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Over a century ago, Thomas Edison's studio produced what is regarded by many scholars as the first American Science Fiction movie and certainly the first film about Mars. It wasn't the famed American inventor's first visit to the Red Planet, but A Trip to Mars was a seminal journey in the history of cinema.
Edison's first trip to Mars was an act of retribution for the infamous Martian invasion of 1898. Copyright law being ambivalent at the turn of the century, an unlicensed, unauthorized version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds appeared in American newspapers as Fighters from Mars, or the War of the Worlds In and Near Boston. Names and locations were changed to reflect the war's progress on the New England front. As soon as it ended, Garrett P. Serviss was commissioned to write Edison's Conquest of Mars: a sequel in which an army of Earth's best scientists, lead by Thomas Edison, take the fight back to the Martians. Serviss was already well-known as a popularizer of astronomy - the Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson of the Gay Nineties - and Edison's Conquest of Mars was the first in a string of Scientific Romances of fair to middling quality. Reading the two books back-to-back is a fascinating exercise in contrasting the skepticism of tired imperial hubris with the can-do attitude of an economically, politically, and culturally ascendant nation.
Copyright law was no kinder to Georges Méliès. Despite being a Steve Jobs-like figure in his time, Edison did not become as successful as he did through generousity of spirit. When the French filmmaker had a smash hit on his hands with Le Voyage dans la Lune in 1902, Edison's agents smuggled prints to the United States. The film became hugely popular in the US without a single dime going to Méliès, frustrating his efforts at overseas distribution.
A Trip to Mars, released in 1910, is a short trick film very much in the Méliès mold, though not nearly as creative. H.G. Wells pops up again, this time to supply the motivating force that compels the protagonist to the angry planet. Drawing from The First Men in the Moon (1900), a scientist develops a chemical powder that reverses the force of gravity. Sprinkling some on himself, he shoots out the window and lands forthwith on Mars. He encounters some strange Martian flora and has a chilly run-in with a giant who eventually sends him falling back to Earth.
Directed by Ashley Miller, A Trip to Mars was intended for the Kinetoscope market and existing versions may be reconstructions from paper prints. The vagaries of copyright law negatively impacted Edison as well... Though his full Kinetoscope films could not be copyrighted, individual photos could. Therefore, the most logical thing was to copyright each individual frame of the film as a separate photo. Thankfully for everyone from Edison to modern restorers, the short is only five minutes long and not overly sophisticated. It's mainly just a fun little jaunt that was never really meant to pass the test of time.
Edison's A Trip to Mars (1910)