EESE 3/2005


"Think different": (Re)viewing the Dialectic of White/Indian Relations in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!

Donna Spalding Andréolle
Susanne Berthier-Folgar



In the epilogue of his work The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, Robert Berkhofer raises a series of fundamental questions regarding the cross-cultural understanding of race relations in American history:

That the idea of the Indian originated and continues up to the present as a White image poses major dilemmas for modern Whites as well as for Native Americans. Through continued use of the term Indian, does the present-day White still subscribe to past stereotypes? Does the imagery of today, even if revised in accordance with modern beliefs and values, still conceal Native American lifestyles and thoughts from the understanding of today's Whites as much as the historic stereotype did from past Whites? Can the "reality" of Native American life ever be penetrated behind the screen of White ideology and imagination no matter how benevolent those conceptions? (195)

Although the movie Mars Attacks! does not treat the subject of Indian stereotypes per se, the premise of this paper is to penetrate beyond the façade of the 1950s grade-B science fiction story it is claimed to be in order to cast a multi-faceted eye on how Mars Attacks! illustrates certain revisionist versions of the White/Indian dialectic. Such a study will include a brief review of American counter-cultural trends of the 1960s and 70s as well as their impact on the popular culture, followed by an overview of specific Native American movements in the same period. The second part of the paper will then concentrate on an in-depth analysis of several scenes in Mars Attacks! which are representative of Indian stereotypes combined with the reversal of perspective characteristic of radical historiography.

Looking backward

To gain a better understanding of the possible interpretations of a movie like Mars Attacks! in terms of social and political commentary, it is useful to look back to the ideological trends of the second half of the 20th century in the United States, and the indelible traces left by these trends on the popular arts (in particular movies and low-brow literature). One such ideological trend is the emergence of the New Left and what is now called radical historiography in the 1960s, a movement which proposed to rewrite history "from the bottom up," denouncing, in Howard Zinn's words, "a certain approach to history in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders." (People's History of the United States, 9) Despite the limits of the bottom-up approach and the waning of its influence by the end of the 1980s, radical historiography paved the way for the academic study of minority histories, among which Native American studies are a prominent example.

By the time Mars Attacks! came out, in 1996, Indian-White relations had gone from conquest to anthropological studies to Native American activism (Brand). For Robert Berkhofer, this was “the most significant development” in the 1960s and 1970s (189). In the vision of the mainstream, the feather and breechclout Indians gradually came to be replaced by the media-savvy leaders of AIM (American Indian Movement) who established their own brand of urban indianness patterned after the radical black movements that sprung up after the Civil Rights decade, such as Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power. The new all-Indian organization, created in 1968 in Minneapolis, adopted a name that “suggested action, purpose, and forward motion.”(Smith and Warrior 127-128) It soon became very visible with the frequent presence in the media of Dennis Banks, Clyde Bellecourt, and Russel Means, “excellent agitators and powerful speakers” (Smith and Warrior 135) who lambasted sports teams with Indian mascots, and patriotic icons such as Plymouth Rock and Mount Rushmore.

The power of media coverage had become an urban legend in the Indian activist circles of San Francisco who remembered the first (1964) occupation of the federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. Forty local urban Indian activists had claimed the island in the name of “treaty provisions that promised surplus or abandoned federal property to Indian tribes.” They issued a statement offering forty-seven cents per acre to purchase the island, the “same amount California was then offering Indian tribes in the state for land claims dating back to the past century” (Smith and Warrior 10-11). The short-lived occupation did not lead to any official land acquisition, which was beyond the scope of the activists, but the fact that the leading Bay Area newspapers ran stories about the shameful deal the state offered its Native Americans gave them a taste of the importance of the media in creating an image.

