ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS/1964
1964 / Director: Byron Haskin / Writer: John C. Higgins (from a script by Ib Melchior)
Cast: Paul Mantee / Victor Lundin / Adam West / The Wooly Monkey
While modern fans of computer generated images will be bored to tears with some of the special effects the movies stands firm regardless. Director Byron Haskins (War of the Worlds ) broke away from Ib Melchoir’s original more fantasy style script and wanted to do a Mars picture that reflected the scientific attitudes of the time. He wanted Mars depicted as a dead planet and with the able assistance of cinematographer and Technicolor wiz Winton Hoch he did just that (essentially) using formidable Death Valley as a shooting location. I add “essentially” because there is plant life in the film and enough oxygen in the atmosphere to support life for short periods of time. The studio sets and on site shots are fabulous and the colors lush and vibrant. The movie is marvelous to look at.
The basic story is about astronaut Commander Kit Draper (Mantee) becoming marooned on Mars after he and Colonel Dan Mcready (West) are forced to jettison their orbiting space ship after a near collision with a huge meteor or fireball. McReady dies when he’s craft lands and Draper is left alone with his survival training and Mona the monkey to try and not perish on Mars’ harsh surface. He faces the obstacles of finding enough oxygen and water and food to sustain himself. This he does, in the manner of Daniel Defoe’s original island bound castaway, relying on the environment around him. What Draper cannot cope with ultimately is the unbearable isolation he must endure. This is remedied in the second half of the film when he teams up an alien slave (Lundin) sent from another planet to mine minerals on Mars. Draper names the man Friday, naturally, and begins teaching him English after realizing he is not mute. Forced to flee the returning colonizers from another planet the two and Mona flee to the polar ice caps and there, at the last moment, are rescued by a space ship from Earth.
The movie, as some reviewers have noted, is more like two movies in one. The first movie is a survival film, about a man pitted against a brutal, lifeless planet who must rely on his own wits and strength to make it from hour to hour. It tries to base itself on the scientific information of the time as to what Mars could be like. The second movie is after Friday is introduced into the plot and that is simply a fantasy adventure movie. While on one level it is simply a white man with his mono-syllabic ethnic sidekick it is still watchable, and I doubt whether the movie could have carried on with only the story of Draper and Mona in a cave eating water sausages and burning oxygen producing rocks. Paul Mantee does a one show for over the first half of the film, with the exception of Mona, who steals the scenes more than once. He does a capable job considering this was his first film (as was it for Victor Lundin).
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Byron Haskins direction is excellent and he says in interviews this (along with War of the Worlds) was his most enjoyable movie to direct. Ironically he also says he has mostly disdain for the science fiction genre as a whole. I have to admit the weak point of the film as some of the effects, especially the space craft, and in particular the alien miner ships (some sort of droid ships) that were actually props left over from Haskin’s War of the Worlds. But they all seem so two dimensional and bland. There is one scene of a space ship landing that is nothing more than scratches on the film. While you have to take into account it was 1964 I just think something a little better could have been done in this department. But even with those problems the film is still a great movie and has rightly gained a following of avid supporters. The original script by Ib Melchoir (The Angry Red Planet, The Time Travelers) was more of a fantastic fantasy concept, like something from an Edgar rice Burroughs novel, and while it was approved by paramount and given a green light, Haskins all but scrapped the script except for the basic “survival” plot after Melchoir stopped the project to direct The Time Travllers. One wonders what movie may have happened had Melchoir stayed at the helm. In any case, a fine sci-fi classic was created in Robinson Crusoe on Mars.