ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS landed in 1964, in a fallow twilight zone for science-fiction movies after the surge of the genres thrillers in the 50s, but this modestly budgeted adventure, while not a box-office success, captured the imaginations of enough who saw it as kids that today it’s a well-regarded cult item, holding its own odd charm.
Astronaut team ‘Kit Draper’ (Paul Mantee) and ‘Dan McReady’ (Adam West) make a forced landing on Mars. McReady is killed, leaving Kit to fend for himself. Isolated on the desert—and seemingly deserted—landscape, he has only ‘Mona’, a mascot monkey, for companionship. Pluck and luck favor Kit’s basic survival, but the loneliness factor is traumatic, at least until he encounters another— apparently human—character, being used as a slave by a force of aliens. He forms a bond with ‘Friday’ (Vic Lundin), but the aliens return, bombarding the surface from their spacecraft.
The script by Ib Melchior (The Angry Red Planet, Ambush Bay) and John Higgins (He Walked By Night, Border Incident) takes Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” classic from 1719 and moves the action forward a few hundred years and outward just a tad over 153,000,000 miles. Byron Haskin, who’d already shown he could deal with Mars—or at least things that came from it—in War Of The Worlds, was given director duty on the $1,200,000 production. Exteriors were filmed in Death Valley, including Zabriskie Point, and at Arizona’s Castle Dome Peak near Yuma. Haskin was fortunate to have Winton C. Hoch on camera. The veteran lensman not only knew his way around deserts—She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Three Godfathers, The Searchers—but was deft at making the fantastic look better—Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Lost World, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea.
Haskin and Co. did an impressive job of representing some of the terrains and likely conditions on our neighbor planet, and did so almost a year prior the first up-close views of Mars surface revealed by Mariner 4. The interior sets are obvious fake-cave fodder like we’d put up with a few years later on Star Trek, but the exteriors, shooting on the twisted, ethereal ridge-tops of the Valley rather than the flatlands down below, with striking matte work from Albert Whitlock, make for pretty cool stuff.
As for the alien vessels chastising Kit, Friday & Mona from above, the decision was made to mock up close replicas of the ships used in War Of The Worlds, and the budget constraints show in repeated use of the same explosion effects. To give the impression of speed for the craft, they used the gimmick of cutting out every other frame, ‘step-printing’: it made for a sudden, jagged movement that looks both comic-bookish and suitably weird. Since the ships seem familiar, it has a “hey-wait-a-sec” aspect with the Martians appearing to pulverize their own planet. You just have to go with the flow.
Both Mantee and Lundin were unknown actors; each had mostly TV credits dating back five or six years. Lundin is somewhat undercut by being stuck with costuming and a hair-do that resembles Ancient Egypt-meets-the-Mayans. Mantee, who gets most of the challenges, discoveries and emoting, and nearly all the dialogue, a veritable gamut to express, is pretty good. In keeping with tradition, astronaut Kit’s emissary from Earth—as with the space explorers from items like World Without End and Rocketship X-M—brought along a revolver. Sort of a “We Come In Peace, and brought a Peacemaker to Prove It” situation. *
Female simian astronaut Mona was in fact “Barney”, a male Woolly Monkey, who, uh…manfully…wore fur trunks to hide his Tarzanic package.
The 110-minute picture grossed $2,300,000, not what was hoped for, but time was kind to the film. The year’s other notable sci-fi adventure was the more successful, very entertaining First Men ‘In’ The Moon, another nostalgia fave.
* Both Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin passed away in 2013, five months apart. Victor, 83, went June 29 and Paul, 82, on Nov 7.