Director: Byron Haskin
Script: IB Melchior & John Higgins
Cast: Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West, & The Wooley Monkey as Mona
Running time: 110 minutes
A small crew of astronauts – two guys (Commander Chris Draper and Colonel Dan McReady) and a monkey called Mona – find their ship being pulled into Mars’s gravity field so have to abort their mission and bail out. Unfortunately McReady (Adam West) perishes when his escape pod crashes, although Draper (Paul Mantee) makes it out of his pod alive.
After setting up camp in a cave system located within a nearby mountain range, he sets off to find his friend, but only comes up with a mashed-up corpse and their expedition’s experimental monkey. After burying the former and taking hold of the latter, Draper returns to his base camp and manages to extend his oxygen supply by discovering (rather conveniently) that some of the rocks contain trapped oxygen, which is released if they’re heated. Not long after that rather timely discovery Mona, the monkey, finds some water in another part of the cave system, in the shape of a rock pool, which also houses some seaweed-like vegetation that turns out to be edible. Phew, that was lucky!
After a few months of surviving on rock oxygen and cave water and weed, Draper is starting to lose his mind with the loneliness of it all – Mona’s not much of a conversationalist you see! Fortunately, whilst out exploring, Draper comes across some slave-like humanoids being exploited by a more advanced race of Martians, who travel around in spaceships that emit laser beams and who seem to be a pretty vicious, aggressive lot. Draper rescues one of the slaves mining for a valuable ore that the Martians need and this leads to the two humanoids having to combine their resources to survive, while being hunted by the bad aliens.
Predating Ridley Scott’s The Martian by about fifty years Robinson Crusoe on Mars is surprisingly smart when it comes to the science of the situation. Admittedly, it wouldn’t pass muster compared directly to most modern sci-fi films, but is certainly years ahead of its then competitors in terms of overall believability. Unlike so many sci-fi films of the fifties and early sixties you get the impression that at least the scriptwriters made a bit of an effort when putting together the story, at least science-wise. I mean, it’s still pretty laughable, but at least scriptwriters Melchior and Higgins have made an attempt to pull the movie away from its trashy B-movie roots. It also helps that Daniel Dafoe’s original novel was a classic of its time too.
The Death Valley locations really add to the overall desolate feel of the film, with the red filters adding nicely to the alien vibe the director was obviously going for. There are also some cool matt paintings used throughout the film to represent the vast, eerie Martian backdrops. Plus there are also some quite elaborate sets involved, upping the overall ‘value-feel’ of the film. Occasionally some stock footage of volcanic activity spoils things a little, but I guess such activity would be hard to recreate realistically on a studio set.
Paul Mantee does well with what, for the most part, is a solo acting piece, and he brings some nice touches of humour to the character too – for example, after eating his first batch of Martian seaweed he exclaims: ‘This could use a little paprika!’ His character even invents some kind of Mars bag-pipes, which he then tortures Mona, the poor monkey, with!
Victor Lundin does okay too with the fairly one-dimensional figure of ‘Friday’, and poor Adam West is pretty good as the all too briefly seen Colonel McReady.
The music and photography are both pretty decent, although I have to say the direction from Haskin is merely adequate and journeyman-like, rather than excelling.
There are a few underlying political points to be spotted within the film, including the fact that America – represented here by Draper – while being mainly friendly, helpful and generous, struggles to understand other races and cultures, and tries to force them to do things its way, including to solely speak English.
All in all, I enjoyed Robinson Crusoe on Mars, for what it was, namely a piece of sci-fi pop-art, with some classic literary pedigree.
Eureka Entertainment is distributing Robinson Crusoe on Mars on Blu-ray and on DVD. Extras include a new audio commentary with special effects designer and Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian Robert Skotak, and a four minute trailer, which emphasises the science in the story, claiming it as: ‘science-fact; only one step ahead of present reality’!