Thursday, March 21, 2013

Robinson Crusoe On Mars

An astronaut crash lands on Mars, and must learn to survive on its inhospitable surface with only a monkey for company. And then the aliens arrive...

It sounds like pulp hokum, but in fact it's much more interesting, a serious attempt to depict actual space travel, and actual conditions on the Red Planet. There are no canals or ancient civilisations, no mighty minds bent on conquering Earth or kidnapping Santa Claus, no rock snakes. Instead, as in George Pal's earlier Conquest of Space, Mars is a bleak desert world, lacking almost all the resources required for human survival. There are aliens, yes, but like the astronaut they are visitors.

But while Conquest of Space dates from the dawn in space travel, in 1955, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was disadvantaged by being made in 1964. American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts were preparing to go to the moon; within a year Mariner 4 would beam back pictures of the Martian surface, bleak and cratered and utterly lifeless, with an atmosphere thinner than previously suspected. All science fiction dates, but Robinson Crusoe on Mars was very swiftly overtaken by reality, and has dwindled in the rearview mirror of history into little more than a cult curiosity.

That's a shame, because there's an awful lot to like. The story of survival, adapted with full acknowledgement from Defoe's original by screenwriter Ib Melchior, is strong and compelling.  Much of it was filmed in Death Valley; with red skies matted in, the landscapes in which astronaut Commander 'Kit' Draper (Paul Manatee) struggles to survive are vastly bleak and bear more than a glancing resemblance to real Martian scenes imaged by probes and rovers. And Manatee gives a fine performance of a genuine hero, given to moments of despair and self-doubt, but resourceful, thoughtful and likeable, determined to make a go of it even though there appears to be no hope of rescue.

Draper and Dan McReady (Adam West) are surveying Mars from orbit when their spacecraft is fatally damaged by an encounter with an erratic planetoid. They eject in separate escape capsules and crash-land in a harsh landscape where fireballs blow about like dust devils.  Draper survives, and discovers that although McReady was killed on impact, their pet monkey, Mona, is still alive. Like Crusoe he learns how to live off the land and create a bubble of civilisation in the midst of indifferently hostile nature; like Crusoe, his idyll is interrupted by a violent intrusion, in this case aliens who have come to Mars to mine minerals using slave labour. But while the film's realism is ruptured by the appearance of alien ships equipped with rock-blasting ray guns, it doesn't turn into a pulp shoot-out or a crude assertion of human superiority, but becomes something much more interesting.

One of the slaves (Victor Lundin, in Biblical Egyptian wig, loincloth and sandals) escapes; Draper christens him Friday and removes his shackles; they strike up an alliance that, despite their complete lack of any common language, soon turns into deep friendship, rather than the master-servant relationship of Defoe's original. Draper is very much an American hero, a Navy astronaut who hangs the Stars and Stripes outside the entrance to his cave shelter and plays Yankee Doodle Dandy on a home-made flute, but he doesn't attempt to imprint his own values on Friday, and although he's equipped with a revolver he never resorts to violence, and learns that the key to survival is cooperation and trust. Like the Apollo astronauts, he comes in peace, for all mankind: a useful reminder that not all science fiction stories need to be resolved by gunplay and spectacular explosions, but can aspire to something more adult, more human.


Blogger Mark Cooper said...

I vaguely remember watching this as part of a sci-fi film series shown in the 80's, probably moviedrome. I discovered a lot of cult classics in different genres this way that I wouldn't otherwise have bothered with. It's sad that everyone ends up watching what they think they want now thanks to the closed loop of 1000 channel TV.

March 21, 2013 6:16 pm  
Blogger Lyndon said...

Wow, this was a big favourite of mine when I was growing up, but I don't think I've seen it in nearly 30 years.

Only seems to be available as a US DVD import, unfortunately.

March 21, 2013 9:05 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

, I also remember the long ago before recorders and videos/DVDs/Netflix when you had to wait for something good to turn up - and if you missed it, that was it, gone. But it's nice, now, to be able to revisit those classics.

Lyndon, I watched the Criterion DVD, which is the import you refer to: a lovely restoration with a ton of extras, but if you are in the UK you'll need a multiregion player. If you poke around YouTube, you might find something interesting...

March 22, 2013 8:14 am  

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