In the not too distant future, a two-manned spacecraft, the Mars Gravity Probe 1, nearly avoids a collision with an asteroid on its route to the red planet. The ship cannot hold altitude after altering its trajectory so the crew eject from the vessel, making a crash landing on Mars.
Only Commander Kit Draper ( Paul Mantee ) and the ship's monkey Mona survive. His commanding officer Colonel McReady ( Adam West ) is killed in the collision. Draper leaves the wreckage behind and, with Mona in tow, proceeds to find shelter on Mars. He assesses his situation, takes stock of his supplies and begins to determine his needs. He finds the atmosphere thin and breathable for only short periods of time and so maintaining a continuous air supply becomes Draper's first priority. Later, he discovers sources of food and water. When alien spaceships come to Mars to recapture an escaped slave ( Victor Lundin ), Draper is relieved to find another person to converse with and helps the slave "Friday" hide from their watchful eye until they depart.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is unlike other science-fiction films of the era. While most pictures that were set in outer space pitted a crew of astronauts against a creature or creatures unknown, Robinson Crusoe on Mars focused on one man all alone in unfamiliar territory and his struggle to conquer loneliness, a beast more fearsome than any two-headed martian.
Kit Draper strikes us as a modern intelligent human, not giving in to panic and capable of managing in extreme situations. He is a well-trained astronaut. Draper underwent months of vigorous pre-flight training and simulations of what he would encounter on Mars. He is prepared for any and all circumstances...or so he believes. What he is not prepared for is the chasm of loneliness he would feel in his new surroundings. He is grateful for the companionship of his monkey but longs for human conversation. Robinson Crusoe on Mars depicts interaction between people as a vital element to human survival, as necessary to man as oxygen or water and it is this facet of the film that makes it more realistic than other sci-fi films of the 1950s.
Paul Mantee considered Draper a difficult character to portray since he had no one to interact with, but he handled the part beautifully. Unlike many films that portray solitary characters, Robinson Crusoe on Mars avoided giving audiences a mental voice-over from the main protagonist and instead we discover Draper's thoughts only through his discussions with Mona and his "diary", his recordings of his actions onto video and audio tape.
Victor Lundin had parts in television westerns and other series ( primarily portraying Native Americans ) before he was given his first starring feature film role as the intergalactic mining slave, Friday. Adam West had very little screen time and what little dialogue he had was uttered in his usual stilted manner but he more than made up for that by his surreal materialization in one truly spine-tingling hallucination sequence. Mona the monkey was portrayed by a talented newcomer named Barney who had to humble himself and endure wearing not only the miniature space-suit costume for the part but a fur-covered diaper as an undergarment.
The premise of Daniel Defoe's beloved 1719 novel "Robinson Crusoe" was transported into the space age by screenwriter Ib Melchoir who set out to create a realistic portrayal of an astronaut's experience on an unexplored planet. A heady task considering it would be five more years before mankind would even set foot on the moon.
He retained all of the key elements of Defoe's novel - Crusoe's determination to survive, his methods of survival, and his struggle with loneliness - replacing only the cannibals with alien slavers to make the story more plausible. Ironically, it is Melchoir's faithfulness to the book that bogs down the final chapter of the film. Draper's solitary experience of survival and his encounter with the aliens would have made a fascinating picture in itself. The Egyptian-like slave sequence was unnecessary and tiresome.
Like the novel, Robinson Crusoe on Mars retains a strong religious subtext running through the film. At just the right moments Draper's life is spared by the hand of God. Heat, shelter, food, companionship, all become available to him in his hour of need. While Draper may be all alone in the new world, he knows he always has God looking after him, giving him hope.
Crusoe's director, Byron Haskin, had a career stretching back as far as the silent era when he worked as a cinematographer to D.W. Griffith. During the 1930s and 40s, he headed up the visual effects department at Warner Brothers, working on such classics as The Sea Hawk, High Sierra and Dive Bomber. Haskin had directed some iconic sci-fi films and television series ( War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space and several episodes of The Outer Limits ) before taking the helm of Crusoe.
His experience in visual effects is demonstrated in the marvelous long shots where we witness Draper exploring one vast territory of desolate landscape after another with only Albert Whitlock's matte paintings being utilized to create the backdrops of space. This skyline looks majestic and peaceful compared to the steaming hot surface of Mars or its cool polar icecaps. Location footage was shot in Death Valley where the clear skies were used as a natural "blue screen" and enabled the matte paintings to be implemented.
Some of the other special effects in the film seem primitive and will look dated to modern viewers but Robinson Crusoe on Mars stands out for these dynamic visualizations of Mars. An entire harsh ecosystem is conveyed through its simple sets. Over fifty years later, it is impressive to see how accurately Mars was depicted in 1964. Wouldn't it be ironic if astronauts of the future land on Mars only to find the same landscape depicted in this film?
This post is our contribution to the Criterion Blogathon being hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. To view the impressive line-up of film articles visit any one of these blogs for a complete list.