“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 order’.
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.