While the rest of America was at The Hunger Games, Disney’s stillborn bid to boost a much older touchstone of popular fiction was all but forgotten. It was recently revealed that the company was taking a $200 million loss on John Carter, an adaptation cobbled from parts of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous early 20th-Century science fiction franchise about a Confederate cavalryman who becomes a Martian warlord. Public indifference aside the movie’s reception has been mixed, with some critics praising the movie’s sense of “wonder” while others belittled its hackneyed, stuffy grandiosity and Gilded Age scientific understanding – among other things, Burroughs popularized the notion that Mars was enlaced in canals.
Whatever Burroughs lacked in literary notoriety or financial security – there’s a reason for his prodigious output from 1911 to the early 1940s – he was a prescient businessman, becoming one of the first writers to incorporate. His aggressive marketing and licensing of the Tarzan phenomenon included several movies, a comic strip, countless retail products and something called the “Tarzan Clans of America.” In many ways, Disney is reading from Burroughs’ playbook as they market to a world of fan groups and lifestyle subcultures with product tie-ins and an abundance of creative marketing tactics. Walt Disney Studios could have used someone as fastidious as Burroughs when their production president, chairman and marketing chief all changed right as the movie was getting off the ground. The corresponding advertising went from some mysterious figures in a Martian landscape shrouded with dust…
…to an odd, confusing gladiatorial fight against creatures halfway between the rancor from Star Wars and the sloth from Ice Age:
The movie starts out with a bewildering explanation of the geopolitical situation of Mars as we’re treated to fly-bys from the flying trireme/catamaran things that the human civilizations travel and wage war in. After a brief interlude in 1881, wherein Carter’s nephew is surprised to inherit his uncle’s formidable estate as well as a journal addressed to him personally, the film cuts to Arizona in 1868 (“the backside of hell”) and our hero in less-than-heroic form. Upon being apprehended drunk in a frontier bar by soldiers from nearby Fort Grant (where Burroughs himself was posted from 1896-7), the fort’s commanding officer tries to recruit him because of his decorated service fighting for the Confederate Army in the Virginia 1st Cavalry. Carter, played by Tyler “Big Tim Riggins” Kitsch, declines and manages to escape by stealing the commanding officer’s horse. With the garrison on his heels, they run into an Apache war party and Carter hides from the ensuing firefight in a mysterious cave.
Then the intrepid cavalryman wakes up on Mars, a magical world with several alien civilizations variously brutish and civilized, which all share a customary aversion to pants. The way he gets there is never quite clear, but unlike in the book it has something to do with the Therns, the embodiments of deus ex machina, who propagate the worship of the Martian god Issus and engage in nefarious plotting throughout the story.
Their role is especially interesting because although the plot of the movie is more or less identical to Burroughs’ first book The Princess of Mars, the Therns don’t make an appearance until the second, The Gods of Mars. The latter book is an allegory about religious deception; the majority of the novel takes place where Martians customarily made pilgrimages at the end of their life, the Valley Dor, which John Carter reveals is not paradise, but a vicious place in which pilgrims are slaughtered or enslaved. So it’s interesting to see the way their role was reshaped. In the movie they send Carter to Mars and back again, they arm the Zodangan (bad guys) warlord with some sort of powerful energy gun, they turn the green four-limbed Tharks against Carter (for his alleged desecration of their temple to, you guessed it, their fraudulent god Issus).
In other words, they resemble the very worst anti-Semitic depictions of scheming Jews, complete with a chosen people mentality – they claim to receive Issus’ wisdom directly and be unrelated to the other Martians (“History will follow the course we’ve set, Earth man!”). It wouldn’t be the first time the charge was leveled at Burroughs’ work; John Taliaferro’s 2002 biography Tarzan Forever proves Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies ironclad once again. He makes several strained comparisons between the author and Hitler.
