“Yeah, we’ll have two blondes with a side of brunettes, and a redhead for desert.”
Mars Needs Women is a slice of 1967 life where foreigners land in Houston, Texas and attempt to abduct a quintet of women. It’s misogynistic overtones are much louder today than they were at the time, but not to worry because love conquers all.
The title alone is enough to grab you. Why does Mars need women? Well it’s all answered for you in the trailer, apparently. The male Martians have some sort of fertility issue, and of course they need Earth women to help repopulate the planet. But not just any Earth women. LuAnne from the trailer park will not do! They only need the most perfect women, all apparently blonde, in order to continue their “ancient civilization.” So many further questions about this B-grade black and white film.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Houston, Texas. A couple is playing tennis when suddenly the woman vanishes without a trace. Another couple is having dinner, and when the man gets up to get more cigarettes, his date also mysteriously winks out of existence. Finally a woman in a shower vanishes as well. At the United States Decoding Service, Nasa Wing, Colonel Bob Page (Byron Lord) races into the computer room to get further word on the mysterious messages they’ve been receiving for three days. According to his analyst, the message is short –just three words– “Mars needs women.” They’re certain. It’s been triple checked!
The Martians contact the USDS that they will meet with them to explain their plight. Col. Page rants about their ultimatums, but agrees. Dop (Tommy Kirk), Martian Fellow 1, blips into the USDS computer room asking for 5 females; attractive, unmarried, and fertile, to allow Mars to repopulate. Due to a genetic issue, Martian women are born in a ratio of 1-to-100 necessitating Earth women to help reproduce their species. The Colonel obviously refuses, so Dop says that they will just end up taking the women anyway, and vanishes.
Dop lands his ship in an abandoned ice warehouse and provides instructions to his four fellow Martians about their plans. Operation “Sleep Freeze” will begin as soon as they get money, clothes, a map, and transportation –and for gosh sakes don’t eat any Earth food! After the initial heists, the five Martians now look like any other mid-60’s businessmen. They have 24 hours to abduct suitable specimens and return to their ship. Martian Fellow 3 (Anthony Huston) heads straight for a strip club to find his subject (‘Bubbles’ Cash), while number 4 (Larry Tanner) heads to the airport to grab a stewardess (Donna Lindberg), and number 5 (Cal Duggan) abducts the homecoming queen (Sherry Roberts) from Baylor University.
While their compatriots are off “getting lucky,” Dop and Martian Fellow 2 (Warren Hammack), aka The Doctor, head to a local Holiday Inn. At the bar they see a news report about Dr. Marjorie Bolan (Yvonne Craig), a “stunning brunette,” coming into town to speak to reporters about space medicine and space genetics. Dop decides they need to steal a press pass so that he can attend the press conference and grab Dr. Bolen, who would make a good candidate considering her scientific background, as well as her pleasing figure. Dop uses Martian hypnosis to make a reporter give up his pass, and his room. The Doctor decides to take a nap before heading out to look for co-eds!
Dop makes an impression on Dr. Bolen and the two visit a planetarium together, which is showing a trip to Mars. He acts much smarter than other reporters she’s known. At her meeting with the other military and scientific leaders she theorizes the location of the Martian spacecraft, discussing the meanings of “sleep freeze” (even though the Martians had only discussed this amongst themselves). Later she and Dop visit a medical museum of her father’s work and they kiss. She’s nervous because she knows that Dop (who she still believes is a reporter) will return home tomorrow after the military raids the ice factory.
The Doctor kidnaps a co-ed artist (Pat Delany) painting in the quad of a college. Dop realizes that his plan is in trouble and takes Dr. Bolen to the ice warehouse, admitting he’s really a Martian. While his fellow Martian’s ready their women, he says they have no time and must leave immediately. He refuses to take Marjorie, having fallen in love with her. The Doctor reminds him he’s dooming the entire Martian race! Colonel Page arrives with five infantrymen and just as they rush the ice factory, the UFO takes off, heading back for Mars. Marjorie cries silently as the ship departs.