AIM’s 1969 long-term occupation of Alcatraz, coupled with the creation of a new “tribe” calling themselves “Indians of All-Tribes,” was one of the most glorious –and visible- moments of the organization. For the press, invited to witness the landing, the coverage of the occupation and the Coast Guard blockade of the Island provided an attractive and entertaining alternative to the grim Vietnam War news of the My Lai massacre (Slotkin 581), enabling the Indian discourse to reach the mainstream. The 1969 Alcatraz proclamation, issued by the native occupants, remains a classic example of code-switching, typical of the period:<

We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.
We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty:
We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars (24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago (Smith and Warrior 28-29)

When the Alcatraz occupation came to an end, AIM organized the Trail of Broken Treaties (1972), a march from several cities on the west coast to Washington, ending with the destructive occupation of the BIA building renamed Native American Embassy by the activists. Meanwhile the traditional Oglala Sioux clashed with Dick Wilson’s “progressive” tribal government on the Pine Ridge reservation and AIM came in for help, leading to a rare moment of cooperation between old chiefs who barely spoke English and urban activists. Together they organized the occupation of the Wounded Knee massacre site (1973) which “received more media attention during its first week than the entire previous decade of Indian activism combined” (Smith and Warrior 207).

These striking iconic images participate in a revised view of the history of conquest. They combined with others, from the close-up tears of Cherokee Actor “Iron Eyes” Cody in the Keep America Beautiful anti-pollution campaign (Krech 15), to the bumper sticker “Custer had it coming.” Symbols and icons were used, distorted, and manipulated, creating a fertile soil for the imagery of counter-culture as well as for science-fiction movies. Mars Attacks! may thus be seen in the general context of code-switching and a reversal of the view of Indian-White relations.

The impact of such highly visible movements in the overall atmosphere of protest and of challenging the Establishment which had been sparked by the Civil Rights movement and fueled by the anti-Vietnam War sentiment, produced deep-felt effects on the popular culture, with a renewed interest in the utopian novel, the use of science fiction for ideological purposes and the appearance of the first "alternative" Western, Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970). Although Berkhofer rightly points out that "the countercultural uses of the Indian reflect some Whites' disquietude with their own society […] according to their own artistic needs and moral values rather than in terms of the outlook and desires of the people they profess to know and depict" (103), the rise of reversed perspective movies such as Little Big Man, and similar science fiction novels such as The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin (1972) indicate an artistic will to break away from the formulas of low-brow culture and to "educate" the masses to accept new perspectives. This effort was to culminate with the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's first landing in the Americas, which sparked the writing of myriad alternative histories of the New World (from the perspective of the original populations), revisionist histories on Christopher Columbus and his contacts with New World populations, and two major Hollywood productions on the subject, John Glen's Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and Ridley Scott's 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, both released in 1992.

It is noteworthy that the first shifts in the perception of White/Indian relations took place in two closely related genres, the Western and science fiction. Historically speaking, the Western is the seminal form of popular American literature, a "formula" novel created for mass consumption in the 19th century. By nature it is the crystallization of the American frontier experience which was characterized by survival in the wilderness and the cultural clash of White/Indian civilizations. Beginning with the captivity narratives of the late 17th century which evolved from hostages' first-hand accounts to fictional propaganda in the hands of certain Puritan pastors (Slotkin: 1973), ending with the cowboy-and-Indian dime novels of the late 19th century, the Indian stereotype progressed from the bloodthirsty demon to the Noble Savage and finally to the safely dead Indian swept aside to make way for White civilization (Berhofer 86-96). Even if the role of the White hero/heroine evolves over time, moving from the captured victim to the hero-mediator (or "the man-who-knows-the-Indian") embodied by characters such as Daniel Boone to the cowboy of the Far West, the basic dialectic of White/Indian relations remains unchanged. Because the Western formula constituted a staple of mass culture, variations on its themes emerged in the early 20th century; one of the first such variations is Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars series (beginning in 1917) in which the recognizable characters of the cowboy and the Indian of the West are replaced by the space traveler, the hostile alien race and the wilderness of a far-away planet (Slotkin: 1985).

Even as science fiction on the American literary scene became a genre in its own right, the basic scenario of the "space opera" – exploration, conquest and clashes with alien cultures – remained a mere reappropriation of the "horse opera" (James, 24-25). Evolution of the genre in Hollywood productions after World War II often served ideological justifications of imperialism and anti-Communist sentiment, even as late as the1980s with the release of the Stars War trilogy (Star Wars, 1977, The Empire Strikes Back, 1980 and Return of the Jedi, 1983). If one is to look back to more recent trends in science fiction films, it can be noted that of the 30 American science fiction movies released between 1990 and 1999, 23 treat the theme of invasion, and thus the theme of human-alien encounters. It is interesting to point out here that the movie Independence Day (1996) attempts a "politically correct" version of the conquest theme by depicting a Black, a Jew and an alcoholic Vietnam veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Syndrome as the heroes; in an interview given by Will Smith on the movie, the actor pointed out that he was probably the first black man in Hollywood movie history to have saved the world. In the same vein, Men in Black (1997) can be interpreted as social commentary on the present-day cultural conflict between the shrinking African-American minority and the rise of the Spanish-speaking community to the rank of the numerically largest minority in the United States.

