Written by: John C. Higgins, based on the novel by Daniel Defoe
Directed by: Byron Haskin
Starring: Paul Mantee, Barney the Wooley Monkey, Victor Lundin, Adam West
The joy of a film like Robinson Crusoe on Mars is its gleeful silliness. This is the sort of science fiction that is so tenuously connected to science that I am afraid to even call it “soft” sci-fi, yet it proudly offers up a brilliant bluff answer for every questionable plot turn. I won’t get too hung up on plot, the title tells you everything you need to know: Commander Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee) survives the crash of the Mars Gravity Probe 1 and must find a way to survive. He is, indeed, Robinson Crusoe on Mars! Complete with animal sidekick, misdirected Christianity and even a Man Friday, director Byron Haskin has delivered precisely as advertised.
Draper wanders the stunningly Technicolor surface of Mars, struggling for air, food and water. He’s sure he’s going to die, he just hopes to put it off a little longer. When he stumbles across the wreckage of his co-pilot’s (Adam West in a very early role) crashed pod, he finds the ship’s monkey Mona (Barney the Wooley Monkey) for a companion. Mona wears a little monkey spacesuit, a little monkey space helmet and even carries a little monkey oxygen tank on her back. The plot is pretty uneventful, mostly concerned with the details of Draper finding survival, and the solutions are magnificently imaginative and goofy; at the last second he discovers that the rocks on Mars not only burn like coal but their by-product is pure, breathable oxygen! When he’s run out of food he discovers a plant that grows… sausages? The now-debunked theory that there was a system of canals running through Mars plays an important role in the plot, a neat detail considering that we now know there are no such canals. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is absolutely a product of its time, and much of the dialogue and plot development is pretty offensive by contemporary standards. Draper finds himself a Man Friday (Victor Lundin in, I believe, brownface) who is a slave from another planet but who bears a striking resemblance to an American Indian and at one point, while teaching Friday to speak English, an exasperated Draper exclaims “This is retarded! I have no idea what you’re saying!”
The direction of the film is beautiful and the special effects are never less than astonishing. Desert hills are backdropped with a combination of sheets of flame and a scorching red sky. Cave interiors are sandy and lit by strange glowing crystal structures. The cinematography is totally stunning as the film is shot in amazing technicolor that lends a burning and nearly surreal quality to the visuals, and the almost fluorescent colour of fire lends to the effect of making Mars truly feel like another planet.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is silly, simple and, at times, offensive but it’s a blast to watch and is nothing if not pure sci-fi entertainment. Visually it is a treat and the way it deflects plot-holes is a spectacle to say the least. It’s refreshing to see an early performance from Adam West, which he plays without a hint of the wackiness he would grow famous for. This is wonderful, energetic, joyful early sci-fi and it is a real treasure.