Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Inspired by the US space program, Robinson Crusoe on Mars looks at a potential manned trip to the red planet.

Set in a near future where space travel to Mars is a reality, the crew of a probe ship crash land on the red planet, and must use their wits to survive. This Paramount Picture takes on a new enthusiasm for space flight as it adapts a century old tale.

First Impressions

The best thing about this trailer is the badge that is presented at the beginning and the end stating “This film is scientifically authentic. It is only one step ahead of present reality!” The audience is then presented with the story of man marooned on a space flight to Mars, where he can breath without a helmet, meets his man “Friday,” and the spaceships from The War of the Worlds come back to attack him. Obviously this is a take on the Daniel Defoe novel “Robinson Crusoe,” but with a sci-fi twist to it.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

The Fiction of The Film

Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a spaced up version of the Daniel Defoe classic. On a flyby of the red planet, Mars Gravity Probe 1 (MGP-1) nearly misses a meteor. Using up their remaining fuel, the crew which consists of two Air Force pilots Colonel Dan McReady (Adam West) and Commander Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee), along with Mona their pet monkey, are forced to eject, crash landing on the planet. The film then follows Draper’s quest to find shelter, water, and food.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Robinson Crusoe on Mars title card.

Draper freezes the first night on the planet, even though fireballs can be seen around him. He realizes that certain martian rocks are flammable and uses them to start a fire in a small cave he discovered. He can also breathe limited amounts of martian air, but his oxygen canisters only have about 50 hours of life left in them.

After he sets up his home base, he decides to head out searching for Mac. He discovers the other MGP pod smashed up, with Mac already dead inside. Dejected, he gathers some supplies from the wreck and also discovers Mona, who is alive. They head back to Draper’s shelter to make the best of the remaining time he has. He soon runs out of oxygen and passes out. But falling near some of the flammable rocks, he realizes that they produce small amounts of oxygen allowing him to continue to breathe.

MGP-1 is still in orbit, but lacks the power to land or radio home. One day, Draper realizes that Mona is refusing to drink water. Realizing the monkey must have found a water source, he feeds her extra salt in hopes that she leads him to the source. Having found a solid source of water, which also grow a strange meaty-plant, Draper begins to figure out long-term survival goals. After about four months he starts to have hallucinations of a silent and menacing Mac visiting him. On a walk after one of these episodes he discovers a humanoid skeleton, wearing a black bracelet, crushed under a strange black rock. Discovering he’s not alone, he quickly erases all traces of his existence, including the self-destruction of MGP-1.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Colonel Dan McReady watches as a meteor gets closer and closer.

On an excursion Draper sees several spaceships land. He heads to the site, where other ships bombard the ground. Using a video camera, he records the events while hiding behind some rocks. He is startled by a humanoid (Victor Lundin) wearing a similar black bracelet. The strange humanoid follows Draper home. He begins calling him “Friday” after the story by Daniel Defoe. Realizing that Friday is a slave, Draper attempts to hide him from the returning aliens.

The two set out to hide from the aliens, making their way underground, and into the canals of Mars. They end up in one of the polar regions, freezing and running out of Friday’s special oxygen pills. After being trapped in an avalanche, they hear a spaceship fly over. Fearing the worst, Draper prepares to be killed. But his radio receives a message from another survey team from Earth looking for him. They are both saved!

A guy can lick the problems of heat, water, shelter, food. I know. I’ve done it. And here’s the hairiest problem of all…isolation, being alone.” – Commander Christopher Draper

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Some of the fantastic landscapes filmed at Death Valley.

History in the Making

The end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s were a time of great discovery in the advent of human spaceflight. In America, NASA was working with the Mercury program, training astronauts to be the first humans to orbit the Earth. While they were not the first humans in orbit, the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gargarin beat Alan Shepard by approximately 21 days, the Mercury 7 astronauts paved the way for future programs such as Gemini and Apollo.

While the quest for a manned probe to Mars was never part of any of these early space programs, Hollywood was fueled by the space-race fever that gripped the nation. As the trailer for Robinson Crusoe on Mars stated, “This film is scientifically authentic. It is only one step ahead of present reality!” That’s true to an extent. As America was struggling on getting into orbit, or getting to the moon, this film took a more realistic approach to the manned exploration of Mars. Draper and McReady’s spacesuits looked as if they were part of the Nasa program, being modeled after those in the Mercury and Gemini programs. The use of bursts of gases to change the attitude of the ship, plus the instrumentation on board the ship showed that Hollywood had come a long way from the casual rocketry depicted in Rocketship X-M or Destination Moon.

Unfortunately, that’s about where the scientific accuracy ends. This film being more of an adventure story based on the 18th Century novel by English writer Daniel Defoe, Robinson Cruse on Mars takes many liberties with the red planet. In truth, films depicting Mars are more often than not dealing with the myths and stories of Mars, rather than actual factual evidence. It’s obviously much more fun to talk of spaceships, and aliens, rather than dusty, voids without water (though, films like that can be fun too!)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Mona the Monkey is not happy about the crash landing.


Robinson Crusoe on Mars helped expand the potential of the sci-fi genre. While sci-fi films had been adapting sci-fi literature for some time, the mashup – or use of non-genre material adapted into science-fiction – was relatively new. The best example came 8 years prior with Forbidden Planet, which was version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Taking the story of a castaway stranded on a tropical island, and converting it into a science-fiction story with all the tropes and trappings that the genre comes with is an inspired use of the source material. It’s a quick creation, having the story plotted out already, as well as bringing a classic story to a new audience.