Mars Attacks! as social commentary

The inverted vision of the history of conquest in Mars Attacks! is part of general reversal of the gaze that became popular in academia in the 1970s and 1980s. European expansion after previously glorified 1492 was seen from the point of view of the vanquished; colonization from the perspective of the colonized. For Nathan Wachtel, a specialist of the conquest of Peru, the “vision of the vanquished” is, at least from a Eurocentric viewpoint, an “upside down” history.

The transition from glory to guilt was not an easy one; while it gradually became accepted among the colonizers of Africa and Asia, it is not the case in the US where a largely mythical history of the conquest prevails. Counter-cultural science fiction of the 70s and the 80s with its reversed or distorted gaze of conquest of new worlds made it possible to comment socially and politically on conquest without treating the subject head-on. Mars Attacks! can be interpreted as a composite vision of five centuries of conquest of the New World, from the 1492 landing on Hispaniola to the extermination policies of the 19th century and the anthropological studies of the early 20th century, intermingling Spanish and Anglo-Saxon colonizers.

It is thus in this particular context of renewed interest in the invasion theme that Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! was produced and released. Both a spoof on Independence Day (released the same year on July 4th) and a science fiction movie in its own right, Mars Attacks! finds its roots in the « so-bad-they’re-good » B movies of the 1950s as well as in a series of trading cards depicting the little green men Burton chose to turn into the computer-generated aliens of the film (official website, « production notes »). Yet beyond Burton’s obvious desire to point intertextually to the grand invasion movies of the Cold War era, Mars Attacks! is representative of the fragmented « disruptive narrative » style which became popular in the 1970s – considered to be symptomatic of the multicultural fracture in American society of that period (Ryan et Kellner 19) – and of which the above-mentioned Little Big Man is an example. The invasion is seen alternatively through the eyes of:

  • the president and his advisors in Washington (which include the press secretary, two generals and a science professor) ;
  • Jason Stone and Nathalie Lake, the television reporters in New York;
  • the inhabitants of « middle America » in Perkinsville Kansas symbolized by the giant donut on the shop where the (unlikely) hero Richie works;
  • Art Land the greedy land developer and his New Wave ex-alcoholic wife Barbara in Las Vegas Nevada.

It is the television-as-eyewitness, allowing the action to be simultaneously perceived and commented upon by the various characters in different geographic locations across the United States, which constitutes the complexity of the multi-layered interpretations of the Martians’ invasion of Earth. The connection that the audience is expected to make between the alien invasion theme and the reversed conquest scenario is expertly established through a series of visual and verbal clues in the different scenes. For instance, when the Martian ambassador erupts onto the American airwaves for the first time, the TV screen in Las Vegas is in Caesar’s Palace casino in which the decoration theme is ancient Egypt; the ambassador appears on the screen imbedded in a fresco where the profile of a god would be, pointing to the idea that Mars is an ancient high civilization. This « hint » is confirmed when the ambassador’s speech is « translated » and we hear:  


One the one hand the announcement that the Martian civilization is 800 centuries old confirms the visual representation of casino scene. On the other, the particular use of the term « half-breeds » relates directly to the fears of miscegenation characteristic of White/Indian relations in the 19th century, while also being a term used frequently in the heyday of Western movies in the 1940s to describe half-Indian/half-white renegades used as scouts by the American army. In the same way, the opening shot of the desert scene (analyzed below) shows a cow skeleton in the sand on the left-hand side of the screen, a visual reminder of the movie’s intertextual link to the Western genre ; or again, the gap between the Martians’ translated words and their actual behavior (the attack scenes are punctuated by « we come in peace », and later in the movie « do not run away, we are your friends ») illustrates through reversed perspective the White man’s repeated treaty-breaking and aggression of Indian tribes.

