#36: Robinson Crusoe on Mars


1964

Director:  Byron Haskins

Cast:  Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West, Mona the Monkey

Introduction
Plot Summary
Impressions
Wrap-up

My rating:  Class F (4/7, yellow-white star).  A tough film to review, in some ways:  it is a cult classic with a substantial following, chosen for the Criterion Collection (see their website here), and based on an enduring novel written by Daniel DeFoe and updated for the space age.  And yet…it’s a bit dated now, suffering from changes in expectations about movies as well as vastly greater information available about Mars than there was at the time of the film.  It’s a good film, but a bit boring in parts and almost laughably implausible now.  I would say it is primarily of interest to science fiction fans these days, as opposed to anyone interested in a good adventure yarn.  But it’s also got Batman, a monkey, and a surprise music video featuring one of the stars, Victor Lundin!

Introduction

As the Mars Gravity Probe soars above the surface of Mars, the crew discovers that they are on a collision course with a meteor.  They take evasive action, using up all their fuel but surviving—although in an apparently unstable orbit.  Since the ship is now going to crash eventually, the two men of the crew, along with their adorable woolly monkey Mona, hop in their landers and descend to the surface of MarsRobinson Crusoe on Mars follows the adventures of Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper in his attempts to survive and thrive on the surface of the hostile planet.  If you’re like me, the setup here is intriguing with a lot of potential for fun, and it has some surprising parallels to The Incredible Shrinking Man.  I have to admit, though, that I was in some degree of dread about the possibility of soliloquies by an actor with no one to talk to in the first phase of Draper’s castaway status…

The film has some very solid performances by the principal actors, and I found much of it fascinating.  Surprisingly enough, the plot lags a bit towards the end, and the finale has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer as well as characteristics of deus ex machina (although this matches one of my criticisms of The War of the Worlds, which was also directed by Byron Haskins).  The effects are mostly rock solid, with only a few miscues.  The score is recognizably a film score, and you do notice the music (which would fit in just fine in any western) since it is keyed to the action on screen, rising in intensity at the appropriate junctures.  As long as we’re talking about music, I think it’s time to remind you about the surprise music video, which you’ll get a a chance to see…

The plot, on the other hand, is a little silly, and not in a good way.  There are a few plot holes, for example, and the film suffers terribly from a misapprenhension of what we now know the surface of Mars is like.  On the other hand, it was 1964, and Mars has always been the subject of substantial literary and artistic license, so just overlook it for now.  Oh, and don’t forget…the film has a surprise music video, at least if you have the Criterion Collection DVD.

Plot (Contains Spoilers)
(Jump ahead to impressions and avoid some of the spoilers)
(Jump ahead to the wrap-up and avoid all spoilers)

Short summary:  Once again, the standard boy-meets-girl Hollywood format is missing.  In fact, there’s not an XX chromosomal pairing—i.e., girl—in sight anywhere, with the exception of a picture of Elinore M. (found in Colonel McReady’s effects, and presumably his wife; the ship is named after her), so you’ll have to settle for a different kind of summary.  Oh, and I hear you guys saying, “At least Mona the Woolly Monkey is female, so there!”  To which I can only reply…um…guys…the monkey who played Mona was named Barney, and his chromosomes were just as XY as those of Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, or Adam West.  Barring unknown and undisclosed genetic abnormalities, of course.  You can’t tell Mona is really a boy monkey because they used a furry diaper on him.

At any rate…short synopsis time.  Spaceship encounters meteor.  Spaceship uses all its fuel to avoid crash.  Crew descends to Mars in order to get off the now-fuel-less ship.  Both landers crash.  Draper survives, but McReady does not.  Draper rescues monkey, finds sources of air, water and food, and makes cave a home.  Draper meets Friday, an escaped alien slave.  Draper and Friday become friends.  Draper and Friday flee the alien slave-masters in the caves of Mars.  Draper and Friday wind up on the inhospitable surface and head to the polar ice cap.  Meteorite hits.  Icecap melts.  Human rescue mission arrives.  The day is saved!

If you’re fortunate enough to have the Criterion Collection DVD, by the way, the fun doesn’t end there…there’s a surprise music video which I’ve taken the liberty of including at the end of this review.

Explication of Plot Summary:  I’m not going to do a whole lot of synopsis here, but there are a few points that deserve comment.

