The First Sci-Fi-Western: John Carter



Earlier this year,  John Carter came to theaters with much fanfare and left with a whimper. The splashy sci-fi epic under-performed, the victim of bad press, poor promotional trailers, and a word-of-mouth campaign that equated its financial success with whether or not it held merit. Thankfully, I caught John Carter on the big screen and was blown away by it. Director Andrew Stanton’s labor of love introduced me to a magnificent world and characters first created by Edgar Rice Burroughs one hundred years ago. Since I first visited Burroughs’s Barsoom (Mars), I’ve never looked back, going on to explore his subsequent volumes in the John Carter series and bemoaning the fact that they are unlikely to make it to the big screen. If you missed this film in theaters, let me try to convince you why it is not to be missed for anyone with a healthy appreciation for imagination, adventure, and romance.

John Carter, a one-time Confederate Calvary man, heads west in search of gold. While trying to save his mining partner from an Apache attack, Carter seeks refuge in a cave with mystical properties. He soon finds himself transported to Mars (there known as Barsoom). The lesser gravity of the Martian atmosphere gifts Carter with preternatural speed and strength, attributes that win him acclaim among the warlike, nomadic Tharks, a six-limbed tribe of fierce warriors. Carter gives little thought to his long-term future on Mars until he meets Dejah Thoris, a beautiful Princess of Helium, one of the Red, or humanoid-Martian peoples. In a life-or-death struggle to safeguard Dejah and restore her to her people, Carter falls in love, and in losing his heart finds a reason to fight for a future on a planet so different from his own.

A Princess of Mars, the first John Carter book and the primary basis for the recent film, was my first experience with early 20th-century classic pulp fiction. Initially, the author drafted John Carter’s first adventure to Mars after a series of failed business ventures. John Carter was birthed out of an existential crisis in the author’s life and as such it is fascinating to watch Carter’s journey from outsider to Martian hero unfold. A Princess of Mars is in many respects the first space western, with the arid Martian climate standing in for the American west. If Mars is the western frontier, the various tribes of warlike Tharks are stereotyped Native Americans—but Burroughs does not rest on stereotypical divisiveness. Carter moves from an attitude of superiority and frustration with his Thark captors to respect and admiration for their battle prowess and strict code of honor exhibited by warriors such as Tars Tarkas, who go on to become trusted allies. This eventually helps birth an alliance between the once sworn Green and Red Martian enemies, maybe pointing to Burroughs’s own belief in the inherent possibility of new beginnings symbolized by wild frontiers.

It is an old-fashioned adventure novel, replete with sword fights, near-death experiences, and a fantastically imagined, fully-realized world full of peoples and cultures startlingly different yet universally relatable in their passions and struggles. John Carter’s first adventure on Mars improves when revisited, giving me a deeper appreciation for Burroughs’s work as a pioneer in the realm of science fiction and fantasy.

The film is remarkably faithful to its source material, though it does quote from subsequent volumes to further flesh-out the world of Barsoom and the people, conflict, and cultures John Carter encounters there. The look of it is spectacular, rich with color and details that as a fan of the novels, I appreciate all the more. If one views the film unaware of its place as the grandfather of modern sci-fi, having inspired everything from Star Wars to Star Trek, John Carter might seem derivative. But if seen with awareness of its place in sci-fi history, Stanton and his team deliver a visual feast worthy of source material, full of heart and humor and just plain fun.

Much like the novel that inspired it, John Carter is about a man’s search for purpose and a newfound romance that gives him the heart and drive to live again. It is an old-fashioned love story. Carter possesses an inherent nobility and chivalry that I adore. While the Dejah of the novel isn’t the warrior the film makes her out to be, her nobility, self-sacrificing spirit and intelligence mark her as a ground-breaking female character, every inch the lady, strong-willed, and willing to fight for what she believes. In the best heroic journey tradition, Dejah is the impetus to get Carter to open his heart to his new home and his journey throughout the film is old-fashioned adventure at its finest.

With superb world-building, special effects, and costumes, John Carter is a world I love getting lost in, and an absorbing work of art. I didn’t expect to love the film, but I did. I encourage anyone who loves a romantic, old-fashioned adventure story well-told to visit both Burroughs’s Martian novels and the film it inspired. A Princess of Mars is a ground-breaking, always entertaining adventure. It is a sterling example of Burroughs’s imaginative prowess, a class from the pen of a pulp fiction master.  I adore this book and the film version it inspired is a worthy, long overdue visualization of Burroughs’s richly drawn world. Both are classics I’m passionate to see introduced to new audiences.

Enjoy! ■



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