ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS
|Starring||Paul Mantee, Adam West, Victor Lundin|
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” – JFK, September 12, 1962
In December of 1963, a week to the day after the funeral of John F. Kennedy, filmmaker Byron Haskin and his crew set out into the desolate wilderness of Death Valley and started scouting for locations that could double for the surface of another planet. A race between superpowers was under way, started by a forward thinking young president, to see which nation would be the first to space and the first to set foot on the moon. But Haskin was imagining even further out, wondering what it might look like on the surface of Mars. It would still be two years before the Mariner 4 would send back the first actual images of an empty and barren Mars, forever altering and solidifying our picture of the red planet. But before those images, people’s dreams of Mars were still built out of the fertile Barsoomian fields traversed by John Carter in the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the canals, transplanted Midwestern farmlands and mythical cities of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Mars was the point of origin for innumerable invasions and the projected location of future utopias. In the words of Carl Sagan, “Mars [had] become a kind of mythic arena onto which we projected our Earthly hopes and fears.”
What remains surprising about Byron Haskin’s Mars so many years later is how, in its starkly inhospitable view of the planet, it dashes all hope of an exotic world worth exploring and presents a grounded view of a practically uninhabitable planet. Transposing Daniel Defoe’s literary masterpiece from a tropical island to an extraterrestrial wasteland of unexpected verisimilitude, Robinson Crusoe on Mars quickly dispenses with the more adventurous aspects of survival and uses its setting to explore themes of isolation and loneliness. It masterfully dramatizes the discovery that outer space is not a playground for adventure but a vast, cold, oppressive emptiness.
The movie isn’t without its genre trappings or sense of fun though. There are some aliens after all. The castaway protagonist spends most of the movie hanging out with a little capuchin monkey pal! At one point he has a psychedelic hallucination of his dead commander played by a cosmically bizarre Adam West. West’s brief performance is genuinely wild and everything you’d want from the man who would be Batman. The film’s script was written by Ib Melchior, a filmmaker who had previously journeyed to Mars in 1959 with The Angry Red Planet, a sci-fi horror movie complete with giant amoebas and a wild spider/bat/rat/crab monster. When a scheduling conflict prevented Melchior from directing Robinson Crusoe, the script was rewritten to remove some of the more outrageous and fantastical elements and Byron Haskin stepped in to direct. An obvious choice for the job, Haskin had directed War of the Worlds a decade earlier, as well as From The Earth To The Moon in 1958. He had been working in film since the twenties, first as a cinematographer for D.W. Griffith and later serving as head of visual effects at Warner Brothers through the thirties and forties. His approach for this project was to abandon fantasy, base the technical designs and dialogue on information gleaned about NASA’s Project Gemini missions, and create a profound, almost spiritual story of human survival in the worst of conditions.
The movie has the same genuine spirit of discovery and sci-fi sincerity as the original Star Trek and its influence on that show seems apparent. Although simplistic and hokey when compared to something like 2001 or most sci-fi films of the seventies, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was an early attempt at making a smart science fiction film for a thinking audience. It’s a cautious first step towards legitimizing sci-fi as a “serious” cinematic art form. Billed on its original release as “SCIENTIFICALLY AUTHENTIC… Only one step ahead of present reality!”, Robinson Crusoe now feels like a relic of another era; an artifact of that brief, wondrous time when we knew we had the technology to get to outer space but we still didn’t know what was waiting for us out there.