Viking Night: Robinson Crusoe on Mars
By Bruce Hall
August 10, 2016
If you thought Disney’s John Carter of Mars was offbeat, you should try sitting through Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The former was based on old source material that dated to a time before we had any realistic idea what Mars actually looked like. But it was updated for a modern audience in a way that kept the premise from being the weak point. Meanwhile, Robinson Crusoe on Mars IS the old source material. This is a film about an astronaut stranded on Mars by an accident, which might sound a lot like a recent movie involving the star of Good Will Hunting.
There’s not really any comparison, obviously. Poor Robinson endures more shenanigans before the end of the first act than ten Matt Damons, and I don’t remember Matt Damon having a monkey with him, which would have made The Martian ten times more awesome. Matt Damon didn’t think to bring a rope, and a pistol, and a book of matches, which obviously you would need on Mars. And Matt Damon wasn’t travelling with Batman. Looks like you lose, Matt Damon.
Okay, I know that sounds like some sort of Freudian fever dream, so let me start over.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a seldom-discussed 1964 adventure film wherein two astronauts and yes, a monkey, are stranded on Mars after a near collision in space. Astronaut Christopher Draper (Paul Mantee) and his partner Dan McReady (Adam West) are separated. Draper is able to cobble together enough supplies from his downed ship to set up camp, and heads out to find McReady - only to find that he’s perished. You’ll be glad to know Mona the monkey survives, and joins Team Draper back at base camp.
It’s not clear why there’s a monkey on this mission, and there’s even casual talk of jettisoning the animal into space before the accident. But Mona has her own cute little monkey space suit, and she does (for those who care - because I know you’re out there - yes, I am aware the actual monkey is a he, and yes, I am also aware of how sad that is) adorable things like eat all of Draper’s food and make horrible shrieking sounds. The film does not address what I believe would be the inevitable flinging of poo.
I know this sounds like just the kind of ridiculous movie they used to make back in the days when it was all about giant spiders and fleshy headed invaders in flying saucers. I won’t lie - there’s not a lick of actual science anywhere in this film, but Crusoe nonetheless takes itself relatively seriously. This actually feels like a semi-serious attempt to guess what it might take for an astronaut to survive being stranded on Mars – at a time when nobody really knew much about any of those things. The first half of the movie is essentially The Martian, plus one monkey and minus all the science-y stuff.
Draper ingeniously finds ways to keep himself and Mona alive. Using the wreckage of his ship, he finds ways to generate oxygen, collect water, and harvest food – just like Matt Damon did. Colonel Draper again takes it one step further, building himself a bagpipe and learning to weave clothing out of the local fauna. He even finds time to shave, keep his hair neatly trimmed and keep himself super ripped. It really is a lot of fun watching him gather intel and learn about his surroundings. And it turns out not to be so silly after all, watching him develop an odd but profitable partnership with Mona, who proves pretty good at foraging.