“We are medical missionaries. A critical recession in the y chromosomes in our genetics has resulted in a preponderance of male births over female…We seek female volunteers, unmarried, of good health and possessing the common indicators of fertility and reproduction.” – Dop
History in the Making
The late 1960s were a period of great upheaval in American history. There was social unrest, political assassinations, entry into the war in Vietnam, the beginnings of sexual equality, as well as the thrills of the space race and the fears of the ever-growing Cold War. Science-Fiction films of the time tended to reflect a number of these issues as thematic elements of their story. Whether it’s the paranoia of giant corporations controlling our lives, as with the recently reviewed Seconds, the existential realization that man is not in control (Planet of the Apes), or the greater revelation that man can expand and evolve past current boundaries (2001: A Space Odyssey), sci-fi films reacted to –and addressed– the current social fears in an artful and thoughtful way. And then there’s Mars Needs Women!
Written and directed by Larry Buchanan for American International Pictures (AIP), the film never achieved theatrical release and ended up being shown on television, presumably in the late-night movie slots. And while Mars Needs Women may not have the same action as Apes or the gravitas of 2001, it is indeed a commentary of its time. Whether intentional or not, films and other art forms contain themes of the time that they are made. Sometimes they are positive elements, and sometimes they end up reflecting parts of society that may be better off forgotten. Mars Needs Women may suffer from the worst kind of thematic commentary: the arbitrary themes.
Producers and directors, I believe, do not set out to consciously create bad films, but sometimes the process is hampered by constraints outside their control. Sometimes those limitations are creative or philosophical, and other times economic. In the case of Mars Needs Women, it’s a little of all of these.
Mars Needs Women is exceedingly low-budget. It has a poor script and an apparently rushed production schedule, amongst other things. It seems as if the creators thought they could hit all of the popular sci-fi tropes from 1950s invasion films, plus throw in some sexy women to provide a little titillation. The film has a UFO, Martians, cryptic powers of teleportation and hypnosis, yet it still doesn’t gel together into a cohesive film. Probably because the success or failure of a genre film was based solely on the inclusion of genre elements. Unfortunately, filmmakers can’t just check off boxes, choosing to include popular sci-fi elements in order to make the film a success.
Low-budget sci-fi films are nothing new to the genre This film was just continuing the trend, albeit in color (not black and white as the trailer would have one believe) of quick and cheaply made sci-fi films. The film suffers from a lack of many things associated with quality film, such as script, acting, cinematography, editing, and special effects. In fact Mars Needs Women may be an objectively worse film than Plan 9 From Outer Space. That might be an overstatement, but the film certainly suffers from a lack of money, time, and creativity.
The film contains much stock footage, long extended takes, little coverage of scenes (that’s where a director will shoot footage to be used for cutaways and other edits during the scene to make it more interesting), and scenes with dialog added over static images (such as a sequence near the beginning where the voice comes over the PA system, and the film continues to show a loudspeaker with overdubbed voice). The writing is sloppy, and the acting is subpar. It definitely looks like something that was shot over a couple of days.
Stock footage is a useful and cost saving measure, and oftentimes goes unnoticed in small doses. But Mars Needs Women creates entire sequences using this technique. Shortly after the initial meeting with Dop, the USDS launches an attack on the Martian vessel with the X-15 fighter. This extended sequence is made up of stock footage of Air Force planes flying, launching missiles, and landing. The story is not evident by the footage alone, so there is running commentary between the controller and the Colonel explaining what is happening. There’s an old adage in Hollywood, “show, don’t tell.” The best revelations of plot and character come from seeing the characters perform actions, not from having them, or a narrator, tell the audience all the important parts. Mars Needs Women is rife with “telling.”
Other issues that the film suffers from is the apparent ease with which Martians understand the late-60s American culture, social norms, and economic landscape. They know they need money, clothes, and a car, and understand exactly how to get them. The car is stolen from an airport where it won’t be missed immediately. A Martian knows that the stewardess is unmarried, since airlines at the time only hired single ladies for their crew. But yet they don’t know that they can’t get a mixed drink in a bar (see the section below for more details). Also, Dop uses the phrase “sleep freeze” with his fellow Martians at the beginning of the film. Later Dr. Bolen explains to the gathered scientists what “sleep freeze” is, as if they had been discussing it the whole time. Obviously the writer forgot who had said what, since this is exposition to the audience (“telling” again) and not something the characters would use. The issues of sloppy writing or stock footage are not necessarily the killing stroke for the film, as many other films suffer from equal problems in one way or another. It’s the compounding of all these many issues together that appears to be the bigger issue.
Sometimes low-budget films can cut through a lot of extraneous issues and studio politics to get to the heart of matters. Night of the Living Dead is a good example of a film that was made inexpensively but it is not cheap. Sometimes low-budget films are just exploitative, gratifying the audience with T&A and wish fulfillment. That seems to be more of where Mars Needs Women is heading, especially when the first woman scoped out is a stripper. The misogynistic overtones of the film are extremely strong.