And unlike adaptations of existing sci-fi stories, the possibilities for new tales are much greater. Science fiction films (and television) would sometimes change the setting of the adaptation, such as The War of the Worlds being set in modern day (1953) California, rather than 19th Century London. But mostly these adaptations (at least the ones that have been made prior to 1964) stuck to the original source material, as most of Jules Verne’s or H.G. Wells’ work was set in 19th Century. Future genre mashups included much more Shakespeare in Space (including episodes of the original Star Trek televisions series), Sherlock Holmes in Space (adapted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series), Treasure Island in Space (Disney’s Treasure Planet), or even Dracula in Space (numerous films including 1965s Planet of the Vampires, and 1985s Lifeforce). And then there’s Alan Moore’s comic story The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, also adapted into film in 2003, that imagines all these literary characters existing in the same universe as a prototypical super-hero squad.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Commander Christopher Draper is in luck. He’s found ample water on Mars!

Robinson Crusoe on Mars also makes extensive use of filming locations, in conjunction with special effects and matte paintings, to portray the surface of the red planet. Using real-world locations, rather than sets and soundstages adds to the production value and believability of films of this era. Filmed in Death Valley, in and around Zabriskie Point, the rocky, desert terrain makes a perfect stand-in for Mars, even if the filmmakers decided not to tint the film red – as they had done in Rocketship X-M. Death Valley, the Mojave desert, Vasquez Rocks – all have become repetitive filming locations for movies and television series needing strange alien planets. But even beyond that, other films would use futuristic architecture to portray a near or alternate future (such as Conquest for the Planet of the Apes (1972) filming in the then-modern Century City).

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

One of the alien spacecraft that brings slaves to mine Mars.

Societal Commentary

The thing that makes good science-fiction great, is the inclusion of the human condition. Films where people are confronted with new dilemmas and their endurance of the situation creates the drama. Or how society advances through adversity by technology, invasion or even, self-harm. These elements help the audience process changes in their own life and their own society, acting as a mirror. Robinson Crusoe on Mars asks a great question that it then goes on to answer: How would man survive alone on a strange planet?

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs the most basic need for human survival is the physiological needs of food, water, warmth and rest. The film spends much of the first hour addressing Draper’s quest for these needs. First he must discover a way to stay warm. The “fire rocks” and the discovery of a cave satisfy this need. His next need is to prolong his oxygen supply, which the “fire rocks” serve as well. Later he discovers the oxygen pellets that the aliens provide to their slaves, which is how Friday can survive on the low-air planet. Next up is Draper’s quest for water, which he uses Mona to assist him with. That also leads him to the “water sausages” which provide additional food (supplementing his squeeze tubes of paste) as well as casings that he uses to weave blankets and clothes.

While modern audiences may marvel at Tom Hanks creating fire in Castaway, Draper’s plight is no less compelling. Especially since he also needs to deal with the issue of breathing. The problems faced by this astronaut are an interesting preview of similar issues faced by the crew of Apollo 13 when their service module malfunctioned on the way to the moon. They of course were limited by the objects on board with them. Draper had the ability to wander the (fictitious) surface of the planet for his needs.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Draper and his man “Friday” get to know each other.

The Science in The Fiction

As mentioned at the top of this article, the initial look of the MGP-1 and their spacesuits seems much more in line with the realities of space flight than with previous films. That’s understandable, since up until this point in history, no human had ever attempted to go to outer space. It was only science-fiction. Now, it was becoming science-fact! Unfortunately as soon as Commander Draper gets to Mars, that’s where the science ends.

Firstly, the MGP-1 runs out of fuel as it approaches Mars. Granted it has to do some tricky maneuvers to avoid a passing meteorite, but this just seems like horrible planning on the part of NASA. It’s never really addressed but were they thinking that the ship would refuel at the planet? So many questions to be had about this initial gaff. Then, keeping in mind that Mars’ atmosphere is about 95% carbon-dioxide (that’s what we exhale, by the way), Draper finds he can lift up his helmet and breathe a little worse than he can when using his suit respirator. He states that the atmosphere is thin, but breathable. To top that off Mona doesn’t seem to need additional oxygen, or oxygen pills to survive. And then, as if that gaff weren’t egregious enough, Draper takes oxygen straight out of the tank, as if it were a water bottle. Usually these tanks are pressurized in some fashion, so this would probably rupture his lungs without using some sort of regulator.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

The gaseous, flammable, yet mildly hospitable planet called Mars.

Not to seem overly harsh on the lack of science in the film, since it’s mostly an adventure tale, but certain aspects of Draper’s survival and his life on Mars seem to stick out like a sore thumb. Most of the story flows well, and the tension surrounding how he will survive on the planet is interesting. There are just some things, that when viewed from a modern perspective, seem really odd, and very wrong!

The Final Frontier

While the first two-thirds of the film seems to flow well, the latter portion gets a little repetitive. Once the alien ships show up, there are only about two effects shots that are used. One close-up of a ship appearing and firing on the planet, and a shot with either three or four ships zipping in and out of frame. These are shown a lot! It slows the film down and gets quite boring with the repetition of these shots. Additionally the ships used are the same models from The War of The Worlds (which was also directed by Byron Haskin), so that too becomes distracting. But hey, those ships were from Mars supposedly, so maybe both films exist in the same universe!

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Luckily Draper and Friday are rescued by another probe at just the right time!

With only three actors in the film, Paul Mantee gets the majority of screen time as Commander Draper. But in the small role as the Captain of MGP-1 is Adam West who will either be known to viewers as Batman from the 1966 TV series of the same name, or the voice of the Mayor from Family Guy. It’s actually pretty cool to see him in a pre-Batman role.

While the accuracy of a trip to Mars may not be the strong suit here, Robinson Crusoe on Mars presents an exciting adventure story that proves sci-fi films can come from any source.

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