Defoe’s classic translates surprisingly well to outer space in this 1960s gem
While researching Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, I came across an article attacking a variety of enjoyable Crusoe characterizations and claiming bitterly that one group has veered to the “comic-parodic” like Gilligan’s Island, while the other has maintained its “serious-academic” course.1 The author calls spin-offs of the classic “travesties,” particularly Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and it is here that his criticism takes a rather misguided turn. He describes the 1964 film as one starring “Dick van Dyke as an astronaut stranded on Mars, where he experiences numerous funny misadventures,” and, unfortunately, this is factually incorrect. Dick van Dyke starred in a similar film, Lt. Robin Crusoe (1966), which took place on an Earth-bound island; however, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is actually a thoughtful updating of Defoe’s original, transplanting our hero’s 18th century wanderlust efficiently to American dreams of space travel in the 1960s.
The sad truth is that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is, for a modern audience, not a terribly interesting novel. There are a couple of now standard-fare adventures, the requisite shipwreck, and the arrival of Friday, but for the most part, not much happens over the course of many years and many pages. The retellings, from television’s Lost in Space and the reality show Survivor to the critically acclaimed Tom Hanks film Cast Away (2000) are much more captivating, as is Robinson Crusoe on Mars. This underrated film stars Paul Mantee as Christopher “Kit” Draper, an American Navy astronaut who becomes stranded on Mars for an extended period of time.2 He is our modern Robinson Crusoe. There is no rollicking slapstick, and there are no funny misadventures. The update, written by Ib Melchoir and John C. Higgins and directed by Byron Haskin, moves at a reasonably brisk pace, and Mantee acquits himself nicely in a role that predates Tom Hanks’ stranded Federal Express worker. For the record, Paramount Pictures produced this minor science fiction classic, not Disney. There is a monkey (named Mona), but even it is not used for great comic effect. Monkeys were used by NASA in space flight, after all, and so it even adds to the film’s attempted verisimilitude.
Just as Defoe’s Crusoe serves as a mirror for 17th and 18th century British politics, so this stranded American astronaut reflects contemporary American politics. At the time of this film’s release in 1964, the Cuban Missile Crisis had been narrowly averted, the United States was entering the initial stages of the Vietnam War, President Kennedy had been publicly assassinated, and civil rights and segregation issues were a focal point for internal dissention. The Berlin Wall had been constructed, the Iron Curtain had been drawn, and the Cold War was icily escalating. In the midst of this nation-and-worldwide turmoil, we were also looking hopefully – and warily – towards outer space, an area that had already been “invaded” by the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957. The space race was on, both in reality and in our imaginations. The popular image of President John F. Kennedy was perhaps as vital to this film as that of King William was for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The Cuban Missile Crisis was, in its own way, a 20th-century version of a Glorious Revolution, and Kennedy, the first Catholic elected to the presidency, stood as a new figure of tolerance and hope. A former Navy officer himself, he ushered in a desire to look towards the stars:
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of preeminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.” (Fromhttp://www.jfklibrary.org/jfkquote.htm, a site sponsored by the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library. Original quotation from address at Rice University in Houston, Texas, September 12, 1962.)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars encourages the viewer to face issues that are as relevant today as they were in the 1960s: propaganda, war, and discrimination. Transforming the hero into a Navy astronaut is a natural updating, allowing the figure to remain focused on exploration and adventure. In this film, our world has long been colonized, and other planets are clearly the next frontier. As a representative of the armed forces, Draper would appear to embody an even more clearly defined national agenda than Defoe’s Crusoe. Draper’s nickname, Kit, suggests a programmed hero who has been given the resources to succeed, but who will still have to figure out exactly how to assemble them to complete himself. To that end, he looks the part of the American hero throughout the film. He is shown shaving while stranded, and his hair never grows beyond its acceptable military length.. He is tall, dark, and ruggedly handsome, clearly equipped to handle the physical demands of his duties. He finds a cave and transforms it into a quasi-base camp marked by an American flag at the entrance — five years before Neil Armstrong would plant a flag after taking his giant leap for mankind.