As with other films I’ve examined from the 50s and 60s, the presence of the “male gaze” is very strong, especially in lower budget films. This term describes the perspective from which the film occurs, but can also typify the filmmakers behind it. The “male gaze” assumes a heterosexual man is the consumer of the product and takes his perspective. There are often lingering shots on women, who are scantily clad. Females are usually sexy and submissive, and the male characters are always in charge. Films with a “male gaze” are not necessarily exploitative, as was seen in the previous article on Forbidden Planet, but often times they are.
The overt misogyny of the film could also represent the conditions of the time it was created, or perhaps the filmmakers worldview, or a combination of the two. Scenes that present a renowned genetic doctor introduced on television as a “stunning brunette” are a telling moment, as is the male reporters joking about the physical attributes of women and what they would do if they were Martians. Aliens stalking women through their workplace, gazing into their eyes in a creepy fashion also presents an awkward moment. The film is much more “out there” than other genre films from these decades where women are used more like a prop. This trend would change as America would get more female writers, producers and directors.
Another possible reading of the plot could be related to racial stresses and social upheavals of the time. The Martians can be seen as a foreigner, or other race, coming after “our“ women. Of course, the filmmakers cast white actors in all the prominent roles, as not to make any offense. But the idea is not as ludicrous as it seems. Sci-fi films have often veiled racism and other racial issues. For example, Invasion of the Body Snatchers seems more about the menace of communism, but could also be racial xenophobia. By 1972 low-budget sci-fi films didn’t bother to hide their discussion of race with films like The Thing With Two Heads, in which a black man’s head is grafted onto a white racists body.
The Science in The Fiction
As the film opens the audience is shown that the Martians have teleportation technology when three women vanish. Dop then shows up via the same teleportation technology, called a “transponder” by the aliens, and informs the Colonel that there was a problem with their initial snatch and grab. “We have attempted to seize 3 women by transponder. We have been unsuccessful.” That becomes the excuse for the ship to land and for the aliens to wander around Houston. But it also begs the question, if the Martians can travel the distance between Mars and Earth, and create a teleportation beam –which works well enough– how are they unable to understand the genetics of their species and solve the problem for themselves?
Where did these other women go? What sort of problems did they have with the technology? Why do they need Earth women, and why only 5 women? The film does nothing but raise more questions. Perhaps it’s the lack of other interesting things happening during the film that causes ones mind to wander and think about these potential plot holes.
The Final Frontier
Tommy Kirk is no stranger to science fiction films. He spent a number of years working for Walt Disney and appeared as Biff Hawk in The Absent Minded Professor. He also had portrayed a Martian in the 1964 beach film Pajama Party, in which a Martian comes to Earth and falls for a beach bunny, played by Annette Funicello. That film, like Mars Needs Women was also produced by AIP, which seems to have produced mostly beach party, and other semi-exploitative films, while sometimes reaching higher heights as with the Roger Corman and Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Kirk was forced out of working with Disney when his homosexuality was revealed. This had not become public knowledge, so he continued to get roles such as this one. A telling line between Dop and Dr. Bolen is when he quotes Alexander Pope, “the proper study of mankind is man,” and she asks if man is really the best study – or is it women? Something that takes on different context today. Fans of the 1966 Batman series will recognize Yvonne Craig who played Batgirl in the third season on that show. She also had a small role as an Orion slave dancer in a 1969 episode of Star Trek called “Whom Gods Destroy.”
As mentioned above, the Martians seem to be completely familiar with Earth customs, except the fact that they cannot get mixed drinks in a Texas bar. This seemed like a weird line, so with some further investigation I turned up a New York Times article which gave some context to the moment. “Until 1972, you could not legally buy mixed drinks anywhere in Texas,” says the article. This explains why they were only allowed to drink beer or wine. Out of context this seems strange, but also in the film – it seems strange too!
While Sci-Fi Saturdays tries to look at some of the best and most iconic films, it’s important to note the other, sadder set of films that don’t get as much attention. Interestingly enough, the title of this film leant itself to a book by Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County) entitled Mars Needs Moms, which itself was made into a 2011 animated film from Walt Disney Studios. Mars needed moms to help instruct their nanny-bots. It too, was a poorly received film but for other reasons. Let’s remember that audiences need bad films. Bad films are necessary so that audiences can truly see how great the good films are.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.