Most of these criticisms are as sensationalistic as they are unfounded, and they rely on two main sources. The first is an unpublished column Burroughs wrote sometime in the 1920s in which he expressed his enthusiasm for the forced sterilization programs in half of the American states at the time. The second is a quote from his coverage of the 1928 Hickman trial; “moral imbeciles breed moral imbeciles, criminals breed criminals.” Elsewhere in the column, he explains that those are not racial categories, that a “moral imbecile” is someone who “is as well able to differentiate between right and wrong as is any normal man—the difference between the two lies in the fact that the moral imbecile does not care what the results may be to others so long as he may gratify his abnormal egotism or his perverted inclinations.”
In fact, in Lost on Venus (1932) Burroughs describes a eugenic dystopia for which the protagonist is deemed unfit. So reading any kind of racial message in his fiction is a tricky business but it’s fair to speculate that Burroughs’ vivid tales of interstellar civilizations in decline were informed in part by Victorian notions of racial decay. “On Mars, the races descend from a Tree of Life and, like fruit, are color-coded red, green, yellow, and black,” Taliaferro wrote in a New York Times column, “Burroughs was obsessed with his own genealogy and was extremely proud of his nearly pure Anglo-Saxon lineage. He came from “good” stock, a critical ingredient for good standing, he asserted. Over time, his fervid appreciation of genetic predetermination led him to the radical fringe of Darwinism: eugenics.” For a man whose lasting interest was the interaction between heredity and environment, Tarzan is a man isolating his variables.
Burroughs interest in the dark side of progressivism is why the movie’s portrayal of the Therns as Space Jews seems so grating, all the more so because the religious deception angle isn’t explored (maybe it will be if a sequel is ever made). The kicker in The Gods of Mars is that the Therns themselves are being deceived too, here they’re left as these mystical, dealmaking arms traffickers dead set on undermining the good city of Helium, whose princess is Carter’s love interest (in this version she’s a scientist too because female characters these days have to do more than just look like this). The problem isn’t that the movie is politically incorrect, it’s hard to claim that a movie that seems so willfully ignorant of its own symbolic language is being insensitive. It’s that the film is already anachronistic in so many ways – swords and spaceships, time-travel pendants but no pants, a setting based on the Victorian imagination’s vision of a Martian landscape – and introducing anti-semitic undertones makes it so much worse.
Not only that, but it prompts a similar analysis of John Carter himself. His character arc leads from the washed-up cavalryman prospector to the selfless conquering hero of Helium. In fighting for the deteriorating society of Helium in the factional dispute among the Red Martians, Carter regains the sense of purpose he lost after the Civil War, a sort of Lost-Cause-meets-Lost-World transposition by which all the moral ambiguities of the prior conflict including slavery are erased. In the process he plays White Knight to the savage Tharks by befriending them, slaying them by the dozen when they turn on him, and after successfully dispatching the above “White Apes” and the Thark leader, he rallies them for the upcoming battle. The warrior whose initials are “JC” and who bears the surname of one of colonial Virginia’s wealthiest and most powerful families comes to rule Mars, after earning the allegiance of the savages by spilling their blood. Again, I think it’s a mistake to call Burroughs a racist for some of these elements, he wrote approvingly of interracial marriage in at least one book and Burroughs’ father was a Union army officer and lifetime Republican (also staunchly opposed to Catholicism, but there is an apocryphal story about him taking in a black Confederate soldier at their home in Chicago).
When an NPR host asked Willem Dafoe to respond to the movie’s detractors during an interview this weekend, he called them “puritans.” Before seeing the movie I would have been inclined to agree. The “wonder” here is real, and I think the single biggest contributing factor to the movie’s lack of success is the sheer outlandishness of the story – in a generation that grew up with telescopes in their bedrooms, who ever heard of a civilization on Mars? But introducing Burroughs’ work to a younger generation is a worthy if difficult goal, if you’re only counting those who were inspired by it; Ronald Reagan, Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall. Ray Bradbury, speaking of how the author inspired a generation to dream of space travel once said “Burroughs put us on the moon.” The trouble is, if you believe the movie, Burroughs’ imagination didn’t put John Carter on Mars. The Space Jews did.