Few would disagree that Robinson Crusoe on Mars is one of the most fascinating titles in the history of cinema. The juxtaposition of the famous character created by the legendary British author, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), in his classic novel originally published in 1719, and our enigmatic neighboring planet, is intriguing to say the least. Unfortunately, and in spite of its significant popularity among sci-fi fans, Robinson Crusoe on Mars fails to deliver a satisfactory re-imaging of one of the most beloved characters in English literature.
At first sight, the idea of transforming the story of a British seafarer who gets stranded on a tropical island into a space adventure may sound ludicrous and preposterous. However, we have to keep in mind that Defoe’s Crusoe has spawned hundreds of literary and cinematic adaptations and variations. Such has been the worldwide influence of this timeless novel, that Robinsonade is the formal name given to the literary subgenre of adventures inspired by Defoe’s book. In addition, with the exception of Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, perhaps no other character has been taken to the screen so many times. Indeed, think about the 1902 silent version made by the inimitable George Melies or even the Tom Hanks vehicle, Cast Away (Robert Zemeckis, 2000).
Considering how outer space is so inhospitable to human life, and the strong interest in space exploration that emerged during the 1960s, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was a movie waiting to happen. At the directorial helm was Byron Haskin (1899-1984), who perhaps is better known for such memorable science fiction films as The War of the Worlds (1953), Conquest of Space (1955), and From the Earth to the Moon (1958). Haskin had a true sensibility and interest for the genre, and as a result, he always infused his flicks with a unique sense of awe and wonder. However, the script attributed to Ib Melchoir and John Higgins is too faithful to Defoe’s novel to be taken seriously.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars presents the adventures of astronaut Commander “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) and his faithful capuchin monkey. After evacuating their space ship (piloted by a pre-Batman Adam West), they are left stranded on the surface of the Red Planet. To further emulate Defoe’s book, which was written in a fictional autobiographical style, Kit keeps a dairy using a tape recorder that he manages to salvage from the crash site. Fortunately for Kit, even thought the Martian atmosphere is low in oxygen, he finds flammable rocks that also release breathable air through an implausible chemical process. Elsewhere, Kit and his monkey discover potable water and even edible algae, which he also uses to manufacture clothes and hats. Later on, stretching any remaining sense of believability, Kit finds Friday (Vic Lundin), an alien humanoid enslaved by a ruthless extraterrestrial civilization.
Clearly, the main problem with Robinson Crusoe on Mars is that the makers of this film tried too hard to maintain the look, rather than the spirit, of Defoe’ character. As a result, the situations and circumstances look perfunctory and far-fetched, even within the context of science fiction cinema. On the other hand, this film reminds us of a better-realized extraterrestrial Robinsonade made in subsequent years: Enemy Mine (Wolfgang Petersen, 1985). Indeed, while this unusually progressive tale of survival and tolerance does not follow closely the plot of Defoe’s book, it manages to create the same sense of desolation, endurance, perseverance, and hope.
Being such a literal translation of Defoe’s book, Robinson Crusoe on Mars obviously inherits many of the cultural, political, and moral subtexts of the original. The colonial discourse of the original, for instance, can be seen in Kit’s attempt to replicate American society on Mars. A form of cultural imperialism is taken to extreme lengths in the form of Friday. Indeed, Kit represents the most cherished values of civilization, Friday stands for utter primitivism, and both of them very quickly develop a master-servant relationship. From early on, Kit is sure to establish the rules of his regime, him being the undisputed boss of the Red Planet. And even though Friday can speak his alien language, Kit forces him to learn English.
Not surprisingly, Robinson Crusoe on Mars errs on the side of avoiding cultural relativism, that is, the principle where the religious beliefs and social behavior of a group of people have to be interpreted according to their own specific set of cultural values. Kit believes in a universal standard of morality and civilized behavior. Pretty much as Captain Kirk (William Shatner) did in the legendary Star Trek TV series, Kit upholds the moral values of 1960s America as unquestionable truths that have to be predicated across the galaxy.
More specifically, even though Kit does not know anything about the alien civilization that arrives on Mars, he condemns what appears to be a reliance on slavery. However, for all we know, Friday and his peers could have been malicious prisoners from a space penal colony. Interestingly enough, the evolution of the many literary and cinematic Robinsonades over the years actually shows how moral and cultural values are not absolute. Indeed, think about how Defoe’s Crusoe denounced the practice of cannibalistic rituals performed by the island natives, but condoned slavery as a common fact of civilized life.
Recently released as part of the Criterion Collection, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is presented with astounding picture and sound quality. For the die-hard fans of the film, this DVD includes a variety of interesting extras, although a couple of them have just been lifted from the previous Criterion Laserdisc edition. Among these is an insightful, non-specific audio commentary that features most members of the cast and crew talking about the making of this film. It even includes the late director Byron Haskin with highlights from an audio interview recorded in 1979.
New to the DVD edition is a documentary of dubious quality arguing that, for a movie made in 1964, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was scientifically correct in regards to our neighboring planet. But then again, the film itself was advertised as being “scientific authentic” on its theatrical release posters. Of course these claims ignore an important cornerstone of the critical thinking process: if something is possible, but it has not been observed and verified, then it does not mean that it exists. That is, even though the idea of a Martian surface with water in liquid form, edible vegetation, and oxygen producing rocks was theoretically possible back in 1964, there was never any physical evidence that the Red Planet indeed had all these features. As a matter of fact, the following year the American space probe Mariner 4 revealed that Mars was a rocky, desolate, and completely inhospitable place.
Interestingly enough, the original script by Ib Melchior featured a Mars more akin to the place envisioned by Edgar Rice Burroughs’s beloved novels, where the courageous John Carter rescued beautiful Martian princesses from the hands of grotesque alien monsters. As the story goes, Melchior was the director initially assigned to Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but was later replaced by Haskin and his screenplay was rewritten by Higgins. One is left to wonder, though, what would have happen if Melchior had directed this flick. After all, Melchior is better known for writing Mario Bava’s Terrore nello Spazio (aka Planet of the Vampires, 1965), the landmark Italian horror film that clearly inspired the plot of Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979).
Personally, in spite of its many shortcomings, and perhaps more out of nostalgia than because of its aesthetic or thematic accomplishments, Robinson Crusoe on Mars remains a favorite of mine. This is not a film that will challenge our intellect or astonish us with eye popping visual effects. But then again, this film is charming in its naïve re-envisioning of Defoe’s legendary character. Thus, this flick can only be recommended for those old-fashioned science fiction fans like me.