Robinson Crusoe on Mars: Life on Mars

In my dreams, Mars keeps changing: gone are the verdant Barsoomian fields explored by John Carter and Princess Dejah Thoris in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels; the arid, canal-laced deserts that witnessed the final exodus of H. G. Wells’s desperate invaders; the mythical cities and false Ohio farmlands of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. As of this writing, the ancient Red Planet of our cultural dreams and nightmares has been under fifty years of assault by science, reason, and an escalating armada of robotic emissaries, yet it manages to keep bouncing back, more enthralling than ever. As science-fiction author Larry Niven once put it (in an introduction to some tales set within his own constantly changing Martian landscape): “If the space probes keep redesigning our planets, what can we do but write new stories?”

So it was quite surprising to view the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars for the first time in decades and find that it scores most highly for its verisimilitude. Given the scarcity of information then available, the filmmakers did a remarkable job of representing some of the conditions on our nearest planetary neighbor, nearly a year before the first close-up views of the real Martian surface were beamed back by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory probe Mariner 4.

Screenwriter Ib Melchior had already made a career of shifting comfortably between nuts-and-bolts reality-based SF (the sixties television series Men into Space and The Outer Limits) and more fanciful monsterfests like Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962) and The Angry Red Planet (1959), his directorial debut (another entertaining Martian expedition, this one chock-full of ultranasty, astronaut-devouring beasties). In preparing his heavily illustrated first draft of the screenplay for Robinson Crusoe on Mars, a film he intended to direct, Melchior was clearly seeking a middle ground: native plant and critter life galore, but this time in support of a lonely astronaut’s internal struggle.

Conflicting projects forced Melchior to drop out of Robinson Crusoe on Mars, leading to a very different take on the material once director Byron “War of the Worlds” Haskin signed on. When Melchior wrote his original screenplay, the canal-strewn visions of nineteenth-­century astronomer Percival Lowell were starting to wane but still had power. (I remember our science teacher advising us that if there weren’t any surviving Martians, we’d just have to make do with the plant life and lower animal forms he and our textbooks were sure still inhabited the planet.) Lowell’s ancient, dying Martian engineers inspired the first rocket pioneers, including Robert Goddard and Wernher von Braun, while giving rise to such early science-fiction literature as Wells’s cautionary metaphor The War of the Worlds. In subsequent novels, television series, and especially movies, the planet bore the blame for any number of terrifying attacks on small-town America, from the deeply disturbing visions (at least to this eight-year-old) of William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars (1953) all the way to a rather unfortunate 1964 cinematic attempt to kidnap Santa Claus, in order to amuse a young, green-hued Pia Zadora. (All right, it was called Santa Claus Conquers the Martians—though if you had to ask, you probably didn’t need to know.)

By this time, a new reality was starting to emerge. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke had begun work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), while the world was caught up in a superpower competition, launched by a brash young president, to land on the moon by decade’s end—a farsighted, twenty-first-century dream that, at least in the minds of most science-fiction fans, would kick-start our inevitable egress to the planets and beyond. It was against this background that director Haskin and company began scouting Death Valley, California, for Martian locations, one week to the day after President Kennedy’s funeral. Borrowing heavily from the designs, nomenclature, and jargon of NASA’s upcoming Project Gemini two-man orbital training missions, the filmmakers set out to explore the challenge of surviving in an alien landscape, as realized high in the Death Valley mountains that had towered over so many westerns filmed in the valleys below. In an age that saw Daniel Defoe’s original survival tale, as well as the accomplishments of the space race, played as high camp (television’s Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, It’s About Time), Haskin was setting out to create the adventure for real.

Haskin had directed some of the genre’s most memorable epics in the fifties and early sixties (The War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space, and several classic Outer Limits episodes, including “Architects of Fear,” “The Sixth Finger,” and Harlan Ellison’s “Demon with a Glass Hand”), but his career stretched back to the silent era (during which he worked as a cinematographer for D. W. Griffith) and included several years at Warner Bros. in the thirties and forties, as head of visual effects, an arcane field he helped invent. That F/X background served Haskin well on Robinson Crusoe on Mars, where he employed the clear skies over Death Valley as a natural blue screen, replacing the dazzling azure dome with a situation-specific variety of red and pastel skies that would look eerily familiar to anyone scanning the alien landscapes beamed back by the Viking landers a dozen years later. Indeed, Haskin’s prophetic choice to portray Mars as a dead planet that keeps unveiling new surprises continues to resonate as our increasingly sophisticated robotic explorers transmit their streams of data and wondrous images back home.

