1968: A cinematographic space oddity: Mission Mars
May I begin this article by wishing you a bright sunshiny day, my reading friend? The year 1968 was a very significant one for cinema enthusiasts the world over, with film classics like Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes, Rosemary’s Baby, Oliver!, Romeo and Juliet, Bullitt, The Odd Couple, The Love Bug, Funny Girl and 2001: A Space Odyssey. A contrarian to the end, yours truly chose to stay away from these monuments of the cinematographic art. The topic of this week’s issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee is a film most of you have never heard of. Mission Mars was first shown in July 1968, a few months after 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yes, my observant reading friend, a February 2018 issue of our blog / bulletin / thingee dealt with a movie about a trip to Mars, but back to our story.
Our movie began with the wife of astronaut Mike Blaiswick waking up after experiencing a nightmare about a disaster in space. He listened to her and offered reassurance that the journey to Mars he and his teammates would begin the following day would be successful. Edith Blaiswick wanted to have a baby. He agreed. The couple spent some time at a beach before Blaiswick rejoined his teammates. The navigator, known only as Duncan, was a bachelor. The third member of the crew, Nick Grant, was a geologist. His relationship with his wife, Alice, was troubled. He wanted to do pioneering work while she wanted to have stability. Grant promised her this would be his last mission.
The launch of the rocket went without a hitch. As was to be expected, all three men were wearing spacesuits. Not too long after their departure, their capsule docked with a supply module launched beforehand. The journey to Mars proved pretty uneventful, with the exception of a meteor storm – a common feature in space movies of the 1950s and 60s. The spacecraft was not damaged. Briefing sessions between the astronauts and their National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contact were used to insert various factoids on Mars, thus maintaining viewer interest. At one point, one of the American was shown reading Jules Gabriel Verne’s 1869 classic 20,000 Leagues under the Sea – a well known science fiction novel but a somewhat odd choice for a journey to Mars. Back on Earth, Edith Blaiswick and Alice Grant were seen killing time.
At one point, Blaiswick and Duncan shared a reconstituted omelette, made from pills, while Grant ate a pastrami sandwich he had smuggled onboard. Now, my reading friend, would you believe that this illegal action had a basis in fact?
In March 1965, 2 American astronauts stepped aboard Gemini 3, the first 2-person mission organised by NASA. A couple of hours into the 292 minute, 30 second flight, John Watts Young pulled a corned beef sandwich out of a pocket in his spacesuit. Although quite surprised, his crewmate, Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom, agreed to take a bite. Devoid of mustard and pickle, the two day old sandwich did not taste all that great. As crumbs of rye bread began to float in the capsule, Grissom quickly put the sandwich in a pocket of his spacesuit. Fellow astronaut Walter Marty “Wally” Schirra, a well known prankster, had bought the sandwich from a Wolfie’s Restaurant and Sandwich Shop, more specifically the one at a hotel located near Cape Canaveral, Florida.
News of this prank soon spread beyond the walls of NASA. Some Americans were greatly amused. Others, well, not so much. It so happened that one of the objectives of the Gemini 3 mission was the testing of specially developed space food. Said food had been coated with gelatine to prevent crumbling. Would you believe that, within weeks of the incident, the United States House Committee on Appropriations convened a meeting to investigate the “$30-million corned-beef sandwich”, as one committee member referred to this food item? The committee wanted to know if, by tasting / eating it, Young and Grissom had ignored the space food, which had cost millions of dollars to develop. After some intense questioning, somewhat embarrassed NASA representatives indicated that the organization had taken steps to prevent the smuggling of corned beef sandwiches into space.
Interestingly, corned beef officially went to space in 1981, during the first spaceflight of the Orbiter Vehicle, or Space Shuttle, for the Space Transportation System developed for NASA. The commander of this mission was, you guessed it, none other than the aforementioned Young. There are evidently people at NASA who have a sense of humour. If I may be allowed to digress for a second or three, did you know that some of the shooting stars we see in the skies are caused by garbage, including space poop, ejected from the International Space Station? (Private gag. Hello there, EP.) But back to our movie, and... And yes, my food loving reading friend, visitors to the Virgil I. Grissom Memorial Museum, in Mitchell, Indiana, could / can see a corned beef sandwich embedded in a block of acrylic, but back to our movie.
