Sunday 7 August 2011

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

It's got an awful title but ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS is actually a quality bit of science-fiction: it has some neat special effects, an intriguing premise and a humanitarian message.  Add the fact that it is also a great 'boy's own' adventure story, a la Jules Verne, and you have to wonder why it isn't better known.

Directed by Byron Haskin in 1964, the film introduces us to two astronauts (and their pet monkey) who have been conducting research in deep space and are about to make the long journey back to Earth.  Taking evasive action to avoid a passing meteorite, their craft enters Mars orbit and lacking sufficient fuel to pull out they abandon ship in separate escape pods.  From this point we follow Cmdr Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) as he first tries to survive, then locate his colleague Col Dan McReady (TV Batman Adam West).

Paul Mantee as Cmdr Draper

Adam West as Col Dan McReady
I love a bit of survivalism so I really enjoyed the first half of the movie, with Draper encountering and solving a myriad of problems in order to stay alive.  Now science isn't my strong point and I'm sure a lot of Draper's solutions are fanciful but they at least made sense and were hard-fought victories.  It doesn't do to put your hero into a tight spot and then make it easy for him to thrive so I enjoyed seeing Draper struggle, come to terms with his environment, adapt himself and then exist in relative comfort.  He has luck too in that he finds the ship's monkey who inadvertently leads him to a solution to one of his most pressing problems.

The title being what it is, naturally enough Man Friday turns up eventually; in this case he is an escaped slave of an unseen power.  I say unseen, although we do see their spacecraft hovering above the planet as it hunts him down.  It isn't really explained why they're hunting him down but it does allow the plot to move on - literally, as the spaceships' firing means Draper and Friday have to find somewhere else to live.

On location in Death Valley...
A combination of the unearthly landscape of California's Death Valley and some good process work means that Mars really comes alive.  There are also some great cavernous sets, in the style of Henry Levin's JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH (1959): coloured rocks and water rushing through channels - they're great.

...and in the studio, plus process / matte work
Haskin is an interesting character - a true industry professional.  I think it's probably fair to say he was a technician more than a director: apparently he started out as a cinematographer before working on special effects and helping to develop the technology for sound films.  I get the impression that effects was his great passion though, as most of his best remembered work is in the sci-fi genre.  He also directed the original film version of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), CONQUEST OF SPACE (1955) and FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON (1958).

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