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An Anthropologist Breaks Down the Mars of John Carter and likes what he sees

Barsoom

From Box Office Magazine, by Matthew Piscitelli, Anthropologist  

John Carter was written 100 years ago in 1912 and you see the scientific thinking of that day in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ depictions of these creatures and their society. At the time, anthropologists thought along the lines of what’s called “unilineal evolution,” the idea that people and groups evolve from simple societies to what was considered the pinnacle of social evolution: European civilization. It’s essentially a racist view, that the people who the colonialists encountered were less-evolved, barbaric, and it was their job to save them. One early anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, even categorized groups based on a scale of savagery to barbarism to civilization. Savages, for example, had fire and bows and arrows, but once metal-working and agriculture developed, you were considered a barbarian. Finally, once you developed writing, you were civilized.

What you see on Barsoom is that you have the red aliens who are civilized and have science—they read, they fly—as opposed to these Tharks who live in a savage, brutal society. The leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas, his authority is based on his warrior prowess and strength—think of gorillas, chimps, and other primates with a dominant male who stays on top until someone challenges him for power. The red people, on the other hand, exhibit clear lineages and rules of inheritance, something people of Burroughs’ time would consider part of civilized society. Even the Thark’s hatchlings are eggs that have all been mixed up and then the women come and fight over them.

What you see on Barsoom is that you have the red aliens who are civilized and have science—they read, they fly—as opposed to these Tharks who live in a savage, brutal society. The leader of the Tharks, Tars Tarkas, his authority is based on his warrior prowess and strength—think of gorillas, chimps, and other primates with a dominant male who stays on top until someone challenges him for power. The red people, on the other hand, exhibit clear lineages and rules of inheritance, something people of Burroughs’ time would consider part of civilized society. Even the Thark’s hatchlings are eggs that have all been mixed up and then the women come and fight over them.

They’ve said that Burroughs was inspired by Native Americans when he created the Tharks. In the movie, the Tharks even live in these cliff dwellings like the Pueblo Indians. There are holes in the roof so you can work under the moonlight. There are also ladders connecting different dwellings—the architecture makes sense, it’s really adapted to the environment.

Also, it would make sense that in the desert environment of Mars, the people are tall and slender. Presenting the aliens as tall, 12-foot creatures that are incredibly thin is accurate in terms of physical anthropology. We’ve found that the human body is proportionate to the environment that you live in. There’s an Allen’s Rule and a Bergmann’s Rule. Joel Allen a late 19th-century biologist, correlated limb proportions to climate and he found that creatures that live in warmer climates have longer, slimmer limbs than those who live in colder environments. This work was a take on the work of Christian Bergmann who studied the body mass of species and found that there were more massive creatures in cold environments then there were along the equator. By having a slender structure, you have more surface area, which allows you to expel heat better. If you look at modern Eskimos, for example, they are short, stocky and adapted to cold weather, whereas the contemporary Nuer of Sudan are some of the tallest, thinnest beings on the planet.

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9 comments

  • Peace be unto the peace makers like you, Khanada. Your heart is in a good place. Walk in beauty.

  • Hey, the guy liked the film and I liked seeing him go all Anthropologist on it! Was different from all the other reviews and blog posts. Many, many interpretations can be discussed, but overall it was cool what he did and his positive plug for the film. :)

  • Elmo-

    Go to the White Mountains in eastern Arizona on the Apache Rez. There are no 12′ tall four armed green people.

    Why insult civilized present-day people with comparisons to the Tharks? With a little deeper knowledge of history, it would be much more easy and accurate to assume that ERB was comparing the Tharks with historical groups of brutal nomadic barbarians from the past, like the Huns or Vandals.

  • As a marxist Native American, I take strong exception to some of the interpretations being proposed here.

    I agree with Pascalahad in that the Tharks are clearly alien. You know, Burroughs does not have to be making a direct analogy to any specific race or group in order for him to make comments and observations about the human ethos.

  • Dotar Sojat … I see at least some Apache-like qualities in ERB’s Tharks, at least in their nomadic ways. And, at least in the time that it was written the public perception of Apaches as cruel torturers of the innocent. But there is also absolutely no doubt that ERB was slamming Marxism in Dejah Thoris’s denouncement of their communal lifestyle. Pascalahad: The scene in the movie that really struck me as Thark-like was when the hatchlings were dumped on the ground and all the warriors were laughing as the women scrambled to grab one.

  • The Tharks in the novels are clearly unhuman, in the most “alien” sense of the word. They are hulking monsters without emotions other than delight in the cruelty they inflict on others. That’s why the exceptions that are Tars and Sola are all the more astounding. They build nothing (well, except weapons), and they are scavengers.

    That was not fully visible in the movie, however. Stanton chose to humanize them, as a viewer I was not really sure how Sola and Tars were exceptions among them. They should have laughed when John Carter killed one of them with one blow, they didn’t. Tal Hajus couldn’t be jeddak according to Burroughs’ rules, since Tars was still alive. And Sola wouldn’t have survived at all among the novel’s Tharks by showing her vulnerable side the way she does in the movie.

    I understand why Stanton did that, to make them more relatable, but as a result, I see why Tharks can be viewed as “native americans” metaphors, more than in the novel.

  • I’m always puzzled by the constant reference to the Tharks being Native Americans ….as if Burroughs at some point actually said that. I always saw them as representing something quite different–more a slam at Marxism than Native Americans. Here is what Dejah Thoris says in her famous appeal to Lorquas Ptomel: “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. Come back to the ways of our common ancestors, come back to the light of kindliness and fellowship. The way is open to you, you will find the hands of the red men stretched out to aid you.”

  • He is way off on several points. I don’t think he read the books or if he saw the movie, he didn’t pay attention. Tries to to be too anthropological. It’s fiction dude, not science!

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