  • Draper’s source of oxygen is yellow rocks which, when burned, release oxygen.
  • Mona the Monkey wears a space suit which leaves her tail free.
  • Draper is forced to invent a primitive “sand clock” to wake him up so he can get his oxygen “booster shots.”
  • Draper realizes Mona isn’t drinking or eating much, and so deduces that she’s got a separate source of food and water.  He feeds her a cracker with turkey paste, extra salt, and then won’t give her water so he can follow her to her secret stash of water.
  • If Draper had killed and eaten Mona the Monkey, as chrislogic suggested he should, then he would have never found water and food.
  • Draper’s food took the form of underwater plants with a meaty edible portion.  These “underwater meat nanners” were a source of vast amusement during our screening.
  • Draper swims nude in one scene, and if you’re into naked men you might enjoy this scene.
  • Draper’s cave-home had a door, a piece of translucent rock he could move when he wanted to get in or out.
  • Draper’s cave-home also had a sign and an American flag, which may or may not have had fifty-two stars (it went by without any notice at all by your reviewer until the DVD’s “survival kit” pointed it out in the artwork.  I didn’t go back and look because I’m a little too lazy for that.
  • Draper’s biggest priority, after obtaining food, water, oxygen and shelter, seems to be music.  Why someone would make an improvised bag pipe is best left to the imagination.
  • Draper and Mona, on a leash, do a parade with improvised bagpipe music across the surface of Mars.  I suppose this passes for entertainment when you’re a castaway.
  • Draper’s radar thingamajig can detect, not just his own ship, but also the alien ones, which is fortunate because they move very fast and he might not have had any warning until they started firing otherwise.
  • The plants later provide a source of vegetable fiber for clothing.
  • Friday doesn’t seem to fully grasp the whole shirt thing.  If you’re into shirtless men, I suppose this is a plus.
  • Draper’s taste in hats woven of vegetable fiber is woefully inadequate.
  • Friday carried oxygen pills which meant no one needed to lug around a tank of air.
  • Friday can pretend to take his oxygen pills while secretly putting them back into the container so there will be more for Draper (leading to the inescapable conclusion that Friday’s metabolism is more efficient than Draper’s).

Impressions

Though it was hard for me to realize as I watched the film, the bonus features, which included some of the storyboards as well as the art for the design of the things we see in the film, made it very clear that this was intended to be a serious film, a look at how man might survive if he were marooned on Mars.  That is underlined by the trailer for the film, which trumpets that the film is scientifically accurate.  Ignore these things and you’ll enjoy the movie a lot more.  I’ll get back to the science issues, but for now let’s look at the non-spoiler parts of my impressions.

Paul Mantee’s performance as Kit Draper is pretty good.  He is appropriately emotional, even hyper-emotional as his enforced solitude continues, and he’s a lot of fun to watch as the script forces him into increasingly improbable situations.  Victor Lundin, who plays Friday, the escaped humanoid slave, also does a fine job portraying a man increasingly comfortable and happy with his freedom, as well as becoming more independant during the course of the film.  Adam West (holy Batman!) is not a factor in the film for long, though it was a hoot to see him in the context of Mars Gravity Probe mission commander; he’s quite stuffy compared to the more personable Draper (though it’s his monkey, apparently, which hints at unrevealed depths of character which, alas!, must remain unrevealed) (please don’t misinterpret this statement; I mean that McReady owns Mona the Monkey, not that I want to see Adam West’s monkey).

For the first time so far in the Top Fifty list, the film’s score was noticeable without being completely irritating.  By that I mean that while the film score itself was rather forgettable, it was also both normal and matched what was going on onscreen.  Sure, you could have plopped it down into any western you care to name and it would have worked, but it was a nice change from some of the films we’ve seen to date, where the music made utterly no impression at all or was incredibly irritating in an attempt to be modern.  None of this applies, by the way, to the surprise music video.

The special effects were, for the most part, very good, though with a few significant exceptions.  The surface of Mars was simply amazing.  The movie was filmed in the more remote parts of Death Valley, and then the blue of the sky was chroma-keyed out (a natural blue screen) and a red sky and a night sky superimposed on the image.  The effect is striking, and conveys the idea that the martian atmosphere is quite thin very well.  The martian caves, with their crystals of varied colors growing from floor to ceiling, were also nicely done, and the oasis where Draper discovers water is perfectly idyllic.  However, the animated spaceship is pretty bad, and when Draper has first crashed onto the surface and is “chased” by a ball of fire, you can actually see the film superimposition in a box around the fireball.  At the polar ice cap, the sight of Mona emerging from what looked like styrofoam shavings prompted one viewer to remark “Worst snow ever!”

