Film adaptations of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe date back to the silent era and since then there have been numerous versions from Walt Disney comedic take on the story starring Dick Van Dyke as a Navy officer, who meets a beautiful island girl he names Wednesday Lt. Robin Crusoe U.S.N. to the gender-swapped version back in 1954 with Miss Robinson Crusoe, where both the title character and Friday were female, but it was in 1964 that we got the most far-out adaptation of the classic story, one that took the plot away from its standard tropical island location and into the far distant reaches of outer space.
The movie opens with Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) and Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West) orbiting the red planet Mars in their spaceship, Mars Gravity Probe 1, that is until they are forced to avoid an imminent collision with a large orbiting meteoroid and then descend to the planet’s surface via two separate lifeboats. Draper’s escape pod has a rather bad landing that is made worse when it is hit by a roving fireball – it should be noted that these flaming configurations continue to plague the surface of Mars with no explanation as to what they are – but Draper survives all this and quickly sets up a camp in a cave he located high up a rock face. Later, on one of his planetary excursions, he comes across McReady’s crashed pod and lifeless body amongst the wreckage and it’s at this point I was wondering if the name of “lifeboat” should have been changed to “deathboat” as they appear to be crap at their one job.
Lucky for Draper he finds Mona (The Woolly Monkey), the ship’s monkey, alive and well as she somehow survived the crash, and yeah, this Mars probe had brought a monkey along for what I’m sure were important scientific purposes and not because this little monkey had more screen personality than Paul Mantee had on his best day. We spend an interminable amount of time with Draper trying to figure out how to survive on an alien planet, such as discovering rocks that when burned give off oxygen, and when he notices Mona doesn’t seem to need water he follows her to a nearby cave where finds a pool of water in which edible plant “sausages” grow.
As this is an adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe the film eventually gets around to Draper encountering this film’s version of “His man Friday” and in this case, it’s a human-looking slave that had escaped his alien captors and who Draper quickly names Friday (Victor Lundin) “In deference to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe” and the two become reluctant friends as they both try to survive the hostile landscape of Mars. Of course, a hostile alien world is the least of their problems as they are occasionally menaced by those pesky returning alien slavers, who tend to just hover in the sky and blast the planet at random, which brings us to the film’s key problem, and that would be it’s pondering slow pace with no actual narrative structure to speak of. Now, much of this stems from it being an adaptation of Defoe’s novel, which was presented as an autobiography by the title character and his 28-years spent on a desert island, but with Robinson Crusoe on Mars what should have been a thrilling adventure, instead, we get a rather meandering plot that was punctuated by arbitrary events until the story abruptly ends with the arrival of a rescue ship.
If I seem to be a little harsh towards a film that many consider to be a science fiction classic, and there are a lot worse examples out there and this is certainly no Fire Maidens of Outer Space, but unlike many of the space adventure movies that came before this one has very little action and almost as little accuracy when it comes to the science, and sure, at this point in time there was still not a lot known about the planet Mars but we certainly knew that the planet wasn’t plagued by firestorms and volcanic eruptions. It’s quite laughable that the lobby card for this movie had an official-looking statement “This film is Scientifically Authentic . . . It is only one step ahead of present reality!” which clearly indicates that the studio had either no understanding of actual science or blind faith that their audience wouldn’t have a clue that 95% of what they’d see on screen was utter bullshit.
Note: The film was shot in Death Valley National Park but the production didn’t even bother to tint the location scenes reddish in colour by the simple use of coloured lenses or post-production filters. Talk about laziness.
• A space helmet that makes you raise its visor so that you speak into your radio seems like a really poor design, especially when on an alien world in a hostile environment.
• The air is so thin on Mars that Draper has to use some of his precious oxygen supply to start a fire, but how the fire continues to burn he doesn’t seem to question. Lucky for him it turns out that the rocks on this planet generate their own oxygen, somehow.
• If physically exerting yourself will deplete your precious oxygen supply making your base in a cave that requires a rope climb of twenty feet to access is not all that practical.
• When Draper finds their monkey Mona alive he takes the poor animal’s oxygen supply stating “Well, you obviously don’t need that” is there something I don’t know about primates and their need for oxygen or is Draper just a dick to monkeys?
• The aliens in this film clearly shopped at the same place that George Pal did when he outfitted his astronauts in Destination Moon.
• Friday looks like he’s wearing the garb of a Roman slave which could be a clue that maybe the aliens had visited Earth sometime in the distant past, too bad the film didn’t bother to investigate such interesting possibilities.
• Though the aliens in this film are not actually from Mars, visiting the Red Planet only for mining purposes, they are flying around in the Martian war machines that look a lot like the ones from George Pal’s War of the Worlds.
The film does have some superb special effects, and Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings are quite beautiful, but I found that all this incredible technical achievement was wasted on a pedestrian script that just meandered from point “A” to point “B” without trying to engage the audience in any way whatsoever. Director Bryon Haskin was a seasoned veteran of the genre so it’s a shame that while watching Robinson Crusoe on Mars I felt very little for the plight of the stranded astronaut and I hate to put down actor Paul Mantee but maybe this film would have been better off if it had been Adam West who had survived the crash and not him, regardless, this science-fiction entry is a decent stepping stone that would soon lead to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and for all its faults it does have some stunning visuals.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Movie Rank - 6/10
I will admit that this film was at least an interesting adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, if not all that compelling, and Albert Whitlock’s special effects and Nathan Van Cleave’s stirring music do provide some very nice touches to a film that almost works.