Production values notwithstanding, what makes Robinson Crusoe on Mars hold up, when most SF films of its day don’t, is the compelling central story, already 250 years old when Melchior began his adaptation. Once the basic problems of survival and shelter have been solved, Defoe’s classic eighteenth-century tale reveals itself to be about isolation and loneliness, and it’s in those quiet moments that Robinson Crusoe on Mars truly comes alive. Adam West’s typically muggy acting in the film’s opening scenes is far surpassed by his truly creepy and surreal materialization before our hallucinating hero late in the movie, while Victor Lundin provides a lovely, nuanced take on Defoe’s Friday, reconceived as an escaped intergalactic mining slave. But it’s actor Paul Mantee, as Commander “Kit” Draper, who does most of the heavy lifting. Mantee (who bears a striking resemblance to Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space) has said that he believes the film’s challenges sometimes overwhelmed him at this early stage of his career, but he managed to strike a deft balance between the lightness and humor of his relationships—human, alien, and simian—in the first and third acts of the film and his steely will to survive even the intractable sentence of solitary confinement that the middle act imposes. Mantee has spoken at length of how tough these scenes were on him—endless days spent trying to convey Draper’s incremental triumphs and tragedies, without anyone else on set to play off of, a unique acting challenge made only slightly easier by his growing friendship with the animal actor hired to play his sole pre-Friday companion. (I recall wondering at the time why Mona the Woolly Monkey was credited only as the Woolly Monkey, but Mantee has cleared up the mystery: it turns out Mona was actually played by a talented young newcomer named Barney. I’d always felt sorry for the poor little critter, struggling with that incredibly uncomfortable-looking spacesuit and ­helmet, although Mantee has revealed Barney’s far nastier wardrobe accessory—the fur-covered diaper he was strapped into every morning to enable him to more accurately portray the winsome Mona. Clearly no Method thespian he.)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars carries a heavy burden of contradictions and debatable ideas, apparent even to us impressionable kids way back when. One could discern a fairly strong religious subtext running through the film; indeed, both disaster and a near rhythmic series of salvations—heat, shelter, breathable air, food, and companionship—seem to pop into Draper’s life at just the right moments. Still, the real driving force of this movie is the thoughtfulness of the director, screenwriters, designers, et al. Despite some notorious poster art, Draper is no ray-gun-toting space adventurer (though he does pull out a nasty-looking revolver on a couple of occasions. Why were so many early movie astronauts packing heat?). In fact, Draper’s tools and technology are some of the most impressive elements in the film, despite the occasional cognitive dissonance (e.g., such futuristic, yet still somehow retro, NASA technology as the Mars Gravity Probe orbital vehicle’s ultrarealistic functions being driven by a mechanical computer that looks more like one of Vannevar Bush’s late-1920s differential analyzers). More impressive is the remarkably prescient portable VTR-and-camera combo that plays such a crucial role in the film, looking very much like the black-and-white Portapack units Sony would unleash on the aching backs of news cameramen and fledgling filmmakers (myself included) in the late sixties.

Even the film’s most questionable choices came about after serious reflection—though by the third act, compelling moments are sitting cheek by jowl with misfires. The alien miners (certainly one of the sillier aspects of the movie, and I’m not just referring to Friday’s faux-Egyptian sandals and hairdo) are introduced via Draper’s clandestine Portapack videotaping of the mining operation—all deeply spooky, until we get way too long a look at one of the alien slavers, decked out in a leftover Destination Moon space suit. (Even at that, darkening the faceplates might have prevented us from seeing the clearly non-emotive extras within.) Probably the film’s biggest controversy—and ultimately one of its most intriguing visual elements—came in the form of the aliens’ ray-blasting mining vessels. The decision to step-print the ships’ motion (eliminating every other frame, to double the crafts’ apparent speed) created an eccentric, jerky movement that was meant to correspond to UFO reports of the era but really just looked weird, freakish—and yet was oddly memorable. A larger problem lay in the design of the alien craft. Haskin seems to have instructed veteran designer Al Nozaki to create near duplicates of the Martian war machines he’d built for Haskin’s The War of the Worlds. Humans are pattern-recognizing creatures, and I recall this from childhood as one of those major “willing suspension” disconnects, for it was assumed the filmmakers had taken the cheap route and just repainted one of the beautiful copper miniatures from the earlier film. I’m not sure if it’s heartening or even more discouraging to learn that was not the case, that in fact three brand-new miniatures, based largely on the earlier design, were created for Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Looking back, the irony of former Martian invaders violently invading Mars was somewhat thin compensation for my fellow SF geeks as we emerged from that particular matinee.

And yet for all its flaws, Robinson Crusoe on Mars remains exciting, moving, and relevant—particularly now, as we begin to make concrete plans to send humans to Mars within the next few decades. The Red Planet of our cultural dreams may have constricted somewhat under the recent deluge of photographic and robotically gathered evidence, but such tantalizing new realities make us more enthusiastic than ever to explore firsthand those windswept dunes, rock-strewn plains, and burgeoning river valleys, under rich, salmon-hued skies. In the end, perhaps all is indeed prophecy. As both Ray Bradbury and Carl Sagan suggested in their very different musings, ultimately, the Martians will be us.

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