Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Textbook Survival: Robinson Crusoe on Mars

I could have sworn that Robinson Crusoe on Mars was produced by George Pal. However, as a recent viewing confirmed, Pal played no role in the making of this 1964 cult classic. If it seems like a Pal picture, that's because it was directed by Byron Haskin. A former special effects wizard, Haskin teamed up with Pal for four movies, including The War of the Worlds (1953) and personal favorites The Naked Jungle (1964) and The Power (1968). Both men shared a love of visual science fiction and fantasy, a trait that's readily obvious in Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Paul Mantee as Christopher Draper.
Inspired by Daniel Defoe's novel, the film's premise is established quickly when a meteor forces the two astronauts of the Mars Gravity Probe 1 to abandon their spaceship and land on the Red Planet. Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West) perishes when his escape module crashes. However, his friend Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee) survives--along with a monkey named Mona. With his oxygen and water supplies dwindling with each day, Draper seems destined to die, too. But the astronaut, to his own surprise, proves to be remarkably resourceful. He discovers a rock that burns and gives off oxygen. He finds shelter in a cave. Observing that Mona never drinks water, he follows her and finds an underground lake--and an edible plant.

Mona plays a key role in Draper's survival.
Like its source novel and many film variations (e.g., Cast Away), a large chunk of the running time is devoted to Draper's lonely existence. We "hear" Draper's thoughts as he talks into his tape recorder or discourses with Mona. After four months, he notes that he has conquered all challenges except the biggest one: loneliness. In one of the film's best scenes, he even imagines the survival of his friend McReady.

Director Haskin creates a colorful Martian world, with deserts and mountains set against a bright red sky. Fireballs zip across the surface and winds whisper eerily throughout the night. It's a mysterious world, but also one devoid of any living creatures--until alien spaceships appear and begin mining some of the planet's ore. That sets the stage for the arrival of Friday (Victor Lundin).

With only three human characters and a monkey, Paul Mantee is left with carrying most of the film by himself. A journeyman actor, Mantee creates a vivid portrait of an "everyman." In a 1988 interview with Tom Weaver, Robinson Crusoe on Mars co-writer Ib Melchoir noted: "There is some advantage, when watching a film of this sort, in not seeing a major star in it... The film was more believable that way."

Lundin as Friday.
Unfortunately, Robinson Crusoe on Mars did not perform well enough at the boxoffice to further Mantee's career. The actor guest starred in numerous television series in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, he joined the cast of Cagney and Lacey as Detective Al Corassa. Later, he also had a recurring role on The A Team as Commander Tom Clayton. Mantee died in 2013, as did his Crusoe co-star Victor Lundin.

War of the World fans will note
a spacecraft similarity!
The film's true star, though, is director Byron Haskin. He began his Hollywood career in the 1920s, later worked with David O. Selznick, and directed his most famous movie, The War of the Worlds, when he was 54. Either Haskin had a natural talent for science fiction cinema or he was very good at picking the right properties. In addition to Robinson Crusoe on Mars and The War of the Worlds, he helmed Pal's underrated The Power and two of the best episodes of The Outer Limits TV series ("Demon With a Glass Hand" and The Architects of Fear).

As for Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it has evolved into a cult classic. It even got the highbrow treatment when Criterion released a deluxe blu-ray in 2011 packed with bonus features, such as commentary by screenwriter Ib Melchoir and stars Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin.


  1. Fine post. Nice to see The Power get some props, great film.

  2. Nice review for a real cult film. And I do agree this does look like a George Pal film.

  3. This is an undervalued film. I saw it recently and found it to be very compelling. I think the casting is quite good, using the lesser known Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin. I also think that Mona was a lifesaver, not only in leading Draper to a source of water and food, but for providing someone for whom he could help care and want to stay alive. The relationship with Friday is quite well developed. Haskin paints a believable landscape with a compelling story. Great review, Rick!