the Little Red Reviewer

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Posted on: January 9, 2021

 

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Directed by Byron Haskin, written by Ib Melchior and John C. Higgings, starring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, and Adam West, 110 minutes long.

 

I really wasn’t sure what to expect with Robinson Crusoe on Mars.  I knew this movie was from the 60s,  I knew it was a modernized/scifi version of Defoe’s 18th century novel Robinson Crusoe, and I knew this movie filmed and released before we actually knew what the surface of Mars was really like.  And that’s all I knew. 

 

 

I wasn’t expecting a good movie. 

 

And you know what? Compared to movies that came out in the last ten years, well, yes, Robinson Crusoe on Mars sucks.  BUT. like many classic works, you have to adapt your lens, to see it the way people at the time may have seen it.   Once I realized this movie wasn’t about about being stranded on a realistic Mars, but a movie about a man who was stranded somewhere inhospitable, and what he went through to survive, the movie and the story gets far more enjoyable. And the special effects were pretty darn good for the time! So check your 2020 expectations at the doors, folks.

 

Did you read Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in high school? I didn’t, and had to look it up on Wikipedia.  The big plot points of the original are fairly straightforward – experienced sailor gets shipwrecked and makes it to an island where he believes he is alone. How to survive if no one comes looking for him because no one knows he’s alive? Yeah, anyway, he finds that cannibals are using this island to kill their prisoners. One of their prisoners escapes, and he and Crusoe become allies. Not being able to understand the man’s language, Crusoe names him Friday and starts trying to convert the guy to Christianity. Friday is viewed as a loyal servant. They save more of the prisoners and kill the cannibals.  Eventually they are rescued.  

 

Knowing the plot of the original Robinson Crusoe makes plot moments in this movie make SO MUCH MORE SENSE, I’m just sayin’! 

 

What Robinson Crusoe on Mars does very, VERY well, is showing the desolation and loneliness that Kit Draper is facing on Mars.  With only the friendly monkey Mona for company, Kit has to stave off the fears that no one knows how to find him, and that he may never hear another human’s voice again, or see another human again, and there’s a very high chance that he will die alone and far from home.  The scenes of him just walking, and walking, and walking, on desolate plains that are completely devoid of life were quite effective.  The hobbies he invents, to cope with all the nothingness, were relatable in this current day and age of social distancing.

While Kit is nearly starving to death, dying of thirst, and dying of lack of oxygen, Mona has already found water, already figured out what plants are edible, and has already figured out that when burned, the rocks give off oxygen. Luckily, instead of locking her in the cave, it dawns on him to let her out and follow her, to see what she’s discovered.

You need oxygen, but Mona doesn’t??

I can’t fault the movie for not showing the surface of Mars accurately even though it was at the time advertised as being “Scientifically Authentic!”, we simply had no idea at the time. And, I guess it was scientifically authentic that it didn’t show Mars Monsters, or a planet covered in ruins?  I did finally stop yelling at Kit (played by Paul Mantee) to “stop taking your helmet off, dumbass!”, because while we might have known that the atmosphere of Mars was thinner, we had no idea how thin, or how cold.  A year after this movie came out, in 1965, Mariner 4 brough back the first images of the surface of Mars – desolate yes, but also rocky and impossibly for life.

 

On one of Kit’s hikes, he comes across a humanoid skeleton, and the skeleton is wearing heavy black bracelets.  Soon after, he hears the sounds of attacks! He sets up a camera, and hides. (the camera set up was pretty ingenious, actually). Before he can watch the film,  he’s approached by a terrified humanoid alien, and the two of them run for the safety of Kit’s cave. Turns out this new guy is a slave, and the slaves were being attacked by some other aliens. 

 

The slave (played by Victor Lundin) looks right out of Hollywood Central Casting for “random Egyptian”.  The gladiator style sandal, the page boy haircut,  the white kilt he wears.  Oh, and he also wears those black bracelets, which the Slaver Aliens use to track him and attack his location.  The Slaver Aliens are never really explained, which was annoying. I don’t even know if they are called “Slaver Aliens”, but they are aliens who enslave other aliens, so that’s what I’m calling them.

Not knowing what to call him, and not making any attempt to learn his actual name, Kit tells this new ally that his name is Friday, and their friendship begins.  Friday and Mona become quick friends, and Kit starts teaching Friday to speak English. Kit also does everything in his power to get those darn bracelets off, so the Slaver Aliens can’t find them.  But before he can get both bracelets off, the Slaver Aliens attack their cave home, destroying the cave and most of their belongings. Kit, Friday, and Mona escape into the Canals of Mars, and knowing they need water, they head for the polar ice cap. 

their escape into the underground canal system

They get to the polar ice cap, and are shortly rescued thereafter. The movie literally ends five seconds after Kit hears the rescuers on his radio. 

 

Ok, so here’s what the movie did poorly: 

 

The pace.  This is seriously the slowest movie I have ever seen in my life. Yes the scenes of desolation at the beginning were very well done, but they were just. So. unbearably. Slow.  And ok, you’ve shown that 2 second clip of the Slaver Aliens attacking 15 times in a row (for effect!), do you really need to re-show it 30 more times? Oh, I guess you do. (ok, maybe it wasn’t that many times, but the laser beam sound was SO GRATING that it felt like un-ending torture) Everything interesting in the movie happens in the last 20 minutes, could have gotten to the good stuff just a little quicker?

