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Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars movie poster.

I'm not sure what Daniel Defoe would make of this modern day retelling of his classic story, but Robinson Crusoe on Mars has all the hallmarks of a surprisingly good film; well written, nicely acted, and boasting superior special effects, especially the superb matt paintings by the legendary Albert Whitlock. It also has a place in the history of The War of the Worlds, for not only was it directed by Byron Haskin, who had previously helmed The War of the Worlds for George Pal, but it featured some very familiar looking alien spacecraft.

Commander Christopher 'Kit' Draper (played by Paul Mantee).The story begins in orbit around Mars on board an American spacecraft piloted by Commander Christopher 'Kit' Draper (played by Paul Mantee) and Colonel Dan McReady (an early movie role for Adam "Batman" West.) Also aboard is the obligatory comedy monkey, Mona, here credited as the "Woolly Monkey" though in fact its name was Barney. Dodging a large meteor, the crew are forced to eject when their spacecraft's orbit begins to decay, but on landing they become severely separated, Crash landing on Mars.having each landed (crashed would be a much better word) on opposite sides of a mountain range. From here on, the movie focuses largely upon Draper's struggle for survival (though McReady does surreally pop up one final time) as just like the titular Robinson Crusoe, he is forced to rely on his wits and ingenuity just to keep breathing.

Which brings us to Mars. Just what sort of world do we find in Robinson Crusoe on Mars? One of the selling points of this movie was the boast on both posters and in the trailer that "this film is scientifically authentic", so how well does that claim stand up? Not fantastically well if truth be told, but lets be charitable. To begin with, you can't exactly take the original claim at face value; I'm sure the marketing department had a significant hand in it. Equally, not a lot was known about Mars at the time. Mariner 4 was still a year away and thus the movie just scraped in before the great disappointment, when in 1965, 22 depressingly lifeless black and white images were beamed back to Earth. It also looked pretty certain from telescope and spectrographic analysis that the atmosphere was far too thin to support meaningful life. To its credit, Robinson Crusoe on Mars treads a cautious path, mindful of the need for their star not to spend the entire movie closeted in a spacesuit, but equally, willing to show that breathable air (and water) is a big issue.

Draper is therefore shown choking on the atmosphere when he arrives and the clock ticking on his air supply. The atmosphere is not however entirely inadequate to his needs, and he ekes out his supply by rationing sniffs of his dwindling reserves, though lets be clear, no amount of holding the breath between lungfuls would suffice on the real Mars. But it's a pretty reasonable compromise for the movie, and Draper finally cracks the air problem at the eleventh hour, with the accidental discovery that a coal like substance he has been burning for warmth has a great deal of oxygen bound up in it; again a pretty neat bit of scripting, though you do get the impression that the air issue is then pushed to one side, once the necessary MacGuffin is presented to the audience. Thereafter, Draper spends more and more time without his spacesuit until it's pretty much short-sleeves and shorts. Yet you can't deny that all the Heath-Robinson equipment he has to build in order to maintain his existence provides for a great deal of fun pseudo-authenticity to his situation. The water problem is solved by Mona, who Draper observes sneaking off on extended solo sojourns, yet never seems to get thirsty. This results in the discovery of a large underground reservoir, and the chance for some skinny-dipping.

Bleak Mars.The film was shot in Death Valley National Park at a suitably blasted place called Zabriskie Point. The superb photography combined with Whitlock's matt painting makes for one of the best looking Martian landscapes ever conceived, all stark colours and appallingly bleak dust blown vistas.

So in the midst of this desolation Draper settles down to wait for rescue in increasing comfort and confidence, building the basic accoutrements of life from the remains of his ship and local materials, but of course the one thing no amount of ingenuity can alleviate is loneliness, and despite the company of Mona, (who is actually not that irritating a character) Draper is soon going stir crazy. At one point, he even imagines a mute zombie-like McReady knocking on his cave door (Draper had discovered his body earlier). This is all really well written and acted material and provides the movie with a great deal of tension. Draper is obviously relishing the chance to play "crazy" to the hilt.

Movies made at this time are frequently dissected for hidden meaning. Mars is of course a perfect symbol for the cold war red menace and without doubt some science fiction movies made in the 1950's and 60's were written with this in mind. The 1953 version of The War of the Worlds can easily be bracketed in this way, but I am less inclined to give Robinson Crusoe On Mars this distinction. I have seen one particularly earnest dissertation that suggests all manner of parallels with the politics of the times, not least that the Mona the Monkey is wearing a red spacesuit to symbolise the Soviets. No, I think Mona is wearing a red spacesuit because the prop person had a swath of nice material in stock that looked like it would photograph well. Far more noteworthy are the sociological aspects of the script, the sort of things that I imagine got in largely because they were simply part and parcel of normal life at the time.

