Politics & Policy

Ronald Reagan’s Action Hero

Lynn Collins and Taylor Kitsch in Disney’s John Carter (Disney)
John Carter, Warlord of Mars, comes to the big screen.

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.

Initial discussions about adapting the John Carter saga for film began during the silent-movie era of the 1920s, and the first serious proposal to do a John Carter movie came from animation pioneer Bob Clampett of Looney Tunes fame. In 1931, he pitched Burroughs on what was then the innovative idea of producing a full-length animated film. Clampett made a sample animation of Earthman John Carter dashing nimbly across the ochre moss and dried-up sea bottoms of dying Barsoom, and of a massive beast called a thoat galloping on its eight legs. Perhaps if MGM had given the project the green light, it would have beaten Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the theaters as the first full-length animated feature in Hollywood history. But it was not to be. Studio executives considered the film project too risky. And they considered the underlying story of Civil War veteran John Carter battling twelve-foot Green Martians on a dying planet to be too unbelievable to appeal to American audiences of the 1930s.

So it would be Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, both characters with heavy debts to Burroughs’s Martian tales, who became emblematic of the science fiction of the day. A few years later, it would be Superman — who, like John Carter, acquired superhuman abilities by journeying to a lower-gravity planet — that would star in a pathbreaking series of animated shorts and radio programs in the 1940s. 

Meanwhile, a bewildering series of big-name producers, directors, actors, and screenwriters would try their hands at developing a John Carter project over the ensuing decades. None succeeded. Perhaps the Disney studio and director Andrew Stanton, who hit it big with Finding Nemo and WALL-E, have finally found the moviemaking recipe that previously eluded Ray Harryhausen, Mario Kassar, Tom Cruise, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Robert Rodriguez, Kerry Conran, and Jon Favreau, among others.

I certainly hope so. Like many Burroughs fans, I’ve been waiting for a John Carter film ever since I discovered the original eleven novels as a teenager. For me, as for John Carter director Andrew Stanton, the revelation came in the late 1970s, during the same period when J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were being rediscovered by a new generation of fans. One reason for the popular rediscovery of both authors, as it happens, was the growing popularity of the new role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. Although the influence of Tolkien on D&D is better known, Burroughs’s John Carter tales also played a key role (as did those of other writers such as Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber). D&D co-creator Gary Gygax had read his father’s John Carter books in the 1950s, and fell in love with them. Early versions of the game that became D&D included concepts and creatures from Barsoom, and Gygax produced a wargame called Warriors of Mars in 1974, the same year D&D was published.

Even the name of the game is a clue. While dragons are certainly in evidence in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, particularly in The Hobbit, there is little mention of subterranean prisons. It is on Barsoom where John Carter and other heroes often find themselves confined in dungeons and looking for ways to fight their way out past dangerous foemen and monstrous beasts.

The D&D phenomenon — including not just the game but the reissue of its source material and adaptation into comic books and other media — wasn’t the only reason for the rediscovery of John Carter and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s other characters in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After a decade of decline, defeat, and disco, Americans were ready to embrace old-fashioned heroes. For example, they flocked to the movies to watch the Star Wars films created by lifelong Burroughs fan George Lucas. Some of the desert settings and images in Lucas’s movies were borrowed lovingly from John Carter’s Mars, as were such terms as the Jedi (from the Martian term for nobility, jed), the Sith (from the Martian sith, a sort of giant venomous bumblebee), and the huge banthas of Tatooine (from the banth, the Martian equivalent of a lion).

Around the same time, of course, Americans flocked to the polls to elect Ronald Reagan, whose program represented the promise of economic recovery, cultural renewal, and victory over the Evil Empire. Was there a connection between Reagan’s philosophy and cherished memories of his boyhood hero John Carter? Edmund Morris, the author of the controversial Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, argued that Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars was Reagan’s favorite book as a child, and that his Strategic Defense Initiative was inspired by the domed cities and directed-energy technologies of Mars. I think Morris oversold his point here — Barsoomian cities didn’t have defensive domes, for example — but there is no doubt that Burroughs’s characters such as John Carter and Tarzan often exhibited the traditional values and love of freedom that Reagan later made central to his political program. 

There is also no doubt that Edgar Rice Burroughs himself was a political conservative whose views often influenced or appeared in his work. A memorable speech by the title character of A Princess of Mars, for example, offered a strong rebuke of collectivism in economic and social life. Here is Dejah Thoris, John Carter’s future wife, pleading with the Green Martians to change their ways:

A people without written language, without art, without homes, without love; the victim of eons of the horrible community idea. Owning everything in common, even to your women and children, has resulted in your owning nothing in common. You hate each other as you hate all else except yourselves.

In other novels, Burroughs was even more explicit in his individualist politics — attacking Communism in his Moon Maid series, lampooning Nazism in his Carson Napier of Venus tales, celebrating the benefits of modern technology in his inner-world stories of Pellucidar, and having Tarzan traverse several continents to battle socialists, fascists, crony capitalists, radical egalitarians, Islamic extremists, and the agents of Joseph Stalin, among many others. A strong critic of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies during the 1930s, Burroughs was once asked by two Kentucky newspapers to write a satirical piece in advance of the 1936 presidential election. The author came up with a mock political speech by Nkima, Tarzan’s monkey pal from the novels (Cheetah was a movie invention). In it, Nkima sings Tarzan’s praises as a potential candidate on a Nude Deal platform:

Rally ’round this great candidate no matter what your former affiliations have been; for under the Nude Deal we promise the Republicans that they will eat again, we will put more Democrats on the dole (if they are not all on now), and I want to assure all those who are discontented that Tarzan is for the Reds. Whole-heartedly and unashamedly, he is for the Reds — the Rhode Island Reds, fried, with mashed potatoes and gravy, Southern style.

I should note, by the way, that there was always a mixture of raciness and virtue in Burroughs. John Carter and the natives of Mars wore virtually no clothing other than fighting harnesses and scabbards. (Another influence on George Lucas was the slave-girl outfit of Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi, which was essentially cribbed from artist renderings of Dejah Thoris.) But while Martian attire may have left little to the imagination, Martian men were nevertheless expected to be respectful, Martian women were expected to remain chaste, and marriage was the central institution of Martian family life.

I have no idea whether the new Disney film will prove to be a brilliant success or an expensive flop. What I do know is that if Ronald Reagan were alive today, he would be awaiting the cinematic realization of his childhood dreams with great anticipation.

—- John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, a public-policy think tank in North Carolina, and possessor of the North Carolina license plate BARSOOM.


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