The end. The end is so rushed!  Did the rescuing astronauts ask Kit how he survived? Do they tease him that he smells bad (a la that scene in The Martian)? What did they think of Friday? Was Friday able to share any info about the Slaver Aliens? We’ll never know, because the movie ends before any of those conversations could take place.  Which is too bad.

 

The colonialism.  This is where the screenwriters Ib Melchior and John Higgins got trapped by the original novel they were trying to modernize.  In the original, Friday is referred to as “Crusoe’s servant”, and Crusoe tries to convert him to another religion and makes no effort whatsoever to see Friday as a full person who has agency.  Kit is at least a little nicer!  While Kit isn’t pushy on the religion front, he makes no effort to learn Friday’s actual name, makes no effort to learn a few words in his language, and seems to feel that Friday has to earn the privilege of being seen as an equal.  I have no idea if people watching this movie in the 60s would have thought those things, but my 2020 brain kept screaming “wow, that’s some peak priviledged white guy behavior right there”.

 

My bitchings aside, if you’re looking for a Vintage Movie to watch, you could do a lot worse than Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The writing is very good, the cinematography and visuals are quite good, the feeling of loneliness and desolation is SPOT ON. Yes, the movie is on the slow side, but it’s certainly not a bad movie, and one worth watching and talking about.

 

 

 

16 Responses to "Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)"

Have you read the SF novel it’s based on? The review seems to suggest that the movie is based on the original Crusoe novel vs. the SF novel (based on Crusoe)….

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Rex Gordon’s No Man Friday (1956)

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I found this review that Ian Sales had written about No Man Friday, is this the right book?

https://iansales.com/2010/09/22/an-obscure-british-sf-masterwork/

No Man Friday is a scifi-spin on Robinson Crusoe, involves an astronaut who crash lands on Mars and has to survive, and he explores the landscape to see what he can eat, etc, is eventually rescued. But other than that, the plots seem drastically different.

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Yup. As I mentioned on twitter, I’m curious what was changed from the novel. I might be wrong, but I don’t think they were going back to the original Defoe vs. the source material.

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Wait, wait, now I feel like I’m wrong…. hmm… let me investigate 🙂

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Yeah, it seems to be based on the Defoe novel vs. Gordon’s novel retelling… Oops! Sorry. Regardless, seems like you have a fun little article in the making if you read Gordon’s novel as well

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Now I understand why I said what I said — SF Encyclopedia suggests it was based on Gordon’s novel.

http://sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/gordon_rex

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But movies back then had a different velocity than now. Imagine someone in the 60s would have been shown a film from now, their eyes would be bleeding because of the high frequent cuts, the artificial camera stuttering and other craziness.
While you said, you viewed this with a 60s sense, I think you kind of missed this adaptation. Now, you’ll have to do that again 🤣

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oh yes, plenty of today’s high frequency cuts and ‘jitter cam’ make my eyes bleed. (oh, hello nearly EVERY Marvel movie!)

I made an attempt to not watch this entirely through a 2020 lens, can’t say I fully succeeded. 😉 and well, you make an excellent suggestion, I should just watch the movie again!

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The newest camera technique that I find unbearable: in an interview the camera doesn’t stay on the face but wanders slightly around.

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I’ve never read the original Robinson Crusoe. It sounds like I should check it out before I read this retelling. 🙂

Good review.

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yeah, i feel like I need to read it too now! (or at least the Cliffsnotes or something!)

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Robinson Crusoe (an abridged version) was assigned in my high school English class, and it left us all in a stupor. Haha. Please just pick Tom Hanks’ Cast Away film instead.

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I have nostalgia for this movie because I saw it as a kid and I just remember those saucers zipping around blasting everything. 🙂 So it was fun to revisit. Even if I did razz it a bit haha. But I’m glad you liked it, and yes looking at it through the lens of its time is crucial!

I also never read the book so it’s interesting to hear how they adapted the plot points. I liked the walking scenes too- they captured the desolation VERY well, I thought- and the music was surprisingly effective, especially in those scenes. Definitely gives off a vibe. Good point too- scientifically accurate it may NOT have been (the firestorm???), it could have been a lot worse!

I agree about the pace. Oh my gosh it IS slow. And I felt the same way about Kit vis a vis Friday. Ouch. Kinda hard to watch, but yeah maybe in the 60’s people didn’t bat an eye. It is uncomfortable, but all in all not a bad movie!

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The pacing of the movie conversation reminds me a bit of how modern viewers see classic Dr Who — one (valid) criticism is it moves slower than today’s television. To which, I say — yes, yes it does. It was supposed to simply because of the way in which popular entertainment of the day was made and the technology available. I don’t necessarily think one is better than the other, mind you. Just have to remind myself of this and get myself in the “right” frame of mind going in.

This one sounds like a movie I might have to check out at some point.

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Another one with the fascination for Mars! (I have Princess of Mars and The Martian in mind.) And add Robinson Crusoe in too, the perfect castaway who must survive all on his own. But looks like a fun adventure, will give this a try too. Thanks!

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