Would you believe the author is Edgar Rice Burroughs, the man who created “Tarzan”? It turns out that Mr. Burroughs wrote “Under The Moons of Mars” in six installments as a comic book series in 1912, under a pseudonym, because he was afraid he’d be ridiculed. Well, it is fanciful. And because it enjoys a kind of “grandfather clause” about being able to live on Mars, we don’t worry too much about the inauthentic technology. (The other way you can handle that is to begin “a long time ago in a galaxy far away”.) The subsequent book was titled “The Princess of Mars,” and between the rejected titles and the current one, you get an idea about the plot.
“John Carter” is the name of a Civil War veteran, a cavalry captain from Virginia who fought with distinction in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, and returned home after the war to find his wife dead and his house burned. So now he’s an embittered drifter somewhere in the Wild West, a sometime gold prospector who’s being actively recruited by the U.S. cavalry to help secure the frontier (translation: fight Indians, who weren’t usually called Native Americans back then). In his frantic effort to escape the military’s clutches, John Carter stumbles on a cave of gold and a kind of magic amulet, which transports him to….a strange and unfamiliar territory, which he later finds out is Mars.
John Carter also discovers that there is less gravity on Mars (remember the grandfather clause), so he suddenly has superpowers: he can jump startling distances, he’s several times stronger, which actor Taylor Kitsch manages to convey by having worked out until he more resembles a bodybuilder than a high plains drifter. He soon runs into these big four-armed green creatures who argue among themselves about whether to take him prisoner or try to enlist him as an ally against their enemies. Yes, it seems Mars is embroiled in its own civil war (Burroughs’ father was a major in the Union Army). John Carter thinks he can avoid involvement, but it seems there is this scantily clad princess, Dejah (Lynn Collins), whose people need rescuing, though she’s not exactly helpless herself (déjà vu).
Yes, we have flying-machine technology, which John Carter comically never quite seems to master, and a gladiator-against-the-beast kind of triumph, a strangely Trinitarian morphing being with superpowers who seems to be the evil adversary, and some kind of chemically induced initiation ritual which enables John Carter to (conveniently) overcome the language barrier.
Even though “John Carter” is a Disney production, its PG-13 rating is well-deserved for all the violence, and it’s too long for most children to sit through, anyway. But “John Carter” is interesting if for no other reason than being a kind of iconic narrative prequel to practically every Hollywood interplanetary drama ever invented, right up to the 3-D present. And it’s all wrapped around a subplot of a diary and an inheritance and a mysterious mausoleum that can only be opened from the inside. Talk about confidence in the afterlife. “John Carter” isn’t for everyone, but it’s a good, old-fashioned fantasy yarn, well told.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.