Space travel was truly a visionary concept when Jules Verne first introduced it in his 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon and it continued to attract readers when H.G. Wells explored the idea further a few years later in 1901’s First Men in the Moon. Although both authors were fascinated with science and technology, these novels were essentially outlandish adventures with elements of humor and satire. Even the first acknowledged film about an expedition into outer space—Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902)—was a whimsical fantasy rather than a realistic approach to the subject. Fifteen years later, the release of the Danish film A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet), directed by Holger-Madsen, announced a new kind of approach.
Also known as The Ship of Heaven and The Sky Ship, it is considered by many to be the first feature-length film to take the idea of interplanetary travel seriously and is an engaging mix of futuristic adventure, romantic idealism, and philosophical drama. The film’s hero, Captain Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs), is a renowned explorer who flies off to Mars aboard the spacecraft Excelsior with a small team of volunteer astronauts, including a boisterous, alcoholic American who almost incites a mutiny. What they encounter on Mars is a vastly superior race that has eradicated war and aggression from its DNA and is living in harmony with nature and each other. Will the Earth visitors pose a threat and create problems for their hosts?
A Trip to Mars was produced by Nordisk Films, founded in 1906 by theater owner Ole Olsen, who quickly built it into one of the most prolific production facilities in Europe, turning out more than a hundred movies a year by 1910. The studio’s peak coincided with Denmark’s Golden Age of Cinema and it achieved international success by supplying the market with a steady stream of well-made releases, especially melodramas, literary adaptations, slapstick comedies, films about white slavery, and prestige productions like Atlantis (1913), a large-scale disaster epic.
A Trip to Mars, written by author Sophus Michaëlis and Ole Olsen, is one of the most ambitious productions made at the tail end of the studio’s heyday and a rare foray into science fiction. Nordisk had ventured into the genre’s territory only once before with 1916’s Verdens Undergang (The Flaming Sword), directed by August Blom, in which a passing comet threatens apocalypse.
A Trip to Mars was an unusual choice for director Holger-Madsen, who was better known for social dramas exploring themes of spirituality (John Redmond, The Evangelist, 1915) and earthbound pacifism (Down with Weapons!, also 1915). However, he became intrigued by what he later described as “the thought that there might well be populated planets, where evolution had gone further than here—say Mars.”
Although A Trip to Mars predates more widely seen silent-era science fiction films like Jakov Protazanov’s Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924), Holger-Madsen’s epic takes a less stylized approach to what later became hallmarks of the genre—set design, special effects, and fantastical set pieces—all of which are modest in comparison with something like the visual opulence of Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929). For example, A Trip to Mars’ Excelsior looks more like a functional hybrid of a dirigible and a biplane than a spaceship. The interior quarters are not luxuriously imagined like Lang’s but are spartan and claustrophobic, resembling the belly of a submarine. In addition, the concept of space travel is unromanticized with Holger-Madsen accenting the isolation, loneliness, and boredom that plague the crew members during their journey. In this way A Trip to Mars has more in common with modern space travel films from Solaris (1972) through Ad Astra (2019).
The most unexpected aspect of A Trip to Mars is the depiction of the planet as a utopian society, which looks forward to the mythical city of Shangri-La envisioned by James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon and may even seem familiar to fans of Gene Roddenberry’s early Star Trek series. Unlike Earth, Mars is a world without war, sickness, poverty, and all the human imperfections that create strife. Their concept of death is also seen as spiritual renewal rather than something to be dreaded.
At the same time, A Trip to Mars is often amusing when detailing cultural differences between the Earthmen and their hosts. Welcoming Martian elders wear ceremonial head dresses and flowing white robes that conjure wise Roman senators or an eclectic religious cult. The space explorers stand in dark contrast, tightly buttoned from head to toe into brown leather. The Martians are strictly vegetarian and baffled by Avanti’s gifts of wine and canned meat. “Meat? Dead meat? How do you procure that?” asks the Martian elder (Philip Bech). In answer, Avanti grabs his gun and blasts a bird out of the sky. Yet, the most extreme example of the gulf between the blissed-out Martians and their leather-clad visitors are brief glimpses of life back on Earth presented as a montage of gambling, lewd dancing, women drinking in nightclubs, and street crime.
Yet even 1918’s war-weary audiences were unreceptive to Olsen and Michaëlis’s pacifist fantasy. When A Trip to Mars premiered on February 22, 1918, it was derided by most Danish film critics as being overly earnest in its plea for peaceful coexistence. Could it be that a futuristic fantasy emphasizing peaceful coexistence over special effects and action-packed escapades was simply ahead of its time?
The male lead in A Trip to Mars is Norwegian-born Gunnar Tolnæs who was at the peak of his fame in 1917 thanks to his role as an Indian prince in the first installment of The Maharajah’s Favorite Wife, directed by Robert Dinesen, with whom he later made a sequel. The handsome Tolnæs found himself constantly cast in matinee idol romances and he longed for the more complex roles of his earlier career when he was working with prestigious Swedish directors such as Maurice Stiller and Victor Sjöström. Tolnæs never made the transition to sound films and abandoned film acting altogether in 1929. A Trip to Mars’ Lilly Jacobsson, who appeared opposite Tolnæs in both Maharajah films as well, retired from the screen a few years after marrying in 1919. Her final role as Ophelia in Hamlet (1921), with Asta Nielsen as a gender-bended Prince of Denmark, could be her finest performance.
One cast member from A Trip to Mars recognizable today is Nils Asther, who appears briefly as a fatally wounded Martian who is later resurrected from the dead. He quickly rose to fame as a leading man in Danish, Swedish, and German films before setting out for Hollywood in 1917, where his angular good looks placed him opposite top-tier talent that included Joan Crawford for 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters and Greta Garbo for Wild Orchids and The Single Standard, both 1929.
After the lackluster box office of A Trip to Mars Nordisk Films did not pursue further science-fiction projects, and with the ascendance of the Hollywood export, Nordisk’s fortunes faded throughout the 1920s. Danish cinema didn’t venture into the realm of the fantastic again until two releases that bookend the 1960s: Reptilicus (1961), in which a frozen prehistoric creature is awakened by scientists, and The Man Who Thought Life (1969), about a man with extraordinary mental powers. More recently Denmark’s filmmakers have taken on the consequences of space travel with Aniara, a 2018 Swedish-Danish production directed by Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja, in which a commercial flight to Mars is supposed to take only two weeks but becomes an eternity as the spaceship is knocked off course and lost in space. The passengers end up choosing either self-annihilation or living without hope of rescue. Such a dystopian vision stands in marked contrast to the idealism of A Trip to Mars, which was made at the bitter end of World War I yet comes across like a radical act of optimism.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker