A Message from Mars (1913) is essentially A Christmas Carol with aliens instead of ghosts.
Horace Parker (Charles Hawtrey) is a very selfish man. He walks off without paying after watching a Punch and Judy show, he ignores a poor man who begs him for a job, he feigns illness to avoid going to a party with his fiancée (Crissie Bell), and he seems positively giddy when she consequently breaks their engagement. In fact, the God of Mars proclaims him to be “the most selfish of mortals”. Ramiel (E. Holman Clark), a Martian, has been banished from the planet for breaking the law of Mars and will not be allowed to return until he has redeemed himself by showing Horace the error of his ways.
On Earth, Ramiel appears to Horace and uses his Martian magic to force him to perform a couple good deeds, but those don’t count as Horace was not acting of his own accord. So Ramiel transforms Horace’s fine clothes into rags and Horace soon finds himself alongside a tramp (Hubert Willis) begging for change from the attendees of the very party he skipped out on.
Horace is unsuccessful with the party goers. The tramp, weak from hunger, collapses. Ramiel tells Horace to look in his pocket and he discovers a sovereign, which he offers to split with the tramp. With that unselfish act, Horace is transformed to his old self and Ramiel disappears back to Mars.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Through their magic crystal ball, Ramiel and the other Martians watch what happens next: Horace takes the tramp home and gives him food and drink. Nearby, a tenement catches fire and Horace runs in to rescue two children. He takes in the displaced family, and when the son is caught trying to nick a clock off the mantel, Horace resists the urge to have him arrested. Minnie, Horace’s recent fiancée, gets the strange feeling that maybe she misjudged Horace and decides to give him a second chance.
A Message from Mars is considered to be Britain’s first feature-length sci-fi film. It’s never been lost, but none of the three surviving prints are entirely intact. The BFI recently released a new restoration of the film that combines all three sources into a substantially complete picture. The results are admirable. I will say, though, that the transfer is much too slow. I have a feeling they really wanted it to be at least an hour long and they just kept dropping the frame rate until it was.
The film itself was very well made, too. The picture was well composed and the editing was tight — I never felt that any scene was beginning to drag. I can fault none of the actors, who were all convincing in their portrayals. The sets were nicely decorated, although it is unusual that the Martians wear Venus-symbol pendants rather than the Mars symbols you’d expect them to have. The film has an overall serious tone, but there are a couple scenes — particularly the scene on the street when Horace finds himself compelled to walk backwards — that tiptoe a little closer to comedy than I think was intended. But those are niggling complaints, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.
My rating: I like it.
Available from BBC Arts
P.S. I’ve never pretended to keep to any kind of schedule, but if you thought it seems like I’ve recently been posting less and less, you aren’t mistaken. I’m in the process of moving and almost all of my film collection is in storage. As that’s most of what I watch (I strongly prefer film to video), you might guess why I’ve been silent as of late.