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That Movie About the Guy Who’s Stranded on Mars

Monday, March 28th, 2016 | Posted by William I. Lengeman III

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Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Paramount Pictures, 1964
Directed by Byron Haskin

(There will be spoilers.)

So there’s this movie about a guy who finds himself in the rather grim position of being stranded on Mars — all by his lonesome (more or less – but we’ll get to that).

I think you probably thought you knew the one, but it’s actually not that one. Robinson Crusoe on Mars debuted about a half century before that other, more popular, “guy stranded on Mars” movie. I haven’t seen The Martian or read the book, so I can’t compare the two. I’ll confine myself to commenting on the earlier movie.

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It’s pretty straightforward stuff, at least at first, as a ship headed for Mars tries to take evasive action to miss a meteor and things rapidly go downhill from there. Colonel Dan Draper, our square-jawed American astronaut hero, finds himself in a Robinson Crusoe way, with a monkey more or less serving as his Man Friday, at least early on.

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I’m not sure what the consensus was about Mars in 1964, as far as the scientific stuff was concerned, but the planet that’s portrayed here is a little more congenial to human type people than the Mars that we know now.

The temperatures are mostly human friendly and Draper can breathe normally, as long as he remembers to take a booster shot of oxygen now and then. Mona the monkey can get by without the extra oxygen, for whatever reason. There are rocks that can be burned to provide heat and rocks that can be used to distill oxygen and plants that can be used to supplement the ship’s stores of food. And before long it turns out that there is water available in sufficient quantities that one can actually frolic about in it and have a good old time.

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The problem with castaway type movies – be they set on Mars, a South Pacific island or wherever, is that they tend to focus on one character and their struggle to survive in whatever circumstances they’ve found themselves. Which can make for slow going as the character has only himself (or maybe a monkey, if he’s lucky) to interact with. He may also – as in this case – resort to devices like recording his thoughts for posterity, which allows us viewers to keep tabs on what’s going on in the character’s head.

All of which goes right out the window, mind you, when very poorly rendered spaceships appear over Mars and start blasting away, with seemingly great enthusiasm. It turns out that they’re the cruel overlords of the slaves who are doomed to a life of manual labor elsewhere on the planet, slaves with bad wigs who look like they’re on loan from The Ten Commandments.

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It’s probably not a whopping spoiler to reveal that one of these slaves will supplant Mona the monkey as Draper’s Man Friday. The bits that follow will probably not be all that unfamiliar to those who have read Defoe’s original rendition of the Crusoe story. Although, as I recall it, Defoe didn’t have the poorly rendered spaceships turn up every now and then to blast the hell out of stuff. Various adventures ensue and eventually the duo (plus monkey) are rescued.

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While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is a “good” movie, it had a certain early Sixties SF movie kind of charm that was not all that far removed from another movie I review in these pages recently, the 1960 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.

Trivia fans take note, director Byron Haskins had previously directed such films as War of the Worlds and Treasure Island, while Adam West makes a pre-Batman appearance here, as one of Draper’s fellow astronauts.


William I. Lengeman III’s last article for us was Old Dark House Double Feature II. He holds forth at www.wileng3.com.

3 Comments »

  1. And the main character is named Don Draper? Should we be analyzing Matthew Weiner’s childhood movie watching to see if he saw ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, and whether or not the name has added significance … Don is a “lost” character … etc.

    Comment by Rich Horton - March 29, 2016 11:13 am

  2. My kids love this movie. I think it’s all right for its time. To me, the high-tech aliens (from another solar system???) disrupt things a bit, as they seem out of place in a semi-realistic survival story. It would have been better (and truer to Defoe) to attempt something primitive and indigenous. It’s got some cool matte paintings, though.

    Comment by Raphael - March 29, 2016 12:34 pm

  3. I caught this movie (the first time) on TV back in 1984 or so. I remember being quite impressed.

    Caught it again in the late 90s and recalled that it held up well. I think Lengeman is being a bit harsh on it, to tell you the truth.

    I also seem to remember that early on, when water is a big problem for the MC, he’s watching an emergency survival film about finding water and the guy narrating the film has a glass of water on his desk that he keeps drinking out of and the MC just wants to kill him!

    All that said, a THE MARTIAN/ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS double feature has to happen somewhere!

    Comment by Adrian Simmons - March 30, 2016 11:19 am


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