VideoVista covers rental and retail titles in all genres and movie or TV categories, with filmmaker interviews, auteur profiles, top 10 lists,
plus regular prize draws.
INDEX OF ALL REVIEWS
SEARCH THIS SITE
TOP 10 LISTS
INTERVIEWS & PROFILES
RETRO REVIEWS SECTION
ABOUT OUR CONTRIBUTORS
SUBSCRIBE TO NEWSLETTER
SUPPORT THIS SITE -
SHOP USING THESE LINKS
visit other Pigasus Press sites...
The ZONE - genre nonfiction
Soundchecks - music reviews
Rotary Action - helicopter movies
cast: Paul Mantee, Vic Lundin, and Adam West
director: Byron Haskin
110 minutes (n/r) 1964
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Criterion DVD Region 1 retail
review by Andrew Darlington
Robinson Crusoe On Mars
"This film is scientifically authentic...
it is only one step ahead of present reality!" - movie blurb
Mars? Robinson Crusoe On Mars! Well, the stranded astronaut is not actually called Robinson Crusoe. That's just a cunning subterfuge to
give the film literary roots. After all, the shipwreck desert-island castaway is one of the great literary-filmic archetypes, through Disney's
Swiss Family Robinson (1960) - which provides the origins of the Lost In Space saga, through Peter Brook's
Lord Of The Flies - and its 1990 remake, plus Oliver Reed and
skinny-dipping Amanda Donohoe in Castaway (1986). But first and foremost Daniel Defoe...
Here, director Byron Haskin merely shoves the entire thing into outer space. With reconnaissance ship 'Mars Gravity 1' on its third astro-miles
orbit of Mars, a planetoid-threat - 'the unexpected terrors of outer space', forces the two-man crew to abandon ship. 'Heart-pounding suspense'
promises the trailer. Commander Christopher 'Kit' Draper (Paul Mantee) and the skipper, Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West - the future TV 'Batman')
had no original intention of landing. Only the tiny woolly-monkey Mona was due to descend in a probe.
But now "Mars gravity is taking over, pulling us down," deadpans McReady. Kit's escape-pod crash-lands and explodes into a fiery alien landscape
of volcanic flame-spouts that unleash gaseous fireballs. He struggles to survive. Falling into a ravine, he stumbles upon a cave, plants the US
flag on the threshold, moves in, eats food from tubes, and starts chalking his calendar on the wall. For a long time there's no dialogue, his
voiceover recording compensates. "I feel a little bit like Columbus," he confides to his tape-journal, "set down in a strange new land full of
new wonders, new discoveries. It's a challenge all right, challenge to my training. Sometimes challenges can get mighty big. But I'm gonna stay
alive, believe me."
He finds the smashed remains of Mac's ejection-pod, and buries the skipper's body beneath a cairn of stones. Momentarily startled by a snaky tendril
extending from behind the wreck - he's relieved to discover it's only Mona, who can apparently breathe Martian air. At a time when some contemporary
magazine-SF still persisted in portraying Mars with a thin, if breathable atmosphere, Kit is able to survive no longer than 12 minutes without his
air supply. Then, experimenting with a lens and some of his valuable oxygen he manages to ignite some "yellow stones that burn like coal," making
a fire for warmth. After his oxygen gives out he wakes to find himself, surprisingly, still alive. He reasons it through, how do the rocks get air
to burn? They conveniently give off their own oxygen. So he's found a way of refilling his cylinders, with a sly nod to scientific plausibility.
"No sign of any other living thing - yet," he confides.
Director Byron Haskin had worked on several SF projects prior to this one, including TV episodes of The Outer Limits. He directed Destination
Moon too, and the very wonderful War Of The Worlds for
producer George Pal. Then "the notion of converting Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe into a space adventure film" began - according to Frederik
Pohl's informed commentary, through the intervention of Danish-born novelist and 'man of imagination' Lauritz 'Ib' Jorgen Melchior. To him, it seemed
the logical development from his unacknowledged work on Irwin Allen's Lost In Space TV-series, and his screenplay for space-thriller
The Angry Red Planet (1959).
Using the Defoe story as a plot-framework, the script he devised, in collaboration with John C. Higgins, bore some resemblances to Rex Gordon's
novel No Man Friday (aka: First On Mars, 1956), although - casting Melchior into Irwin Allen's position, Gordon is given no credit.
There's also a much-earlier novel Lieut. Gulliver Jones: His Vacation (1905) by Edwin Lester Arnold, referencing a different, but similarly
fictional character who also finds himself lost on Mars. Meanwhile, Byron Haskin was lured back to SF by the potential of Melchior's script. He
scouted various locations around Death Valley - including the movie-famous Zabriskie Point, and the Ubehebe Crater to provide a convincingly barren
Martian landscape. At the time of the film's release it must have seemed convincingly real. Even now the terrain stands up pretty well to the Spirit
and Opportunity transmissions.
