This week, let’s throw things way back, to the era of the retro-tastic B-Movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Movies born of fantastic sci-fi stories that were lacking the appropriate budget, or the weekly monster-fest of rubber-clawed pseudo-terrors or shots of small insects made to look in giant proportion. Yes, this “golden era” of movie-dom is chock-full of hidden gems, if you’re able to see past some of the glaring issues of the time.
Of all those films, ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ in particular is one that has always stuck with me. As a kid – without ever having read Daniel Defoe’s book – I knew what the character archetype of “Robinson Crusoe” meant: a man stranded in a strange, new world, struggling to survive against the unknown. But it was seeing the story transplanted to outer space, to Mars, that captured my imagination: a mission to reach Mars for the first time, battles with aliens and lasers, and a monkey! How could a kid not like that?!
Here’s how the film went: forced to escape their Mars probe due to lack of fuel, Commander Christopher Draper crash-lands on Mars and sets out to find the other escape pod, only to discover that it and its occupant, Colonel McReady, didn’t fare as well. Salvaging what he can from the wreckage, including Mona the woolly monkey who somehow survived the crash, Draper begins the search for shelter while the abandoned Mars probe endlessly orbits the planet.
Months into his solitary life, Draper uncovers a skeleton wearing thick black bracelets. Frightened that something else might be on the planet, he remotely destroys the abandoned probe and hurries back to his shelter. While making a record of his findings, he hears the loud hum of a ship. Believing it to be a rescue party, he grabs his video tape recorder and follows it to a valley. Instead of the hoped-for rescue party, Draper records what appears to be a group of slaves being forced to hard labor. His hiding place discovered, the alien craft begins firing on Draper and in the ensuing confusion, one of the slaves manages to escape, stumbling across Draper as he flees. Together, they race back to his shelter but are soon forced to flee further into the Martian caves with the hope of escaping the alien slaveholders.
The important question for this column is, of course: did my beloved childhood memories live up to a re-screening of the film?
The movie does a fine job of examining man’s reaction to being alone: struggling to survive in hostile and unknown territory, and battling the demons created by our own psyche when deprived of human contact. Probably one of the best scenes in the film involved Draper’s imagined reunion with the long-dead McReady. It also places man’s arrogance in the spotlight: when Draper learns that Friday is a runaway slave, he talks down to him, wants to show him who’s boss. When the language barrier becomes an issue, Draper insists that Friday learn his language, taking very little time to learn anything about Friday or who his people are. A topical and timely discussion, for any era.
After his escape pod crashes onto Mars, Draper stumbles out of the wreckage wearing the thinnest of space suits and immediately lifts the protective shield covering his face. And breathes. It takes roughly 5 minutes before he begins to suffocate and must lower the shield and TURN ON the oxygen. Even more astonishing, Mona the monkey apparently had no problem with the atmosphere on Mars as Draper steals her oxygen tanks, and she flits about the planet without once succumbing to oxygen deprivation. So, what I’m saying is: take the “realism” of the film with several grains of salt. Some of the technology used in the film, like the video tape recorder and camera combo, and Draper’s ingenuity for crafting an alarm clock and other necessities of life on Mars, were very forward thinking. But, when faced with a potential intruder, he pulls out his trusty, bullet-firing pistol. So, we’re kind of all over the board on this one.
Considering they had to base the Martian environment solely on what 1960s astronomers conjectured about the planet, such as a thin layer of oxygen closer to the surface, Ib Melchior and John Higgins’ adaptation managed to hit the main points and flow of Defoe’s original story within the context of their imagined Mars. Much of that wouldn’t hold up nowadays, especially after the recent Mars Exploration Rover missions have been sending images to Earth for over a decade now.
Considering the film’s designers had absolutely no reference material (the Mariner 4 probe didn’t reach Mars until 1965, the year after this movie was released), this is a visually stunning and imaginative film. From the cave that Draper calls home to the massive canals that run to the Polar Cap, the interior of Mars is presented as a crystalline wonderland filled with remarkable beauty (gotta love Technicolor!). Quite a sharp contrast to the arid desert found on the surface. Kudos to director Byron Haskin for using the blue skies above Death Valley as a natural blue screen for the matte images of the atmosphere above Mars. Now, if only those matte shots had fit seamlessly with the desert landscape… and the lighting in the sky matched the lighting on the ground… and the spaceships didn’t appear so two-dimensional and move so jerkily… and why wasn’t Mars’ surface red?
Overall, ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ is not a bad film for its time. Just for the record, I viewed a Criterion Collection DVD of the film, which includes some interesting film facts as well as tidbits of scientific information about Mars based on the scientific knowledge of the time. It also includes a music video featuring a song written by Victor Lundin, the actor who portrayed Friday in the film, which summarizes the film quite nicely. Fortunately, the song is available on YouTube – behold!