As they got closer to Mars, Blaiswick, Duncan and Grant came across the bodies of 2 Soviet cosmonauts, seemingly buried in space. It looked as if the top secret mission to Mars launched by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics around the time Blaiswick and his crew left Earth had gone through some really bad time. The fate of a likely third cosmonaut was very much uncertain.
The landing of the American spacecraft on Mars did not proceed as planned, as the supply module was dropped prematurely. The three astronauts donned their spacesuits and went looking for it. They left a trail of small tethered balloons to mark their path. Along the way, the trio came across the third Soviet cosmonaut, apparently frozen solid. Grant took him back to the American spacecraft. Moving right along, Blaiswick and Duncan found the supply module but saw it had a hole burned in one side. As the astronauts began to walk back toward their spacecraft, they noted that the balloons were gone.
An elongated plant like creature with a single red eye on its large head and arms ending in flat plates came into view. It disappeared and appeared a few times. The polarite, as these being were called, flashed beams of light from its eye into the faces of the astronauts, dazzling them. Blaiswick killed the creature with his laser rifle. The astronauts retreated to their spacecraft. For some reason or other, they wondered if the polarites were not probes controlled by one or more unseen beings. Their NASA contact urged the astronauts to leave Mars as quickly as possible.
Their attempt to lift off ended in failure as the spacecraft seemed to be caught within some sort of force field emitted by a large sphere that just appeared nearby. This sphere split open soon after. As Grant and Duncan moved in to investigate, the latter was killed by energy blasts and dragged inside by an invisible force.
Their NASA contact suggested that Blaiswick or Grant get one or more booster rocket engines from the supply module. Realising that a polarite was waiting for them, the astronauts moved the antenna of the spacecraft so that it prevented the light of the Sun from shining on the alien being. The polarite gradually became inactive. Blaiswick hurried to the supply module and grabbed one or more booster rocket engines. A second attempt to lift off proved unsuccessful. Now conscious, the Soviet cosmonaut informed the American astronauts that, like the polarites, the sphere drew its energy from the sun.
Blaiswick and Grant decided to confront the sphere, which split open a second time. The 2 astronauts talked to it. The sphere repeated their words, before stating that it wanted one of them alive. Grant walked in, at which point the sphere exploded without warning.
Blaiswick lifted off the red planet with the help of the Soviet cosmonaut. Both men were surprisingly upbeat despite the death of 2 Soviet cosmonauts and 2 American astronauts. As the spacecraft sped toward Earth, Blaiswick heard that his wife was pregnant. The End.
Produced by a small film studio, Mission Mars was an anachronism. Although filmed in colour and provided with original pop / jazzy / groovy electronic keyboard music, this obscure low budget film was remarkably similar to a B science fiction movie shot in the late 1950s. 2001: A Space Odyssey it certainly was not. Even though the existence of at least 2 posters suggested that Mission Mars was shown in some movie theatres, this film was in all likelihood produced for distribution to various television networks / stations. The director, for example, had far more experience in television production than in movie making. He was not without talent, though. Mission Mars contained a number of sound overlays, fast cuts and rapid montages. One could argue that the latter were quite similar to the ones frequently used by television directors of the 1980s and 1990s.
Oddly enough, one of the earlier movie efforts of Mission Mars’ director had to do with beings from the red planet. This 1964 feature film, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, was arguably one of the worst films ever made. This being said (typed?), this motion picture may very well be the first one to include Mrs. Claus among its characters.