Victor Lundin from Robinson Crusoe on Mars.This comes to the fore with the arrival of Friday, played by Victor Lundin. This being a science fiction film, Friday naturally needs to turn up in suitably appropriate fashion, in this case as an escapee from a gang of intergalactic slavers who are using his people to mine for ore on Mars. Friday is a slave very much in the Egyptian model, with pleated skirt, long black hair, and plenty of rippling muscles and pectorals. Since his discovery of the crudely buried bones of a humanoid with a big ugly hole in its head, Draper has worked on the assumption that he was no longer alone on Mars and that his neighbours may not be friendly. He runs into Friday when investigating the landing of what he thinks is a rescue ship, but that turns out to be the slavers. Alien war machine from Robinson Crusoe on Mars.Friday has made a break for it, and the slavers are blanketing the hills in a withering fire from their fighter spacecraft, nasty manta ray styled vehicles that very much evoke the look of the Martian war machines in The War of the Worlds. The big difference is their speed, zipping from place to place like angry mosquitoes, unlike the slow deliberate pace of Pal's war machines. It works very well, imbuing them with a real sense of menace and power.

There is a big shock coming when Draper gets his Friday home to his cave and starts laying down the law, asserting his dominance over Friday in a way that rather suggests the poor "savage" has left behind one set of masters, only to gain a new one. The unpleasant vehemence of the moment is never repeated, but we are treated to subsequent scenes of Draper lounging by his underground pool while Friday potters around in domestic servitude and Draper demands that he learn English. Yet writers Ib Melchoir and John C. Higgin quickly wrong-foot the viewer, building a relationship between the two that soon transcends the master-slave paradigm. When after Draper is buried and nearly smothered beneath an ash fall, Friday rescues him, and Draper voices his thanks not in English, but in Friday's Language. It's a lovely and touching way to show that the dynamic of the relationship has changed, and much for the better.

Both Mantee and Lundin bring considerable insight to their roles, aided by a sophisticated script that constantly strives to surprise and challenge the viewer. I always feel watching movies like this that the writers are well aware of the inadequacies of their society and are striving to denounce this with their writing, but that equally, as the products themselves of that society, they are prone to inadvertently allow some of the shortcoming and prejudices to creep in. I think you can especially sense that struggle in Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The sixties were of course a time of great unrest in America (the civil rights act had been enacted in 1964) and you can imagine if they had cast a black man as Friday, just what an explosive film this could have been. I think it entirely likely that the writers had the civil rights situation in mind when writing the film. Of course despite the best efforts of the script, there's that old "noble savage" idea lurking uncomfortably in the background, but Lundin is clearly well aware of this and works hard to counter it in his thoughtful portrayal of Friday. The script also takes pains to show that Draper wants more than a subservient companion in Friday, and has Draper urging him at one point to be his own person.

Under the canals from Robinson Crusoe on Mars.The second half of the film becomes a less interesting extended chase, as Draper and Friday descend below ground, following underground conduits that mirror the Martian canals above. Of course, the canal theories of Percival Lowell were at the time of the films making largely discredited, at least so far as an artificial origin was concerned, (and as was subsequently discovered, they never existed at all) but to the writers credit a geological explanation is provided for. There is an interesting reference also here to an earlier fight for freedom, when Draper comments that the caverns are their underground railway, an idea that worked once and can work again. Obviously this is a reference to the clandestine routes used by slaves in the American civil war to reach free states. Eventually and despite constant bombardment, the pair emerge unscathed at the polar ice cap and after a suitably dramatic finale are found by a rescue ship from Earth.

Rescue ship arrives from Robinson Crusoe on Mars.You can't help wonder though, how Friday is going to cope back on Earth. Will he be the proverbial fish out of water, treated condescendingly by polite society? It would be interesting to explore this idea, but better yet I like to imagine the never made sequel to Robinson Crusoe on Mars, in which Draper volunteers to ferry Friday home, only to crash on his homeworld and discover that Friday is in fact from a civilisation far in advance of the Earth. Draper then becomes in effect the savage, marooned far from home and forced to learn the manners and niceties of interstellar society from a far superior race.

In a bizarre postscript, there have been two songs recorded that were inspired by Robinson Crusoe on Mars, most notably by Victor Lundin, who has enjoyed somewhat of a varied career as both actor and singer. You can find the track Robinson Crusoe on Mars on his album Little Owl. The singer/songwriter Johnny Cymbal also recorded a song called "Robinson Crusoe on Mars" in 1964 which can be found on the album The Very Best of Johnny Cymbal.


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