Ronald Reagan’s Action Hero
John Carter, Warlord of Mars, comes to the big screen.

Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch in Disney’s John Carter (Disney)


To a certain ten-year-old boy living in Dixon, Illinois, in 1921, the town’s modest public library was a revelation, a “house of magic,” as he would later put it. At least once a week, young Ronald “Dutch” Reagan would take the long walk from his family’s home to the Dixon library, returning the two or more books he had devoured that week and eagerly speculating about what new discoveries or adventures he might find next.

The Reagans had only recently moved back to Dixon after short stays in several other Illinois cities and towns. For the future president, reading was not only a lifelong passion but also, during his unsettled early childhood, a means of escape and exploration. According to Reagan’s biographers and letters, few American authors made a greater impression on young Dutch than Edgar Rice Burroughs. Best known as the creator of Tarzan, one of the most successful characters in popular fiction and entertainment, Burroughs wrote dozens of other works spanning such genres as adventure, mystery, horror, westerns, humor, and a type of science fiction known as “planetary romance” or “sword and planet” stories.

Through print, comic strips, radio, television, and motion pictures, Burroughs’s characters such as Tarzan and John Carter, Warlord of Mars, entertained millions and inspired countless young readers to pursue such varied vocations as astronomy (Carl Sagan), space exploration (NASA astronaut Terry Wilcutt), zoology and conservation (Jane Goodall), and fiction (Michael Crichton and Arthur C. Clarke). “I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic,” wrote Martian Chronicles author Ray Bradbury, another fan. “Burroughs put us on the moon.” 

Count Ronald Reagan among the inspired. In a letter he wrote in 1981 to a resident of Dixon, President Reagan went out of his way to mention a favorite character: “I am amazed at how few people I meet today know that Burroughs also provided an introduction to science fiction with John Carter of Mars and the other books he wrote about John Carter and his frequent trips to the strange kingdoms to be found on the planet Mars.”

If such a gap in public knowledge persists today, the creators of Disney’s upcoming John Carter film are hoping to close it with a blockbuster along the lines of Avatar, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings. They are placing a big bet — a $250 million bet, according to some reports — on the ability of modern filmmaking technology and Pixar expertise to convert one of the classics of science fiction into a 21st-century film franchise. 

Few projects have spent so much time in Hollywood’s development hell. The first John Carter tale, entitled “Under the Moons of Mars,” was serialized in All-Story magazine from February to July of 1912. Two sequels followed in the same magazine in 1913 and 1914. Each was later published as a freestanding novel. By the time young Dutch Reagan began his regular visits to the Dixon library in 1921, there were four novels of adventure on Barsoom, the native word for Mars. Seven more would follow by the early 1940s.