 2-13.
2. Costner’s character probably originated in Dean Reed’s cavalryman who reacts against the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre and joins the Cheyenne in the more politically orientated East German Western Blutsbrueder (1975) directed by Werner W. Wallroth and co-scripted by Reed.
3. Edgar Rice Burroughs, “A Princess of Mars,” Mars Trilogy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010, p. 4.
4. Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene I. Miller, The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1986, p. 167. See also Alan Sharp, “White Man Unforks Tongue for `Ulzana’”. Los Angeles Times Calendar 14 May, 1972, p.20.
5. See Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders. New York: McKayCompany, 1957; William H. Whyte, Jr. The Organization Man. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.
6. See, for example, Sigmund Freud, “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915); “Civilization and its Discontents” (1929); and “Why War?” (1932), co-written with Albert Einstein. Civilization, Society, and Religion. The Pelican Freud Library Volume 12. England: Penguin Books, 1985, pp.57-89; 243-340; 343-362.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. His recent publications include George A. Romero: Interviews (2011) and the second edition of Vietnam War Films (2011), co-edited with Jean Jacques Malo first published in 1994.