Why do you need to bring a clean-limbed fighting man all the way from Earth?

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

We waited 100 years for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars to be made into a movie, and I waited another seven years for it to come to Netflix before checking it out. I vaguely recalled that John C. Wright might have a good explanation of where exactly it went awry:

John Carter is the prototype, archetype, and stereotype of what a earthling hero should be: stalwart, honorable, manly, devout, courageous to the point of recklessness, but carrying the civilized values of Earth to those older planets, like Mars, whose inhabitants of dry sea bottoms and super-scientific ancient cities have forgotten the finer and nobler sentiments of civilization in their eon-old decay, or carrying the civilized values of Earth to those barbarian and younger worlds like Venus, whose inhabitants of dinosaur infested and cave-men haunted swamps and cycad jungles have not yet learned them.

What John Carter is not, and never has been, is a reluctant hero, someone unwilling to fight. That point is emphasized over and over again in the books, even from the first scene where Carter rushes headlong into an armed Apache camp to recover the body of his friend, tortured to death at savage hands.

The book very carefully shows the progression from captive to war-leader among the barbaric and savage six limbed Green Men of the dead sea bottoms of Mars. John Carter, in one feat of arms after another, impresses the Tharks, obeys their savage rules and violent customs, and rises in their ranks, earning first their reluctant and then their enthusiastic respect.

Likewise, the savage calot or Martian dog Woola, Carter treats with compassion and respect, and wins the simple and savage creature’s simple and savage love.

One of the most touching and moving things of all, however, is the discovery of Sola, the one Green Martian women of all the race who knew the love of her mother and the identity of her father. It is carefully explained in the book that the Tharks and other Green Men raise their eggs communally, weeding out the weak ruthlessly, and distributing the hatchlings to nurses who have no motherly affection for their charges. The inhuman system breeds the whole race, deprived of family love, a deep seated cynicism, bitterness, and lust for death, an unparalleled savagery.

And John Carter from the outset of his advent on Mars is willing, nay, eager to fight to the death with a grin on his lips and a light in his eye, for trifles of honor or for the all-important love of his life, whom he loves at first sight, and awkwardly cannot bring himself to woo, the incomparable Dejah Thoris.

The one thing John Carter in the books is not, is unwilling or unready to fight.

The John Carter in the movie is so exactly opposite this that I was dumbfounded.


The notion of a reluctant hero is not itself a wrong notion. But it is so wrong, so very wrong, for the formula of a Space Princess novel.

Let me tell you the formula:

In a Space Princess novel, or a Planetary Romance, you take an Earthman who is supposed to represent every man, especially every man who feels hemmed in by the growth and overgrowth of civilization.

You transport him by plot device to an unknown and alien planet, but not a scientifically realistic alien planet, where he would no doubt fall over choking on methane gas or freeze instantly in sub-arctic cold, no, the planet, for some reason that need not be explained, is as similar to the ancient Rome or ancient China or ancient Babylon as you can possibly get away with, so that you can have opulently rich cities in one spot and barbarian hordes following herds of space animals covering countless miles of prairie or steppe. You can have rayguns or radium guns provided they are not the weapon of choice: the weapon of choice is the sword.

There is a princess, who is not merely gorgeous, she is the most beautiful woman on two worlds, and the Earthman, without knowing anything about the customs, rules, politics, wars, laws of physics, lay of the land, or whathaveyou falls instantly and totally and absurdly in love with her, and slaughters her enemies like a Cuisinart blender on overload, spraying gallons of blood and severed limbs in each direction. Space Princess is abducted, preferably by a blackhearted villain eager to violate her honor and marry her against her will, so the hero has all the most primal motivations every primate can understand.

There is one other element. The hero has to be an Earthman who is disgusted with the lack of honor found on modern earth, and who therefore fits in well, nay, fits in perfectly with the glorious barbarian codes of honor of the far world to which fate casts him.

Got it? Good. That is how you write a Space Princess yarn.

The one thing, I would say, the only thing, you cannot have in a Planetary Romance or Space Princess novel is a reluctant hero.


Unlike the real Carter, the movie version, whom I will hereafter call Anticarter, voices the cynical comment that the human race is corrupt, and is willing to jump through windows and turn horse thief to avoid a fight.

Because the movie makers have politically correct gunk between their ears instead of brains, when the Apaches do come on stage, a panicky White Man shoots one of them during a parley, thus showing the White Men are both cowardly, and dishonorable, and undisciplined, and the Injuns are the victims.

Well, at least the Indians get to kill a few White Men to show that they are not the helpless victims the PC niks would like them to be.

