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John Carter a young 19th century prospector and veteran confederate soldier of the American Civil War chances upon a cave in the outback of Arizona only to be accosted by a strange gas and is quickly rendered unconscious. When he wakens he finds himself in a strange place where realises that he is now much stronger and can leap great distances.

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Regardless of this he is quickly captured by large reptilian men with four arms and brought to their leader where he finds out he is actually on the planet Mars and that he can also read their minds but they can't read his. He later gains some standing with the 'Tharks' as he comes to know them by. From defeating some massive white apes which are natural predators on Mars with the help of a large beast that the Thark's charged to guard and prevent John Carter's escape.

Later he finds out that there are other types of Martians of a different colour (red) who the Tharks pray upon by hijacking resources and kidnaping important figures for ransom after they shoot down a passing red Martian airship. When the Tharks emerge from the downed ship with a captive, a red human Martian Princess called Dejah Thoris. As soon as John Carter sees her he realises this "All I know is that one moment there was nothing on this world worth fighting for...and the next moment there was." It seems he is now quite determined to escape tharks with her....

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