Robinson Crusoe
on Mars

by Dan Schneider

It had been over thirty years since I last saw the 1964 science fiction film Robinson Crusoe On Mars, when I recently watched The Criterion Collection's DVD. I'd only seen it in black and white, and then in a truncated version that cut the brief nude scene. What stuck with me, and struck me again on rewatch, was just how good and emotionally realistic this film was. Yes, the special effects are dated, and the reuse of the flying saucers from The War Of The Worlds (another film by this film's director, Byron Haskin), and there are some clunkier moments, as when the film's lead brandishes a six-shooter rather than a ray gun. Yet overall this is, along with Forbidden Planet, one of the few pre-2001: A Space Odyssey sci-fi films that was a) intelligent, and b) was not a Cold War allegory like The Day The Earth Stood Still or Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. It also stands as a film that was among the last realistic portrayal of the beginning of man's space adventures, its Heroic Age--soon to be displaced by time travel (The Planet Of The Apes and others) and space operas (Star Wars and its ilk).

Naturally, the film's screenplay is based upon the classic Daniel DeFoe novel, and it was written by John C. Higgins and Ib Melchior. In the near future, the first human Mars mission is nearly ended by a rogue meteor encountered by the ship Mars Gravity Probe 1 while sailing over Mars. The ship is captained by Colonel Dan 'Mac' McReady (Adam West; yes, of Batman fame) and piloted by U.S. Navy Commander Christopher 'Kit' Draper (Paul Mantee). The third resident of the ship is a woolly monkey named Mona (played by a male monkey named Barney, in a furry diaper to hide his genitals). Both men eject from capsules onto Mars, and Mac is killed in descent, while Mona survives. Kit, however, lands separately, and survives. Along with Mona, after he discovers Mac's body, and buries it, they learn to survive in a cave by finding a source of oxygen and heat-burning yellow rocks, liquid water, and food in the form of sausage-like plants.

Mars' surface is rather temperate, and Kit discovers he can do without his oxygen tank for a while. He later takes a skinnydip in a small pool (the aforementioned nude scene). Of course, this is all nonsense, but back then it seemed plausible. As weeks and months pass, Kit finds his greatest obstacle is isolation, brought home by a food-poisoning induced nightmare where Mac appears to him as a mute he implores for conversation. Then he uncovers a skeleton in a shallow grave. It wears metal wristbands, and he presumes it is evidence of a murder. He then removes vestiges of his presence on the planet as a precaution. Not much later, he discovers advanced alien spaceships ripping through the Martian landscape with ray guns. He then assembles a video camera and videotapes what is going on (an element way ahead of its time). The aliens use slave labor in the form of Egyptian-dressed and Native American looking slaves. One of them (Victor Lundin) escapes, and Kit saves him. Kit thinks the slave, whom he names Friday, is mute, until he later saves him from the aliens, who are able to overpower Friday with some force field that acts upon his bracelets (which are identical to the earlier skeletons). Friday initially acts subservient to his savior, but Kit would rather have a friend than a factotum- he even urges Friday to not merely mimic him, but explain what he feels and thinks. The aliens repeatedly buzz the surface for mining, and in search of Friday. Eventually, Kit learns Friday can speak, and teaches him English.

Much of the outdoor scenes were filmed by cinematographer Winton Hoch in remote parts of Death Valley, in the higher elevations, to avoid landmarks familiar from many Hollywood westerns, and not far from where, just a few years later, Michelangelo Antonioni would shoot his film Zabriskie Point. It was a wise and prescient choice, for later photos of the Martian surface revealed it as similar to Death Valley. By contrast, the indoor sets, like the cave and the interior of Kit's ship, are standard, but at the level of the original Star Trek or Lost In Space. The real sky acted as a blue screen where a red sky and night sky were superimposed. The mixture of special effects, Death Valley landscapes, and matte paintings is especially effective in evoking the classic illustrations of other worlds from the mid-20th Century, by illustrators like Frank Paul and Chesley Bonestell. The film was shown in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and shot in Technicolor. Another technical feat is how the alien craft move in high speed and at right angles, much like real reported UFOs of the era. This was achieved by removing frames from the film, according to the Destination: Mars featurette in the special features of the DVD. The DVD also has Victor Lundin singing a 2000 recording of his song Robinson Crusoe On Mars, which he performs at SF conventions, and a theatrical trailer; as well as a booklet, excerpts from Melchior's original screenplay, stills gallery, and an audio commentary on the film, cobbled together from various sources. It features Mantee, Lundin, Melchior, Haskin, and some other participants, most of it recorded in 1994 for the laserdisc version.

Robinson Crusoe On Mars ultimately succeeds (unlike other contemporaneous Mars-based films like the John Carradine vehicle The Wizard Of Mars, aka Horrors Of The Red Planet) because, rather than the tired old Cold War motif the film could have fallen into, it supplies a motif of a small society struggling to deal with a larger one, as well as some obvious parallels to the ongoing Civil Rights movement such as the Underground Railroad (when Kit and Friday escape into sub-Martian canals). Kit is the Great White Hunter and Friday the Noble Savage, but neither is really that one-dimensional, and as the film goes on, the two men's relationship grows more equal. Both Mantee and Lundin are superb in their roles, and one need only look at the near remake of this film from 1985 (Enemy Mine) to see how wrong a film like this could have gone with lesser actors. The movie is rife with "little" moments that are gems, such as Friday not taking his oxygen pills so Kit can have more, and Kit speaking to Friday in his own language when Friday saves him after a meteor explodes and covers them both in ash. Mantee, especially, does an excellent job of emoting to himself and the monkey for the first half of the 110 minute long film.

The film's minor flaws are just that, and the unresolved questions (such as: why doesn't Kit float more, since Mars has a much weaker gravity than earth?) are simply part of that disbelief a viewer needs to suspend for the better aspects of the film to work. Few will not find something admirable about this neglected classic of science fiction, one of the best of a genre that can entertain while it enlightens, and vice versa.

©2009 Dan Schneider
CineScene