Once on Mars, John Carter spends half the film trying to go home, not because he had anything at home, but because he has found a cave of gold, and wants to return to his empty life and spend his money — perhaps the least noble motivation every devised in the history of moviedom for an alleged good guy. Even Han Solo the pirate had a bounty to pay off.

I forgave all my misgivings for exactly one second. When Dejah Thoris, her airship shot down over the Thark territory, falls screaming, John Carter, whose Earthly muscles allow him to make prodigiously superhuman leaps under the lesser gravity of Mars, leaps hundreds of yards to catch her in midair. Landing, he then faces the scores and scores of foes, places the maiden behind him, and says, “Stay behind me ma’am, this could get dangerous.” And draws his sword.

I swear my chivalrous heart swelled with pride to bursting. For a moment, I was deceived into thinking the movie makers actually understood and even liked John Carter and what he stood for.

It was as if I heard trumpets blare, and a voice call out: And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods? For thee, my princess crowned, this sword I lift, or this life lay down.

But, of course, it was a hoax, a joke.

Xena the Warrior princess, Amazon, the equal of any man with a blade, shoves the stoopid male chauvinist pig to the side, and with the same realism of a story in which a dainty female cheerleader tackles the biggest professional linebackers in the NFL, makes mincemeat in short order of the baddies.

The line is repeated later in the movie, when Dejah Thoris tells Steve Trevor (or whoever it was — it sure aint John Carter) to step behind him. This was gratuitous, just to rub my nose into the “PC-fact” that chivalry toward the gentler sex is stupid and ugly, and women are as tall, and strong and hairy and aggressive as men, and love bloodshed just as much.

And the line was repeated to emphasize the fact the Hollywood, and all right thinking people, mock and hate the notion that men want to protect our lady wives, mothers, sisters, and fair daughters from the misery and ghoulish slaughter of combat.

(Note on neologism: a “PC-fact” is like a “fact” in that it is asserted with every authority that can be invented or garnished, but unlike a fact in that it is not merely untrue, but a an insolent and deliberate opposite of the truth.)

Don’t get me wrong, Dejah Thoris in the book is no shrinking violet or fainting damsel. Barsoomian women always carry a dagger or a radium pistol, and are not afraid to use them, and there is at least one scene (it is Tara of Helium in CHESSMEN OF MARS) where a masher trying to impose upon the honor of the gorgeous half-unclad Martian princess ends up with the girl’s stiletto in his liver, dead in one stroke.

Martian women are not supposed to be weak sisters. They are “with your shield or on it” style Spartan women. But the Martian Men are supposed to be Spartans and Apaches, this is, the most ferocious fighting men imaginable, training in arms from before they can walk, and none of them dying of old age in bed. If you want to show a Martian princess slaughter a room full of blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers from France, fine, I’d believe that. But not fighting warriors of Mars from the blood-colored planet of the war god and emerging without a nick on her perfect skin or her hair mussed.

But, being a modern movie, there were females in combat, the very persons no real race dying of loss of planetary water would expose to combat. They were in the background and foreground of several scenes, well displayed in their bosom-shaped chest plates and a full head shorter than the male soldiers around them. Every time my eye fell on one, I was jarred out of the movie.


Again, don’t get me wrong: the Martial Maiden is a trusty, tried and true trope of the epic genre. From Camilla to Britomart to Supergirl, I have no objection to reading about or seeing cute little girls cutting heads and limbs off of men bigger and bulkier than they are. All I ask is that there be some explanation to overcome my suspension of disbelief. Let the girl have been trained by the Ancient Masters of Tibet, or a blessing from their father the war-god Ares or from the Primordial Slayer, or make her from planet Krypton (or Argo, if you insist) or give her a magical golden lance. Anything will do.

But if you make the Space Princess face a problem she can solve by herself, for what the hell reason do you need to bring a clean limbed fighting man all the way from Earth, across the abyss of space?


  1. Graham says:

    Modern heroes typically have to be reluctant heroes, victim heroes, or precocious children. Or ideally a combination of two or all three of those things.

    Even older, already pre-qualified archetypes of literary culture like the precocious young male, not quite ready to be a hero but aiming to be one; or the weary older male, once a hero or never yet called and wise enough to know the costs; or the even older male who acts only to spare his sons or tries to counsel them away from heroic dreams [think Jimmy Stewart in Shenandoah]; or the intellectual hero whose heroism is disdained by the gung ho version [since Odysseus, at least] are all passe now. Not deconstructed enough for late/post modernity.