The story does have a few serious errors in science and in logic.  As I have mentioned, after the film debuted it was conclusively established that there was no water on the surface of Mars.  However, there was already reason to believe that Mars had no water and that its atmosphere would be unbreathable by man.  Mars is one half the size of Earth, and has a dramatically lower density, giving it a very low mass of only about 10% of Earth’s, which means that the red planet has only about 10% of Earth’s gravity, and that it can therefore gravitationally hold a lot less atmosphere.  And at that computed atmospheric pressure, water cannot exist as a liquid, but only as a gas.

The canals of Mars had been rather firmly dismissed as optical illusions by the beginning of the twentieth century.

There’s absolutely no acknowledgement of the lessened gravity at all.  Draper should be bounding across the landscape like a kangaroo, but instead he plods along.  I recognize that in 1964 they really had no good way of showing Draper bouncing along, but still…

The burning rocks which provide oxygen as they burn are a huge plot hole.  Burning (or combustion) is the combination of a fuel and an oxidant which releases energy.  You probably already see what I mean:  in normal fires, the oxidant is oxygen, which is where the name came from.  We all know fire doesn’t release oxygen, but instead consumes it.  Maybe martian fires are different, somehow, but if they are, then there’s something in the atmosphere of Mars which is more reactive than oxygen, and plentiful enough to act as an oxidant, but not to poison Draper.

In another plot hole, Mona the Monkey breathes without any booster oxygen shots.  I’m willing to accept that a monkey needs less oxygen to live than a man, but Mona’s lungs are proportionately smaller, and would extract less oxygen from the air than Draper’s.  So that’s another place where Science got short shrift.  And the climactic finale, where the meteorite crashes into Mars and melts the polar ice cap, is yet another such place.  If an explosion was big enough to melt the ice cap, I promise you that Draper and Friday would have had bigger worries than drowning.  Little things like burning to death as a super-heated flash of air rolled over them, for starters.

With all the science that they got wrong—although I may be being a little unfair on this front—what’s amazing to me is the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos.  Deimos is the larger of the two moons, but orbits closer to the planet, and it actually orbits faster than the planet turns, which would mean it would actually streak across the sky.  The film got this right, which shocked me (though it did make the moons spherical, which is inaccurate).

The aliens had been on the planet for an unspecified period of time when Draper realized it, but you have to ask:  how did the aliens miss the orbiting spaceship?  The film made a point of showing the thing whizzing overhead in its lonely orbit, so the alien slavemongers should have been well-aware of Draper’s presence.  For that matter, from a narrative standpoint, it might have made more sense to simply have the spaceship crash.  Sure, you miss the statement by Draper that it’s a veritable supermarket in which all he needs is collected, and yet it’s unavailable.  On the other hand, it undercuts the need to evacuate the ship in the first place, without really pointing out that our hero and his friend just screwed up and abandoned ship due to a mistake.  It could be that the reduced weight of the spaceship without the two landers was enough to correct the decaying orbit into a stable orbit, but the film should have pointed this out if it was going to leave the darn spaceship whizzing by like a third moon every couple of days.

Aside from these actually fairly minor quibbles, narratively Robinson Crusoe on Mars holds up fairly well right up to the end.  The film spaces out the challenges to Draper:  first air, then water and food as his own supplies diminish, then the horrors of enforced isolation brought home by a food-poison induced hallucination…and then Draper realizes that he’s not alone on Mars.  Up to this point, Draper’s interactions have been with his environment and with Mona, and the film cleverly has him dictating recorded reports instead of making speeches to the monkey, most of the time at any rate, about his impressions of Mars and how to survive on it.  And Draper is engaging and interesting during this time, enough to hold the viewer’s attention, which is no mean feat for a script or an actor.

The advent of Friday, an alien slave, provides Draper with the last of his needs, that of human companionship.  In a very short time, the film takes their relationship from an adversarial, superior-to-inferior one all the way to equal partners.  Draper seems intent upon regarding Friday as a primitive servant who is unfortunately mute at the outset.  Friday learns English, though, and saves Draper’s life when a meteor explosion nearly buries the two in ash, and from that point forward they are fast friends and equals.  I was relieved to see that, frankly, because while Friday’s dress is a sort of primitive Egyptian-appearing kilt, he looks like a Native American.  I was not looking forward to a white man dominating red man theme emerging, and fortunately the film did not go there.

