Written by guest contributor Brian Roe
Perhaps due to buzz surrounding Andy Weir’s The Martian, Netflix has recently added the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars to its online collection. While Weir’s book is an in-depth, realistic examination of one person attempting to survive alone on the surface of Mars, RCoM at first comes across as a standard mid-century pulp fantasy that plays out on desert sets decorated with vast amounts of styrofoam, papier-mache, and monkey mirkins.
First off don’t bother checking this movie out if you’re one of those CGI-elitists who can’t appreciate a movie just because the effects are more of a suggestion than a true visual representation of reality. But if you dig practical effects and clever use of low budget solutions RCoM has some greatness to it.
First of we’re treated to a very young and handsome Adam West as Colonel Dan McReady, the pilot of a gravity research ship that is heading to the planet Mars. And a monkey in a monkey-sized space suit that offers no practical protection to its simian wearer in any way. We’re also introduced to Commander Christopher 'Kit' Draper (Paul Mantee), a guy who presses some buttons and says some stuff. The opening section really makes it seem like McReady is the main character and will be the Robinson Crusoe of the title. But that’s wrong so don’t even think it.
The fellows have to avoid a meteor by firing retro rockets, always with the retro rockets, and it uses up their fuel and they have to abandon ship in little escape pods. Which never would have happened if they would have listened to the monkey. (Whose name is Mona by the way.)
The escape pods don’t do a very good job and McReady is killed on impact. Luckily Mona and Draper survive which is nice. Draper goes about setting up a cozy little cave home and finding out how to breathe and stuff on Mars. Standard stuff for the Robinson Crusoe/Castaway motif. Most of his equipment looks like old war surplus and although he has a cool nylon space suit and food in squeeze tubes some of his other survival gear is extremely lacking. Like the fact that his only way to start a fire is to use a book of matches from the Kailua Klub in San Diego. Jeeze NASA, I know there were budget cuts but give the guy a Zippo or something.
This was an independent film and although parts of it really suffer for the budget it’s also very clear that a lot of work and creativity went into imagining the various settings and atmospheric effects of Mars. Many of the vistas shown are matte paintings that would make great prog-rock album covers or paintings for the sides of custom vans.
A good part of the movie is taken up by Draper figuring things out and being super patriotic and stuff. He actually whistles Yankee Doodle Dandy and after he takes the time to invent bagpipes, because every world needs bagpipes, he walks around the desert while dragging the poor monkey around and plays (I Wish I was in) Dixie really badly.
Then the mood of the film changes abruptly when Draper discovers a group of space bad guys roughing up a group of slaves by shooting at them with classic War of The Worlds manta ray spaceships. Draper rescues one of the slaves and in a total dick move names him Friday and demands that he learn English. Victor Lundin, who plays Friday, would have been an awesome Conan the Barbarian and also played the first Klingon on Star Trek. He also wrote and performed a charming little ditty about RCoM that he performed at conventions. It’s on YouTube if you want to watch it for extra credit.
Although Draper drags Friday away to safety the bad guys are able to track the slave and seem to take great pleasure in blasting apart the surface of Mars in a vain attempt to destroy him. What begins as a bit of a light hearted romp suddenly has a real sense of urgency and dread as Draper attempts to remove Friday’s tracking shackles, or Trackles™, and Friday works to keep Draper alive.
It’s at this point that RCoM starts to really hit its stride. Unfortunately the relationship that develops between Draper and Friday, and Friday and Mona, happens too late in the film to really reach the depth that it could have. But it’s still a happy ending if not overly satisfying.
The same year that RCoM was released, Gene Roddenberry was pitching Star Trek to Desilu and would go one to create Martin Luther King Jr’s favorite TV show. Fans of the original Trek will appreciate the look and feel of this movie and how it acted as a bridge between the super fluffy space shows of the 1950s and the more culturally aware Star Trek.
This is fun movie and is quite enjoyable for those willing to take off their modern movie goggles and just watch it play out. It made me realize how much the movie Enemy Mine was inspired by RCoM and makes me wonder what the inevitable movie version of The Martian will look like. And other than some casual monkey torture and long range male nudity it’s a pretty safe movie for the younglings. Make some Jiffy Pop and enjoy.
Director: Byron Haskin Writers: Ib Melchior, John C. Higgins Studio: Paramount Pictures Run Time: 110 Minutes