    Or they can be female. In which case some of the older archetypes can be reactivated only for them.

    On the issue of precocious children, in this post Harry Potter-Hunger Games-Maze Runner-Divergent culture, it seems like adolescence is the last valid time for heroism. In theory, people who produce this think children need to identify with child heroes. Now, there was always this sort of thing. CS Lewis could tell us about it, and so could plenty of others. But one struggles to remember a time when boys and girls also consumed fiction, even fiction written for them, that encouraged them to aspire to grow up and be adult heroes and heroines.

    I was 6 when Star Wars came out. I and all the boys I knew identified more with Han Solo than Luke Skywalker. Part of it was that antihero thing all boys seem to like, but also he was older and already knew what the hell he was doing. Didn’t every boy used to aspire to be that, and not Harry Potter?

  2. Harry Jones says:

    I have no problem with a moderately reluctant hero. A gung-ho hero is an imbecile, and Darwin is unkind to those. But Darwin is also unkind to cowards.

    What the world needs is heroes who think things through and then do what needs to be done.

    Adolescents, through no fault of their own, have no idea what they’re doing… but somebody’s got to do it. I can love a YA protagonist who is doing his level best to learn on the job.

  3. Kirk says:

    What you have permeating culture these days is the philosophy of “men without chests”, and that stems from what I see as the overarching theme of our civilization–Feminization.

    It started out with the 19th Century near-deification of “motherhood”, and has ended in what we have today, a soft-power coup conducted by the female side of the sexual divide. The destructive nature of what they’ve wrought is all around us, and it’s only going to get worse. I don’t think that a civilization has ever undergone anything quite like this, and I don’t think it will end well for either sex. The women have identified and exploited a gap in the armor of culture, and with their essential hormone-driven insanity coming to the fore in politics and daily life, we’re pretty much screwed.

    Everywhere you look, since we gave the silly bints the right to vote, politics has gone nuts. The whole thing has come to turn on making them happy, no matter what–If you look at the 19th Century, the Congress used to take its responsibilities seriously, and was parsimonious as hell. Women got the right to vote, and instead of people being elected to office on what they did there, and how the performed, all of a sudden it was what they looked like, and what they promised.

    Kennedy would have never been elected during any 19th Century election. But, because he was suave and photogenic, he got the presidency.

    If you disbelieve me on this, go out and query your female relatives and acquaintances: Why do they vote for who they vote for?

    Shockingly, when I’ve done that, it’s boiled down mostly to “I don’t like the way he looks…”, or “I don’t like the way he sounds…”. Never mind the merits of the man’s platform or policies, it’s all appearance-based choice, nothing else. If Satan himself showed up, they’d vote for him if he just looked good…

    The fiscal side of things is also indicative of the female mindset: There’s no attention paid to eventual consequence, it’s all what the psychotic b****hes want, immediate gratification of trivialities and emotions. Not all women think or vote like that, but enough do to really skew the whole political reality we live under.

    I think that there’s a definite case to be made that we need to restrict voting rights again, to gainfully employed people only. Live at the expense of others? Fine; you’re legally a minor for voting purposes, and while you can influence your household head all you like, actually voting without having paid into the tax rolls means you don’t get one of your own.

    The whole thing is insane, with what we’ve stumbled into, culturally and politically. I think there’s a lot to be laid at the door of how we’ve “empowered” women, as if they were ever without true power in the first place. Instead of equalizing things, what we’ve done is given them more power than they ever had before, and even less responsibility to go along with it–Which is a recipe for disaster.

  4. Redan says:

    “Modern societies are characterized by easy living and an increasingly feminized and infantilized culture. The result is that modern man is no longer motivated by spirituality or honor, but purely by lower drives, such as gibs, security, and the pursuit of comfiness.” — Guillaume Durocher

  5. Graham says:

    Harry Jones-

    “Adolescents, through no fault of their own, have no idea what they’re doing… but somebody’s got to do it. I can love a YA protagonist who is doing his level best to learn on the job.”

    I’ll buy that. Of the movie series I mentioned above, I most credit The Hunger Games with taking the origins, life experience, mental state, and character development of its heroine seriously. I think it was the best done of all those series, and the best acted, with the best story ideas, and the scenario that most encouraged me to identify with the same characters and cause as the rest of the audience. A big part of that was making the character of Katniss and her development at least believable, wildly more so than is common in modern genre movies.

