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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

This was one of the two big sci-fi films of 1964. The other one, First Men on the Moon was a big-budget production of an old classic. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (RCoM) was an A-grade modern story. Actually, RCoM was a modernized retelling of Daniel Defoe's 18th century novel. John Higgins and Ib Melchior (the screenwriter of Angry Red Planet and Journey to the Seventh Planet, among others). Director Bryon Haskins was no stranger to sci-fi either. He directed War of the Worlds ('53) and Conquest of Space ('55) among others. The talent of the team ensure that the story rises above budgetary limitations.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Mars Gravity Probe One, manned by Colonel McReady and Commander Kit Draper, use too much fuel dodging the ubiquitous meteor. They each eject in little Mercury-like escape pods, to land on Mars. Kit survives and looks for McReady. He finds Mac's pod, but he's dead. The monkey Mona, survived. Kit sets up camp in a cave. He finds rocks that burn, later discovering that they give off oxygen. Mona discovers pools of water in a cave. The cave pools also have edible plants. The isolation takes its toll, nonetheless. Kit sees a saucer land. Alien swan-ships (ala War of the Worlds) blast the surface so slave laborers can mine minerals. One slave escapes. He and Kit flee to the cave. The aliens leave. Kit names the slave Friday, teaching him english and sharing the chores. A meteor hits, causing a 'rain' of black ash. Friday saves Kit from being smothered. When the aliens return, (looking for Friday?) Kit and Friday flee deeper into the caves. These become vast linear caverns. Lacking water, they trudge towards the polar ice cap. Exhausted and parched, they make it. They press on (inexplicably) to the snowy ice cap where they make an igloo shelter under a rocky overhang. Another meteor hits, the fireball of which melts their igloo. Kit picks up a radar blip, but it's not the returning aliens, it is an earth rescue mission. Happy Ending.

Why is this movie fun?
The whole survival on a harsh planet story is fascinating and well told. The rescue and flight from alien oppressors

Cold War Angle
The usual Cold War themes are missing in RCoM.

Defoe's Enduring Act 2 -- Daniel Defoe's original novel had more subplots than just one man's resourcefulness to survive on a deserted island, and adopting a native nicknamed "Friday." The first part saw Crusoe taken captive by pirates and escaping, then becoming a plantation owner. The last part sees Crusoe return to Europe. His inheritance is gone, but sells his Brazilian plantation and retires wealthy. It is Defoe's 2nd Act, with Xtream DIY, that has captured imaginations for almost 300 years. Johann Wysse adapted the idea for his Swiss Family Robinson in 1812. Jules Verne adapted the idea in 1900. In the 60s, two famous TV series picked up the trope. Lost in Space ('65) set the story in space. Gilligan's Island ('64) parodied the trope. More recently, there was Castaway in which Tom Hanks plays a 1990s Crusoe. Kit Draper as the space-age's Crusoe has had a lasting appeal. His quest for oxygen, then shelter, water and food, still have a realistic enough feel to intrigue 21st century audiences.

Twilight of the God (Mars) -- RCoM was the last sci-fi movie about the Red Planet from its Age of Ignorance (innocence). From Aleta ('24) to Rocketship XM ('50) and Flight to Mars ('51), through Angry Red Planet ('60), there was always the assumption that Mars was habitable, even if harsh. Space probes, such as Mariner 9, (November '64) would dispel the old romantic notions that Mars was an almost-habitable place for humans.

God Takes a Bow -- While mention of God or quoting a scripture verse now and then was not unusual in the 50s, it was rare in 60s sci-fi. So, it stood out more, when Mantee reads (as voice-over) the whole 23rd Pslam ("the Lord is my shepherd...") Then there is the theological discussion between Kit and Friday at the water hole. Kit tries to explain God to Friday in pidgin english. "Supreme being. Father of the universe. BIG father." Friday knows this Big Father already, but by another name. While this segment might seem like a non-sequetur, it does follow Defoe's novel. Crusoe comes to believe in God while he's marooned. He shares the gospel with Friday. Interestingly, Higgins and Melchior kept this element.

Swan Sightings -- Of some interest to 50s sci-fi fans is the reappearance of the graceful droop-winged ships that starred in George Pal's 1953 War of the Worlds. Those ships are sometimes referred to as the "swan ships". In RCoM, they lack the long-necked heat rays. The ray sound effect is the same, though. Reusing the WotW models might have been an economy move, but it added to the fun to see them in action (and much zippier) on Mars.

Techno-canundrum -- What kind of advanced alien civilization, smart enough to build interplanetary ships, still needs old-fashioned manual slave labor to mine their rocks?

Annoying Monkey? -- Mona, "The Wooly Monkey" did serve a wider purpose than being a Disney-esque add-on to keep the younger kids amused. She gave Paul Mantee someone/something to talk to. This script device helped avoid the dreaded voice-over narration, or Mantee's character talking to himself way too much.

Holy Meteors, Batman -- For anyone who was a kid watching TV in the late 60s, the voice of Adam West (as Colonel McReady) is still that of Batman -- even though the TV series was yet 2 years away for West.

Bottom line? RCoM is a great movie that has held up well despite its age. One need not be a sci-fi fan to enjoy the story.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

One of my all-time favorites!