In the analysis of the movie we have chosen the desert encounter scene from Mars Attacks! which is illustrative of a situation of conquest; we will use Patricia Limerick’s pattern-based approach presented in “A Twelve Point Guide to War” (Limerick 2000, 36-64) where she gives a structural analysis of the Modoc War of 1872-1873, a “typical” Indian war. She admits she could have taken any other Indian war; her guide is therefore particularly useful to describe a hypothetical conquest from outer space. In each of her Twelve Points, Limerick presents the story followed by a theoretical assessment of the situation, something she calls a “pattern.” These patterns tend to prove the responsibility of the whites in the conflicts with Indians which explains why she has been called the “Wicked Witch of Western History” for her role in the destruction of the popular history/myth (Limerick 2000, 18). In Mars Attacks! seven patterns of the twelve can be outlined; we will present them with the story – in this case scene description – followed by an interpretation in the light of the history of conquest.

Pattern #1: The indigenous populations are expecting the conquerors

The coming of the Martians is seen by the indigenous populations from a religious point of view in the character of Barbara Land, the New Age wife of Art Land the greedy Las Vegas developer. At the Alcoholic Anonymous meeting (filmed in a small church which has apparently been reconverted to its secular use) she announces to the others that she believes the Martians are the new saviors come to overturn our decadent, corrupt world. In the desert scene where the first human-Martian encounter takes place, she builds a shrine on the hood of her Mercedes parked on the hill overlooking the Martian arrival area. The altar is delineated with a circle of rocks; candles are burning as well as incense, and she assumes the lotus position (legs crossed, hands on knees, palms pointing upward) as she awaits the flying saucer...

The first wave of New World conquerors was often taken for gods by the Natives, a worldwide phenomenon from the Americas to Melanesia where Cargo Cults appeared among the tribes waiting for the goods to be delivered by aircraft. In many New World cultures, the arrival of the whites had been predicted. The last Aztec king, Montezuma, had predicted that foreigners from the east would destroy his kingdom; he therefore was powerless to oppose them. Numerous tribes such as the Hopi have a myth about a white savior from the east. Among the explanations for the recurrence of the myth are the traces of previous white men from the disputed Irish monks of the 9th century to the Vikings of the 11th century: invaders with a distinctive technology.

In the 16th century, Cabeza de Vaca with three other Spaniards, shipwrecked on the coast of Florida; as the sole survivors of a larger expedition, they began a long trek inland, believing (erroneously) that the shortest way to a Spanish settlement would be to reach the Pacific. Their journey took eight years, and they survived by acting as shamans or healers among the tribes they met. They were called “children of the Sun” by the Indians because they were light-skinned and they traveled from east to west, but they also reported that the Natives expected the divinity of those who came from where the sun rose (Adorno and Pautz 297-299). Another more controversial myth of the second half of the 20th century was the existence of a previous visit of the earth by extraterrestrial beings who had left mysterious traces of their passage on earth such as the Nazca Lines (possible runways?) in Peru.

Pattern # 2: The Natives misunderstand the newcomers

General Casey, the African-American peace-loving general, advances to welcome the Martian ambassador and is immediately confronted with a communication problem. The Martian does not understand the significance of the general’s outstretched hand, and only reacts when the general makes a large circular movement which imitates the gesture made by the ambassador during his first appearance on TV. In his verbal response, the Martian ambassador quacks like a duck. The translating computer is not working properly, and at first no coherent translation comes out.

In the history of conquest, communication was obviously difficult in the beginning. Before Natives learned the language of the conquerors and became translators, communication was often limited to a binary system opposing “massacre” to “absence of massacre.” For a long time in the Plains of North America several varieties of sign language existed and belonged to the realm of stereotypical indianness. While some signs were self-evident in an iconic way, most of them were symbols devoid of direct meaning rendering cross-cultural communication difficult, a frequent feature in Mars Attacks! (Silver and Miller 177-183). In what appears to be an attempt to communicate with sign language, the Martian ambassador draws a circle in the air with his finger, interpreted as “the international sign of the doughnut” by Richie Norris who relates it to an element of his immediate cultural sphere, while being seen for an inexplicable reason to mean “peace” or “Earth” for the president’s advisors. Situations where language was used, but not understood, can be found in Spanish colonial history when the legislation of the mother country required that a formal text, the “requerimiento” be read to the Natives telling them about the Christianizing purpose of the conquistadors and the territorial right of the King of Spain. Occurrences of such readings have been attested in what is now the United States (Rabasa 38-41). The Martian ambassador, with his untranslated discourse, is reminiscent of this same pattern.

