A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ timeless novel of intergalactic adventure and intrigue that introduced one of science fiction’s most enduring and iconic heroes in Captain John Carter, has seen many fits and starts in its journey from page to screen that will end in less than two months when Andrew Stanton‘s live-action debut John Carter hits the big screen. Prior to Stanton’s involvement the property passed through the hands of directors such as John McTiernan, Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran, and Jon Favreau over the years.
But when talk first began of bringing the adventures of John Carter to life via the magic of celluloid it was a much different time, and it wasn’t intended to be a live-action adaptation. In 1931, nearly two decades after the publication of A Princess of Mars, author Burroughs approached early animation pioneer Bob Clampett about possibly making a full-length animated John Carter feature. Working with Burroughs’ son John Coleman, Clampett spent a year beginning in 1935 producing a reel of test footage for the proposed John Carter feature hoping to garner the interest of a major Hollywood studio.
You can watch Clampett’s test footage, complete with the animator’s narration, here below.
For the test an athlete was filmed performing the movements of the Carter character and Clampett later animated over the footage, a process known as rotoscoping. Clampett also designed the alien characters of the planet Barsoom (which we know as Mars), including the Tharks and the eight-legged Thoats, and wrote an original John Carter story, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ blessing, for the gestating feature film. The color portions of the test were accomplished with oil paints. The two-and-a-half minute reel ended with the promise of further John Carter adventures to come.
The test was impressive enough for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to acquire the rights to Burroughs’ John Carter novels but when the reel was screened for theatrical exhibitors across the country it was greeted with cold indifference, particularly from those who felt the elaborate sci-fi fantasies wouldn’t play well with audiences in the Midwest. MGM canceled development on the film and the next year Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves became the first full-length animated feature and one of the most beloved films of all time.
Despite some interest from stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen in the 1950s the John Carter of Mars movie project laid dormant for the next seventy years. In March Burroughs’ legendary creation will finally see the silver screen, but unfortunately Clampett would not live to see it; he died on May 2, 1984, just six days shy of his 71st birthday.
It’s amazing to think that had Clampett and Burroughs’ dream been realized John Carter of Mars would have been the first full-length animated feature produced for the big screen. Could that have changed the course of film history? Would more serious and memorable science-fiction films have been made in Hollywood earlier than the 1950s? The mind reels at the possibilities.