As fun as the film had been up to this point, it stumbles when the aliens return to Mars and begin hunting Friday.  The aliens have no trouble locating Friday using his slave-bracelets and their ships fire lasers into the ground around the cave.  I found myself wondering why they left without hunding down Friday the first time around, and why, if Friday was unimportant, they’re hunting him at all when they return…As the pair are forced to flee their cave-home and take flight through the caves of Mars, the film becomes a little boring.  Sure, there are underground cliffs and roiling pools of magma to add danger, but at this point the film just doesn’t quite do it.  Draper manages to get the slave bracelets off Friday, at which point it is safe for them to emerge onto the surface—which is a good thing, because they’d come to a dead end—and make for the ice caps, the only really acceptable and certain source of water.

The ending was very sudden, and very nearly anticlimactic.  I knew that the rescue ship would be arriving shortly, mostly because the film was almost done, though logic told me that while our heroes had escaped meteor ash, food poisoning, alien laser barrages, and subterranean cliffs, a melting polar ice cap is in a completely different class when it comes to danger.  So it was no surprise when the radio crackles with a friendly human voice (though I half expected the new lander, which was the same model as Draper’s and McReady’s landers, to crash like theirs did).  I think the fact that they are rescued without any action on their part is what robs the ending of satisfaction.  Draper and Friday have survived everything the planet and the aliens can throw at them, but in the end, they don’t even have to tell anyone where they are; they’re just rescued.  So much for independence and resolute action!

You may be wondering about the surprise music video I might have mentioned once or twice.  It’s coming up, don’t worry, but a word about what it is:  it was included in the special features or “Survival Kit” section of the DVD.  Apparently Victor Lundin, who played Friday, would perform this song at SF conventions, and someone recorded it.  The good folks at Criterion realized this was a golden opportunity, so they took key scenes and visuals from the film and made a music video.

Wrap-up

In spite of everything I’ve said to date, this is a good film.  It’s scientifically flawed, I don’t care what the trailer says, and they knew better in 1964 when this film came out.  And the narrative flaw at the end, when the successful struggle to survive is somehow undercut by the miracle rescue, bothers me more than I can really explain.  But it’s still fun and worth watching, and if you love survival films or science fiction it’s almost a must-see just for the place it occupies in cinematic history.  But it’s a bit better than just a period piece, since it has a good story (probably a better one than the other Byron Haskins outing so far, The War of the Worlds), nice effects, and engaging performances.

I know you’ve been wondering about the surprise music video.  I think it’s finally time to share it.

I think this is the first time I’ve actually been ashamed to be a science fiction fan in a long, long time.

Other posts about Robinson Crusoe on Mars
The Gasp Factor:  Review of Robinson Crusoe on Mars
CineScene.com: Robinson Crusoe on Mars

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3 Responses to “#36: Robinson Crusoe on Mars”

  1. This is an incredible review!

    I laughed for a good five minutes when he accidentally produced oxygen 😉

    I definitely agree that despite its flaws it’s fun an worth watching.

    (I’ve subscribed to your blog)

    • Thanks, and I hope you enjoy it! It’s been a great deal of fun seeing a lot of these older movies I’ve never seen before, or saw when I was quite young, and can now view as an adult with a much broader appreciation as well as a deeper understanding of the context. But mostly it’s just been a lot of fun.

      I may have been unduly harsh on this one; I have a tendancy to expect my science fiction to be strong on the science, if you see what I mean, and sometimes get riled up when a movie fails (or seems to fail) to meet my expectations! But yes, this is a tremendously fun movie, and it reminds me a bit of one of my favorite books when I was a child, Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island.

      At any rate, thanks for the comment, and I hope you enjoy the blog as we move forward!

      • Well, I guess I read a lot of 50s and 60s sci-fi and except for authors like Clarke and Clement they tend to be rather light on the “science.” I also prefer social science fiction to “hard sci-fi” so I easily forgive if there isn’t much science since I’m more interesting in how technology, however it might manifest itself, influences social morals, etc.

        Obviously that ramble doesn’t apply to Robinson Crusoe on Mars 😉

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