Unlike previous - and subsequent fictions, there are no ancient lost cities from extinct civilisations. There are canals, but they are the result
of subterranean volcanic forces. To Fredrik Pohl "the story is full of nice little touches and inventive special effects. It isn't a big film, but
it pleases." He quotes Time magazine, which called the movie "a pleasant surprise... modest, yet provocative," Pohl adding that for once
"Time had it just right."
Four months and three days since landing, Kit's still marooned on a Mars of vivid borealis effects, two moons in the sky, and hazardous blazing
meteorites. The abandoned 'Mars Gravity 1', a flying supermarket still in orbit, flashes overhead. He attempts to talk it down, but it stays
tantalisingly out of reach. He plays I Wish I Was In Dixie on improvised bagpipes. Watches an instructional videotape 'Survival On Land No.6'
about finding water. It's no help. But Mona leads him to a subterranean pool of water where plant-bladders provide edible sausage-tubers to supplement
his dwindling supplies.
Again, after a long period of being thought arid, the idea of sub-surface Martian water-deposits is now being seriously considered by astro-scientists.
But after eating the Martian plants he's haunted by images of his dead skipper. Is it ptomaine-poisoning from his stew, or is Mac paying a posthumous
visit? Then his alarm goes off, and he's alone with Mona again. "If you just had four words," he appeals to her. He records his journal, intended for
whatever future missions might find it, "all right, here's another note for you boys in 'Survival', for you geniuses in 'Human Factors'. A guy can
lick the problems of heat, water, shelter, food - I know; I've done it. But here's the hairiest problem of all - isolation, being alone. Boy, here's
where he'll crack, here's where he'll go under."
SF academic John Brosnan recommends the film's first section as "a convincing study of man's fight to overcome the hostility of his environment
and his own loneliness" but suggests that "with the arrival of alien spaceships" it "becomes pure pulp SF." - which ignores the vital ingredient
of Defoe's original that is the rescue of 'Man Friday' from his cannibalistic captors. In the same way Crusoe's space-faring counterpart first
encounters a strangely eroded black pointer-rock with a skeleton hand half-buried in Martian grit. There's a black band around its wrist, and "a
large neat hole" charred into the skull suggesting murder. He looks around warily, hides his flag and remote-destroys his orbiting ship.
Then, 147-days after landing, he sees a craft land some distance away. His hopes of a rescue expedition are thwarted when a formation of flash-moving
silver-finned alien pursuit-ships, bearing more than a coincidental resemblance to the Martian war-machines from Haskin's earlier film (War
Of The Worlds), begin blasting. Are they firing at him? No - Friday is on the run. He wears the black band. The two fugitives are thrown together.
Film that Kit took by pointing his camera over the ridge-top reveals 'animated beings' from some planet 'other than Mars' using forced-labour squads
to mine for 'rare minerals'.
It also tells the tale of the slave's escape. The cine-trailer calls them "attacking humanoids from another galaxy," Friday indicates the centre
star in the belt of Orion instead. When the alien mothership leaves the planet that Friday calls "Qwe-Qwe-Tenango," Kit at first assumes his new
companion is mute. He calls him 'Cosmos', until, in the movie's only direct Defoe name-check he jokes "come on Joe, or whatever your name is. Friday,
that's it, with apologies to Robinson Crusoe."
Yet their relationship is less clearly defined than that suggests. At first Kit clearly asserts "me, I'm the boss, and remember that," while musing
"how are you like us? And how are you different?" Perhaps Friday's people are even more technically advanced than Earth? He uses oxygen tablets to
stay alive, and quickly gains a functional English fluency, "A-OK?" It turns out Friday is 78 years old, 62 of them spent as a slave. Once their
initial wariness passes they develop a mutual trust.
Friday guides Kit back to the crater mine-workings where the remaining slaves, having served their purpose and become expendable, have been massacred.
When a blazing meteor strikes, Friday excavates Kit from the black ash, gives him an oxy-tablet, and carries him to safety. Kit supportively drapes
his arm around Friday's shoulder as they escape "the valley of the shadow of death." But despite that quote, unlike much vintage-SF, there's no
cod-religiosity. When Kit exclaims "thank god for water" Friday queries 'god' - suggesting "we say, order" and Kit settles for a compromised 'divine
Two months later the 'enemy' returns, and the pace picks up into a pursuit-and-escape thriller, hiding in a convenient fissure 'bomb shelter' and
escaping along the bed of a canal, an 'underground highway' to the Martian ice-cap, tracked all the way by the black slave-bracelet Friday wears.
A 'flaming asteroid'-crash causes a fire-storm vaporising ice - insert stock-footage of volcanic eruptions and gushing lava-fields, after which Kit
detects a ship over a red Martian lake of melted ice. "Here they come again," he comments grimly. Friday disagrees, "not enemy, different." This
time it's not the aliens, but a timely rescue mission. The space-faring Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday are heading for Earth.
The Criterion DVD edition includes a music-video of Victor Lundin's song Robinson Crusoe On Mars.