    In a similar vein, I remember the Fisherman’s Hope series of novels by David Feintuch in the 90s. Think, early 22nd century (?) space navy of a unified Earth with one extrasolar colony, lightly imagined such that this Earth has the social, political and religious norms of Georgian England under other colours, and with a technological mcguffin to make sure that naval officer cadets have to go to space very young like midshipmen of old. So he could tell Hornblower-like stories in space.

    His protagonist was a neurotic mess operating in a very demanding setting with duties and mental challenges that nearly broke him numerous times, and relied a lot on luck, but he wasn’t a teen superhero everybody worshipped out of the gate. Quite the opposite.

    (I also liked those stories for the way they handled the society’s religion and its AIs. Passages in which AIs are strongly motivated to recite out loud the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm struck me as oddly moving at the time.)

    Now Harry Potter was somewhat a reluctant hero and he had his learning moments, but he was from the start The Boy Who Lived and carried an aura of fate around him at all times. I am reminded of the old Calvin and Hobbes comics, in one of which Calvin started calling himself Calvin, Boy of Destiny. Maybe every little boy should have a little of that, but it needs to be tamed a bit by the time of adolescence.

    I suppose it is interesting on some level that so much of this ‘destined for glory from day one’ magical hero modern stuff, even when the character is male like Potter, is written by women. I have no precise idea what that means, but there’s something about the traditional male expectations of being mentored, trained, tested and selected in life that they are not getting. Or want rid of. Maybe because if ever boy hero is a hero because special from birth, its OK for every girl to be a heroine from birth too.

    On the other hand, I did single out Hunger Games for some praise in this area, and that was a female character written by a woman, so there’s that. And, too, we now have an established tradition of male creators unhealthily obsessed with superpowered magical beings as saviours in lieu of human self-protection, as well as, more recently, male creators fixated on the idea of the world being saved by magical powered young women. For reasons perhaps best left under-explored.

  6. Graham says:


    I could get behind some of that. I know a few women whose input I still want heard, even if I don’t necessarily agree with their entire mental framework or sensibilities, and so I’m happy to welcome all their sistren just to keep them. There’s a price for everything. Besides, plenty of men I want off the rolls sooner and for solid reasons. (And they me, doubtless.) So a sex-based solution isn’t really plausible or desirable to me. And certainly never going to happen.

    I used to toy with age limits, ideally 25, 21 for the sake of tradition and generosity. I didn’t get a chance to vote in a Canadian election until I was just short of 23, and I don’t see what the big deal was. I certainly don’t think I should have been able to vote at 16, and neither should anyone else. Even kids inclined more to my side of the line are still too dumb at that age, and so was I and everyone I knew. Even the book-smartest and most precocious among us, if not indeed especially them, are too dumb to be trusted with the tiniest share of power.

    Mileage varies on this one- I don’t buy the idea that being old enough to serve in the military ought to mean old enough to vote, though I am sympathetic. Plenty of societies thought you should do the service first in order to qualify for the vote, and I could even see the case that the maturity that ought to be required for the vote is actually greater, whether one serves or not. Other past societies have taken the view that active duty military shouldn’t vote on civil-military grounds. I think Heinlein actually shared that view at one point, even when advocating only veterans should vote. In the end, I would let that one slide. If the age is 21 or 25, honourable service before that gets the vote.

    I don’t see the need for the age of franchise to match the drinking age, either. I don’t want to raise the latter but I would to solve that particular equivalency. On the whole, I’d say that making that equivalency actually suggests one is putting a low value on the franchise.

    All that is just woolgathering. Ultimately, your self-supporting criterion is probably not too bad. I’d give voting rights to pensioners, though. Life’s honourable service has its perks.

    Or there’s Neville Shute’s 7 vote system from one of his lesser tales. He included a university degree getting one of the extra votes, so we’d even have ideological diversity….

  7. Harry Jones says:

    “but there’s something about the traditional male expectations of being mentored, trained, tested and selected in life that they are not getting. Or want rid of.”

    Getting mentored is a privilege. Being born with a special gift is just part of who you are. In the former case, you have someone else to thank for your advantage. In the latter, you have only God to thank. Even being adequately parented is a privilege. You don’t earn that, and not everyone is given it.

    Everyone who becomes heroic gets tested, though. Life itself is the test. Me, I like Dickens because his heroes are forced to earn their happy endings, and they do.

  8. CVLR says:

    It was as if I heard trumpets blare, and a voice call out: And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?

    And for the tender mother
       Who dandled him to rest,
    And for the wife who nurses
       His baby at her breast,
    And for the holy maidens
       Who feed the eternal flame,
    To save them from false Sextus
       That wrought the deed of shame?

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