Pattern # 3: The conquerors’ first words are about peace

The Martian ambassador’s quacking is translated by the machine as “We come in peace.” A hippy in the crowd, who has come to witness the Martian landing, repeats ecstatically “They come in peace!” and releases a dove into the air (against a background of swelling romantic music).

Christopher Columbus was greeted on Guanahani by an Arawak tribe, peaceful and curious natives who had never seen a seagoing vessel larger than a canoe. The very first contact between Europeans and New World tribes was often peaceful. Europeans expecting savages to be awed by their technical superiority as well as by their willingness to share the Christian religion, and the Natives believing that in the absence of a threatening gesture the contact would be friendly. Christopher Columbus writes about meeting the Natives:

So that they may feel great friendship for us, and because I knew that they were a people who would be better delivered and converted to our Holy Faith by love than by force, I gave to some of them red caps and glass bells which they put round their necks, and many other things of little value, in which they took much pleasure, and they remained so friendly to us that it was wonderful… Afterwards they came swimming to the ship's boats where we were. And they brought us parrots and cotton-thread in skeins, and javelins and many other things. And they bartered them with us for other things, which we gave them, such as little glass beads and little bells. In short, they took everything, and gave of what they had with good will (Hale).

As soon as it became known among the Natives that a powerful and dangerous people had arrived from the east, populations fled. When the Spaniards conquered North America from the south, they could tell whether their reputation had reached the tribes they were about to meet; if the population had fled, they knew Spanish slave raiders had visited the area before.

The desert scene of Mars Attacks! reverses this traditional conqueror/native opposition, with the Americans in the role of the guileless Indian mesmerized by a “superior” culture’s technology; for despite evidence of the Martians’ intent to invade (the planet is surrounded by Martian spacecraft) the American government, scientific experts (in the character of Donald Kessler) and the press continue to believe in their good will. The audience’s knowledge of these historical factors adds a layer of comic irony to the entire scene that the viewer at least suspects will inevitably end in a massacre.

Pattern # 4: Peace is short-lived and bloodshed ensues

The white dove released by the hippy flutters towards the Martians. During a fleeting moment, the dove is mirrored in the Martian ambassador’s helmet. The Ambassador, for reasons that remain unclear to the viewer, disrupts this victorious moment by shooting down the dove and then promptly annihilating General Casey; in the chaos which follows, the aliens and the Army open fire on each other while the crowd and the media scatter in panic.

Although Mars Attacks! presents an (inverted) American vision of conquest, the historical reference of the massacre scene at the Martians’ landing is to be found in the first stage of the Spanish conquest of the New World. During the first decades of Spanish rule, in the Caribbean Islands and later on the mainland, the conquerors did not consider native life to have any value other than economic and, in order to profit from it, their civilization had first to be broken and the inhabitants enslaved. The massacres reported from Spanish sources – and in rare instances from native sources – describe abominable slaughter scenes.

Bartholomé de Las Casas, a young Spaniard participating in the conquest of the New World, challenged the cruelties inflicted on the Natives. He was ordained as a priest, became chaplain of the conquistadors, and later bishop of Chiapas, and would become the writer of the greatest accusations ever proffered against a colonial system. His narrative can be seen as a blueprint for the attack scene of the Martians. In 1511, on an expedition to Cuba he escorted a troop of mounted Spaniards entering the village of Caonao. The villagers, awed and frightened by the horses, were curious bystanders when, inexplicably, one of the horsemen went berserk and started to slash at them wildly. The utter chaos prompted other Spaniards to follow and the villagers were massacred in a frenzy of blood and destruction while Las Casas stood by helplessly, unable to stop his countrymen (Mahn-Lot 28-29), a typical example of what Patricia Limerick calls “accidents of impulse and passion” when describing the first acts of war (Limerick 2000, 42-43).

In the 16th century, Indians were frequently classified in the same category as insects and snakes, a form of life arising spontaneously from the soil, or as soulless humanoids, born slaves according to Aristotelian theory (Pagden 22-23). Las Casas, believing in the perfectibility of Indians, claimed they had a right to Christian instruction; he became their defender, devoting his life to their protection. His accusatory Very Brief Relation is filled with page after page of testimonies of massacres. The brutal events are presented in a generic way, the places and casualties described in detail but the perpetrators are not named except by their official title as governors, captains, officers. The parallel with the extraterrestrial invasion led by a “Martian ambassador” is striking.

