Warring aliens, imperiled princesses and parched desert canals — a vision of the Red Planet still lingering today.
And it’s now in movie theaters with the arrival of John Carter, which marks a return to the swashbuckling view of Mars popularized a century ago by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs.
All of it is based on once-cutting-edge astronomy looking at our planetary neighbor.
“The entire concept of the film is extrapolated from ideas astronomers had about canals on Mars,” says John Carter director Andrew Stanton. “There was a certain romanticism in the early 1900s that made some willing to accept what we now know are misconceptions. So we decided to just run with it in the film.”
In magazine stories a century ago and in A Princess of Mars, published in 1917, Burroughs introduced the world to John Carter, a Civil War veteran who awakens from a mystic cave in Arizona to find himself on Mars, thirsty and surrounded by quartz-laced hills. He proceeds to save a planet of canal-fed desert cities from various bad guys.
Burroughs’ vision of Mars was directly borrowed from wealthy astronomer Percival Lowell, the founder of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., which is still operating.
“He sat looking through a telescope at night and sketched what he thought were canals,” says observatory spokesman Chuck Wendt. “People on tours can still look through the same telescope and, on many nights, see what Lowell saw.”

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