Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Dir. Byron Haskin, U.S., 1964

by Brendon Bouzard

There’s a supplement on the new Criterion release of Robinson Crusoe on Mars that provides a fascinating context for the film’s baffling eccentricities. Crusoe, the doc contends, is a key document of man’s longtime interest in the red planet, and the short explores the way the film enfolds then-current scientific knowledge about Mars as well as the history of creative conjecture surrounding the planet. A team of historical scientists provide justification and context for a film that, given our modern scientific understanding of the Martian landscape and atmosphere, would seem like the most laughable bullshit ever, and lends a certain solemnity to director Byron Haskin’s project of making the film as scientifically accurate as was possible given the knowledge of the time. But the most compelling thing about this tiny document of nerddom is the way it eschews the literalism of cold scientific fact, indulging in its interviewees’ own hopeful speculation about Mars, including the possibilities of using carbon emissions to terraform Mars into an alternate Earth and the theory that life on Earth is the result of microbes from Mars being hurtled through space on a meteor.

The mystique of Mars survives, despite the skepticism that greeted our president’s preposterous long-term Man-on-Mars project. Regardless of our present understanding of Mars as a barren wasteland, its history as a locus of youthful fascination and its cursory similarities to Earth—its icecaps, its clearly distinguishable surface landmarks (the face! Olympus Mons!)—ensure it remains both inscrutable and familiar. To this day it’s a popular science-fiction subject, and I suspect a lot of what draws viewers to Robinson Crusoe on Mars is the gleeful promise the title’s final word entails.

But not for me—I’ll admit that, having never before seen the film, my interest started with the DVD’s cover image of Mona (played by Barney, a woolly monkey) wearing a spacesuit. The humbler mysteries of mankind’s lineage are enough to capture my imagination, and the cover gave me a great deal of hope that the film might be another in a long line of terrific simian films, including King Kong, Chang, Max mon amour, Koko: A Talking Gorilla, and all of the Planet of the Apes movies (minus Battle of the Planet of the Apes and that awful Tim Burton thing). Mona doesn’t get the textual emphasis the cover design seems to promise, but she remains one of the film’s charms. Barney is an endearing monkey actor, smart, reacting ably in tight close-up to his costars, and filled with no small handful of endearing tricks. There’s a tactility and emotion to his face that seems lacking elsewhere in Crusoe’s neat-o space-age gleam, and it might signal the cause for my vague admiration for and emotional disconnect with the film. For all its interest in the specificities of Mars, I found it lacking in curiosity about the human self.

The title pretty much reveals all you’ll need to know about the plot. Commander Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) finds himself shipwrecked on Mars and must learn to survive in spite of his lonely despair. He explores the Martian surface, finding sources for oxygen, water, and food. He builds devices to help him survive, produces audio diaries of his life on Mars for future discoverers, and wanders silently, his crewmate’s (Adam West) pet monkey his only friend. There’s a lack of internality to Draper, which is at first engaging—the film is uninterested in pithy psychology and is instead focused on the procedural struggles of adapting to a new planet. Draper seems always on the verge of collapse, constantly finding solutions to his newest crises—his dying oxygen tanks, his lack of water—just moments before death.

Upon second viewing, there arises an almost spiritual quality to these sequences, a raw essentializing of the human experience and basic animal necessity that approaches Daniel Defoe’s novel and inspiration, Robinson Crusoe. Draper clings desperately onto his identity as an earthling, pursues the activities of his fellow Americans here on Mars, demarcating landmarks with signs and saluting the flag. He turns his meals with Mona into family-style dinners, fashions a musical instrument and in one sequence imbued with enormous gravity, leads his monkey in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The film regards Mars as a sort of temple—there are gorgeous, cavernous mattes of the Martian surface where Draper is dwarfed by the majesty around him, Cinemascope long shots that David Lean would envy. The film uses beautiful aurora borealis effects as transitions and the polychromatic cave interiors are nearly Flintstonian in design.

Yet because this is Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the film must chug through and reprocess the essential narrative of Defoe’s original, leading to a second half that can’t help but disappoint. Draper discovers Friday (Victor Lundin), a scowling alien slave, and rescues him from the zippy triangular space pods that are beaming up ore mined by the slaves on the Martian surface. The audio mixing in these sequences is ear-splittingly loud, and the cutting is remarkably fast—the ships are actually fairly frightening, continually blasting at Draper and Friday with their explosive ray guns. Once safe from their beams (and the occasional exploding meteor), Draper takes on the alien as his captive and assistant, directly invoking Defoe when naming him.

And herein lies the film’s essential problem—where Draper seems crafty and determined in the first half, occasionally resorting to mean-spirited tricks in order to survive (as he does when he ingeniously forces Mona to lead him to her hidden water source), his treatment of Friday, for this modern viewer, reeks of the rankest paternalism imaginable. He forces Friday to do chores for him, demands that Friday speak English, converts him to his Earth religion, calls him a “retard” and “idiot.” This is all inspired by elements of Defoe’s original text, of course, but in a genre as progressively minded as science fiction, it’s shocking how uncomplicated the film regards Draper’s treatment of Friday. Less Defoe’s icon of colonial beneficence, Kit Draper comes across as a plasticine ubermensch Cold Warrior and a totally unlikable asshole.

Despite these deficiencies and a too-abrupt ending that allows for little emotional closure, there are certainly things to recommend about the film—it definitely captures a certain childlike wonder for the universe in a way that never seems aggressively belittling to the audience. The art direction is ingenious and imaginative—today’s latter-day “realist” genre hacks could learn a thing or two from this film about composition and color. The music by Van Cleave is one of the absolute all-time great sci-fi scores, appropriately majestic and emotionally manipulative in a way that resonates long after the film does. And it’s given one of the most enlightening DVD treatments Criterion has put together in some time. From the many extras included on the disc, it’s clear just how involved its inventors were in constructing Crusoe’s intricate universe—page after page of notes about the uses and preparations of the odd “eel sausage” plants Draper uses as a food source are here, as are original sketches of elements not present in the final film, an enlightening commentary track, the aforementioned documentary, copies of “Facts About Mars” and a guide to the language used by Friday in the film. The disc also contains what might be the single most entertaining Criterion extra ever—a music video for a country song written and performed by Lundin about the friendship between Crusoe and Friday that explores enough mysteries of the human self to fit three movies.