It is surprising to see the spirit of Las Casas in the Martian landing. British colonization of the 17th and 18th centuries never had the genocidal character of the first wave of Spanish conquest. Contrary to popular imagery, the policies that were most destructive of indianness were not wars but laws, especially in the 19th century; the lawmaker, not the army, implemented the extermination of the Natives. The Dawes Act and the Termination Policy, for example, did not entail bloodshed but destroyed Indians as effectively as wholesale massacres.

Compared to the legal destruction of Indians and to the genocide of the first contact, American massacres, as atrocious as they were, remain rather marginal and limited in scope. From the colonial Pequots wars of 1637, killing four to seven hundreds, to the ‘battle’ of Wounded Knee in 1890, leaving 150 women, children, and old Indians dead, a long tradition of massacres exists. In the 19th century, they were mostly the work of overzealous officers or volunteers, colonel Chivington at Sand Creek (1864, 200 Indian casualties while the warriors were absent), the citizens of Tucson, Arizona at Camp Grant (1871, 100 Apache men, women, and children massacred). As the history of the West was rewritten, from the 1970s to the 1990s, often in the light of the war in Vietnam, the glorious conquest came to be seen in a more negative, often guilt-tinted and/or finger-pointing manner. Mars Attacks! is a cathartic – and multinational – vision of the white man’s guilt, a composite of every aspect of the conquest and colonization of the New World.

As mentioned in the general introduction, the invasion theme is a staple of the science fiction genre, and from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (the movie remake of which is due to be released in June 2005) to the many invasion theme movies of recent years, has consistently dealt with expressing fears of the racial Other, with the dark races of Earth being replaced by the dark aliens of the galaxy. An interesting point in passing is that “evil” extraterrestrial life is commonly embodied by insect-like beings (spider, praying mantis and other predators of the insect world) or snake-like beings, or life forms with tentacle-like appendages; in other words, this can be connected to the need to deny the racial Other’s humanity which can be perceived as a constant of the European perspective in the age of exploration. Such depictions justify de facto the need for massacres and/or wars which abound in classic science fiction.

It is only in the period of historical revision that American science fiction reflects on the meaning of Otherness and American attitudes toward the racial Other. Such counter-cultural versions of the invasion theme are primarily to be found in feminist science fiction of the 1970s-1990s, in novels like Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) or Patricia Anthony’s Brother Termite (1993). In Anthony’s novel for example, an alien race called the Cousins (human-sized termites) have for decades lived openly on Earth, working in posts at the highest levels of government and industry – apparently for humanity's betterment. Actually, the Cousins are completing the implementation of a secret plan using mind control, covert assassinations and concealed genetic experiments to create human-Cousin hybrids. White House chief of staff Reen is a Cousin who finds his loyalties increasingly divided between his duty to his own species and his growing attachment to humans, particularly to the senile U.S. president. With incisive political satire similar to the effects used by Burton in Mars Attacks!, Anthony expertly inverts the science fiction cliché by telling the story from the aliens' point of view, including alien justification for wiping out the human race. Along another line of thought, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness tells the tale of the Earth envoy Genly Ai who « goes native » and discovers the intricacies of the humanoid race of the planet Gethen whose particularity resides in their sublime, hermaphroditic nature. At the end of what can be interpreted as a complex, futuristic version of the captivity narrative, Genly sees his human colleagues as the alien race to be despised and/or feared, but there is no consideration of a possible extermination of one race or the other. In a recent (1997) screen adaptation of Robert Heilein’s Starship Troopers, the young people of a global federation are conditioned to battle against an alien insect race bent on destroying humanity. Massacres on both sides can, among other interpretations, be equated with historical visions and accounts of White/Indian encounters as described above.

Pattern #5: The conquerors have superior technology

The American army’s weapons are powerless against the Martians, including the nuclear bomb which the Martian ambassador “captures” and inhales like a helium balloon (after which he quacks with a shrill voice, much to his fellow Martians’ amusement).