While it is true that the director of Mission Mars was not without talent, he unfortunately did not explain certain elements of the story he was telling. Viewers received no explanation whatsoever of what happened on the Soviet spacecraft that caused the death of 2 of its 3 cosmonauts. The origin of the word polarite is not explained, nor do we learn how the frozen / thawed Soviet cosmonaut learned that the mysterious sphere was solar powered. The very survival of this cosmonaut, not to mention his rather rapid thaw, is also a bit hard to swallow.
At first, the director’s decision to use original pop / jazzy / groovy electronic keyboard music to highlight key moments seems somewhat incongruous. Its repeated use to that effect gradually becomes quite annoying.
It should be noted that about half of the story told by Mission Mars took place on Earth before the launch. Showing Blaiswick and Grant interacting with their wives did not require costly special effects. Although reasonably realistic, this section of the film was arguably the weakest.
The limited financial means of the film crew were also exemplified by the use of NASA stock footage. This material was used frequently and somewhat indiscriminately. The most egregious example of this concerned footage of a rocket stage being jettisoned. Viewers first saw it when the rocket that carried Blaiswick, Duncan and Grant left Earth. They saw it a 2nd time, run backwards, when the spacecraft docked with the supply module. The clip made a 3rd appearance, run forwards again, when the spacecraft dropped the supply module toward the end of the journey to Mars. It was used a 4th and final time, run backwards again, during the sequence that led to the landing on the red planet.
The lack of money also limited the impact of the rather grisly sighting of the two dead cosmonauts. The director of Mission Mars was forced to use toy figurines. Yet another consequence of the limited budget was the absence of scenes showing the effects of weightlessness during the trip to Mars. Another peculiarity of the film may not be fully explained by this factor. The spacesuits worn by the actors during their stay on Mars were not the ones seen during the launch scene. If truth be told, these wet suits and open motorcycle helmets were rather different from the spacesuits one would expect to find in a space movie. They did not go unnoticed. The spacesuits of Mission Mars seemingly attracted a fair amount of ridicule.
It has been suggested that the properly sealed helmets and suits seen during the launch scenes were to be used during the Martian scenes. One of actors, Darren McGavin, born William Lyle Richardson if you must know, objected to their use as the helmets were a tad tight for his somewhat prominent proboscis – a little something the writer of these lines can certainly sympathise with. The change in helmets led to a slight update to the scenario. The Martian atmosphere was described as being marginally breathable. Given that no American or Soviet probe had yet gone to Mars, this update was marginally believable. A problem with the use of the open helmets was the fact that the Soviet cosmonaut found on Mars, who had a sealed spacesuit, was frozen solid when discovered. Even though Mars seemed very cold indeed, the American astronauts were walking around without so much as a scarf to cover their necks and throats.
On a more positive note, the polarites were suitably strange and extraterrestrial. They were also obviously personified by tiny models. The unseen intelligence that may have directed them seemed uncertain of what to do with the astronauts. It combined curiosity with what has been described as irrational grouchiness. The covering of the large metal sphere, by the way, looked a lot like crumpled aluminum foil.
So, if you like low budget American science fiction films from the 1950s, Mission Mars might be for you. Indeed, you may find it superior to many other productions of this type. It has been suggested that the Martian section of the film was as good as the best episodes of the classic American science fiction television series The Outer Limits, broadcasted between September 1963 and January 1965.
Let us conclude this article with an audio of a now forgotten American band, The Forum Quorum, interpreting one of their 1968 songs, No More Tears, located at
Why this song, you ask, my perplexed reading friend? Why, this was the title theme of Mission Mars. This pop rock ballad was very much of its time but had nothing to do with a journey to the red planet. Besides, its success paled in comparison with that of classic 1968 songs like Love is blue and Hey Jude, and… What is it, my reading friend? You wonder why yours truly mentioned an unknown song like Love is blue while ignoring 1968 classics like Sunshine of your love, Mrs. Robinson and Jumpin’ Jack Flash? The reason for this choice is simple. Love is blue was the 2nd most popular song of 1968, after Hey Jude, at least in the United States. Believe it or not, the 3 songs you suggested were not as popular. And that’s it for now.