We have seen the description of senseless massacres in Bartolomé de Las Casas where lances and swords slashed the naked and defenseless bodies of the Natives. While the inhabitants of the New World had complex mythologies, languages that were in some cases written (at least in South America) and an elaborate ceremonial and civil architecture – in short, all the trappings of civilization – they possessed an inferior military technology. While Natives were vulnerable in the face of a proselytizing religion, and an often deadly microbial invasion, in the end, they were conquered by the clash of technologies. European naval ships and navigational equipment, armament, metallurgy, and domesticated horses had an advantage over bows and arrows. In Mars Attacks! the notion that America is a military superpower is rendered ridiculous in the face of the laser guns and giant robots that the Martians use in their attack on the United States and other countries as represented in a scene which shows various well-known monuments (the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Easter Island monoliths and Mount Rushmore, etc) being reduced to rubble by the invading forces.

Pattern #6: Despite their superiority the conquerors have a weak point that makes them vulnerable

When a soldier shoots his last bullet and hits a Martian’s helmet which cracks, the alien slumps on the ground because his head has exploded from contact with Earth’s atmosphere.

When the first conquerors landed, the Indians believed they were divine immortals. Their ships coming from the rising sun, their shiny armor, as well as their physical aspect set them apart. When traveling inland on horseback they appeared to be centaurs, at one with their mounts and their armor. The Spaniards realized quickly how to use these beliefs to their advantage, especially since they were outnumbered by the locals. They tried to hide every possible weakness such as their mortality, hiding their dead whenever possible. Gradually the Natives found the weakness of the conquistadors: strong lances could pierce the metal breast plates, and poisoned arrows killed them.

The discovery of the seemingly invincible Martians’ vulnerability will be unveiled later in Mars Attacks! when Grandma Norris’s retirement home in Perkinsville Kansas comes under attack. As a Martian points an oversized laser gun at her, her headphones break loose from the stereo set and the high-pitched yodeling of a country singer causes the alien’s head to vibrate, then to explode. This of course is a spoof on the Martians’ vulnerability in War of the Worlds (the Martians die from the common cold virus) and in Independence Day (the aliens are destroyed thanks to a computer virus planted in the mother ship’s central control system).

Pattern #7: The conquerors kidnap a few Natives as specimens

Nathalie, reporting from the Nevada landing site, is kidnapped by the Martians with her Chihuahua; later Professor Kessler, the specialist in Martians and extraterrestrial intelligence, is also captured. The captives are used by the Martians for experiments involving the independent functioning of separate body parts as well as the recombination of the various constituents.

Capturing Natives to bring back as specimens, souvenirs, or proof of the voyage was a common feature of New World expeditions. Collecting living humans or animals was always preferable to the skilful rendering of professional artists who participated in most expeditions. The father of Las Casas, Pedro, who took part in Christopher Columbus’s second expedition in 1493, brought back a young Arawak Indian for his son on his return voyage in 1499. Many expedition members had done the same before it came to the attention of Queen Isabella who refused the objectification of her new subjects and had them returned to Hispaniola. A few years later, when Bartolomé de Las Casas was offered a post on the island he went to visit “his” Indian, proving that he admitted his humanness (Mahn-Lot 14). One of the most well-known Indians to be captured by the British was Squanto, or Tisquantum, a Patuxet from Massachusetts, kidnapped in the Plymouth Bay area in 1614. Sold into slavery in Spain, he was set free by the Catholic clergy, traveled to London where he learned English and joined a Newfoundland expedition to travel back home. He became an interpreter for the New England tribes and the British merchants. When the Mayflower landed in 1620 to establish Plymouth Colony, Squanto became their translator and negotiator with local tribes (Houghton Mifflin, Encyclopaedia of North American Indians). While most Natives were kidnapped, Pocahontas, daughter of Powhattan, chief of the Algonquian tribes of the Chesapeake Bay area, is one rare and famous example of a Native who came of her own volition (Debo 41-42). Although she was at first a hostage of the British colonists, she married planter John Rolfe in 1614 to whom she bore a son. She died of pneumonia, on a visit of England during which she was received by King James.

In Mars Attacks! the bizarre fate of the captives denotes the superior technology of the kidnappers as well as their Nazi-like tendency to use humans for meaningless experiments. The professor is physically deconstructed and the Nathalie Lake/Poppy the Chihuahua pair is recombined as a dog-headed girl, and a girl-headed dog. In their transformed state the captives remain human and the heads – the decapitated professor’s head and Nathalie’s head now grafted onto Poppy’s body – pursue a meaningful conversation about flirting and love.

The hyperbolic destruction of indigenous populations is a recurrent item and an example of a Native voice pointing to the same imagery shows that the inversion is valid. Sherman Alexie gives us an interesting vision from an indigenous perspective in The Sin Eaters, a short story in The Toughest Indian in the World, where light-skinned, English-speaking humans extract the bone marrow and the blood of full-blooded Indians. The captives are then forced to make love in a laboratory under supervision of the medical staff. The utterly incapacitated Earth-dwellers are in the power of the Martians, but capable of love, while Alexie’s Indians negate the presence of their guards and re-create an inner world of love. Both visions feature annihilated captives that are still capable of an act of love as their only remainder of humanity and can – albeit tenuously – be construed as an allegory of the revival of Native cultures that took place over the last decades of the 20th century.

Living with the conqueror

In a “post-conquest” scene of the movie (that is after the Martians’ have blown up Congress and killed other leaders such as “Maurice” the president of France), the Martian Ambassador meets the president of the United States in Washington. The previous scene depicts the annihilation of the Congress by the ambassador and his body guards who have been invited to make up for the “cultural misunderstanding” (the release of the dove) during the first encounter in the desert. Now in the nuclear command bunker under the White House, President Dale and General Decker (the falcon general) are having an argument which is interrupted by a small, round object that blows a hole in the door and rolls on the floor. The ambassador and his body guards then blow away the rest of the door and enter; after General Decker attempts to kill them, he is reduced to the size of an ant and crushed under the ambassador’s boot. Mayhem ensues, and everyone in the room is vaporized except the president, who decides to take command of the situation: delivering a long, emotionally charged speech on the value of intergalactic friendship and collaboration, he seems to affect the Martian leader, who sheds a tear. The ambassador then holds out his hand (gesture he had previously failed to understand in the desert scene when General Casey attempted to shake his hand) and the President first hesitates, finally accepting the handshake. Unfortunately, the Martian’s hand is a fake one which separates itself from the ambassador, scurries around on the President before going up his back and piercing the president in the heart from behind. When President Dale falls backward onto the floor, a small pole comes out of the arm-cum-dagger and unfurls a Martian flag, which the three Martians then salute, Nazi fashion.

Following the logic of the inverted vision of the conquest, this particular scene proposes a cynical intertextual commentary on the hypocrisy of the American government in its dealings with Native American populations, especially if one thinks back to the end of the 19th century. At that time it was generally believed that the Indians would disappear; thus philanthropists tried to save them, or at least “sweeten” their final years of existence (Prucha 617-619). In the movie, the tear shed by the Martian gives the President – and the viewer – one last hope that a happy ending is possible, that extermination will cease and that somehow the aliens and the Earthlings will be able to “just get along” as President Dale puts it in his final speech.

Last but not least, the resolution scene of Mars Attacks! offers alternative endings to the inverted gaze on the conquest theme. After the Martians have been annihilated thanks to Grandma Norris’s and Richie Norris’s discovery of their vulnerability (they can’t stand country music), Richie and Taffy (President Dale’s daughter) stand on the steps of the rubble that used to be the Capitol building where Taffy decorates the two unlikely heroes with the Congressional Medal of Honor. A Mexican brass band plays the national anthem, after which Richie makes a speech suggesting the reconstruction of American society in a new and different way, for instance living in teepees instead of in houses. The movies ends with a different scene, that of the Las Vegas survivors (Tom Jones, Barbara Land and a waitress from the casino still dressed like an Egyptian handmaiden) who have taken refuge in a cave overlooking Lake Tahoe. Animals dance and flowers bloom to the sound of Tom Jones’s song “It’s Not Unusual,” suggesting a New Wave beginning for the West Coast. Whatever the viewer may venture to accept as the probable life ahead for the characters of the movie, it is clear that Burton pursues his revisionist perspectives to the very end.

* * *


In The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Limerick gives some now-famous advice to historians of American Indian history: "In thinking about American Indian history, it has become essential to follow the policy of cautious street crossers: remember to look both ways" (Limerick 1987, 181) Mars Attacks! looks both ways and presents an unusual vision of conquest and remains unequal in its playful yet incisive vision of American society and one of its most profound representations.


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