He quickly learns that following the standard rules of his survival training is not sufficient, however. He must become, like Crusoe, a resourceful hero who can transform the outside, dangerous world as well. He records his progress and thoughts in a taped journal, fully cognizant that his recorded experiences will be reviewed by others at a later date: “I feel a little bit like Columbus — set down in a strange, new land full of new wonders, new discoveries. It’s a challenge all right, challenge to my training. Sometimes challenges can get mighty big. But I’m gonna stay alive, believe me. That’s for the morale officer.” He pinpoints his two main problems, a dwindling supply of air and water, and works to solve those issues as best he can. He discovers that his video tape survival manual is of little use as the professor of “Lesson Six: Finding Water,” explains, “Since no one has landed on another planet yet, we will have to proceed with hypothetical knowledge from our studies here on Earth.” The professor offers a series of unusable suggestions, and Draper realizes that he will have to make his own discoveries. He learns how to extract breathable air from yellow rocks unique to this Mars, and he follows the monkey to locate potable water and another food source. He maintains fire for warmth and cooking, constructs an alarm clock, and demonstrates an appreciation for music, whistling often and creating a flute and bagpipes. Of note, he only plays two songs, and they would at first seem to be diametrically opposed: “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Dixie.” Given the especially tense race relations of the sixties, this musical selection reveals a character who has left a country that survived both revolution and civil war in centuries past. The subtext is that we will survive the current conflicts as well.
For a soldier (of sorts), Draper is particularly non-violent and remarkably introspective. Like Crusoe he has a gun — and not a space-age ray gun as in the film poster, but merely a simple pistol — which he draws on two occasions but, unlike Crusoe, does not fire. No doubt, a futuristic laser gun could have been used as a more appropriate prop, so the question arises: Why would this anachronistic weapon have been used instead? The weapon certainly gets the viewer’s attention, as it appears so out of place. When we look at this pistol, however, our first thought is that it will be of no significant value in this otherworld, and perhaps that is the point. The weapons we are using in foreign struggles and domestic race wars of the sixties signify impotence — we are fighting a losing battle through violent warfare. Draper draws his gun the first time to investigate a noise revealed to be only the wind; the second time, he sees only the tail of the monkey, Mona, who has crash-landed in a separate pod, and he reacts reflexively. He quickly puts the gun away and runs to the apprehensive monkey, dressed in its own little — notably red — astronaut uniform. His first words to Mona subtly reflect the fears and hopes of the time: “Come on now, let’s not start a war.” They do not speak the same language (which Draper will lament later, stating, “If you just had four words, just four that you understood — yes, no, come, go — that’s all, we could talk to each other.”), but they are both trapped on the same planet, and they will depend on each other to survive.
The need for conversation and human companionship remains as much a centerpiece of Robinson Crusoe on Mars as it is in Defoe’s tale. Draper has been trained to overcome a multitude of odds, and he notes that he even survived training for two months in isolation, but he cannot accept that he might be alone forever. Draper records his insights, knowing, like Crusoe, that his experiences will be used to teach others: “All right, here’s another note for you boys in Survival, for you geniuses in Human Factors: A guy can lick the problems of heat, water, shelter, food — I know, I’ve done it. But here’s the hairiest problem of all: Isolation, being alone. Boy, here’s where he’ll crack; here’s where he’ll go under.”
Perhaps even more than in Defoe’s time, distinguishing friend from foe was considered a necessary if futile effort in the fifties and sixties. McCarthyism showed a very dark side of us, a side that would not trust based upon appearance nor assumed friendship (famously depicted in the 1956 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers). As time wears on, Draper becomes increasingly paranoid and removes all trace of his — and America’s — presence until he spies spacecraft in the distance. Hoping that they are rescue ships, he rushes out to them, only to discover that they are an alien race using slaves to mine for ore. The faces of these aliens are not shown, and their ships hover above shooting lasers like so many whip lashings upon the slaves, including Friday. In a change from the original tale, Friday is not really rescued by Draper; rather, he makes his escape concomitantly with Draper. This change is significant as it establishes from the outset that Friday can take care of himself.
The wariness with which Draper and Mona welcome Friday reflects the caution, mistrust, and xenophobia that many would have felt during the era, and these feelings give the film additional significance when viewed today. Friday looks human, but he does not talk at first. Draper is perplexed that he does not need to inhale from any type of oxygen tank, and he later learns that Friday takes small red pills that allow him to do without. When Mona reacts violently upon seeing him, Draper reprimands, “Mona, shut up. First visitor we’ve ever had, and you act like a gorilla.” The possible wordplay of gorilla/guerilla is underscored by Draper’s own concerns: “Where do you come from and how are you like us? And how are you different?” Draper has brought a stranger onto his home base, and for all he knows, he could be an enemy. At a time when we were examining our own race relations so closely, discovering our similarities and protecting ourselves against differences was a topical, relatable theme — and it is a theme that has increased relevance in our own world of quick-changing political alliances. It is not surprising that Draper initially warns Friday, “Me, I’m the boss and remember that. You get out of line just one iota, and I’ll bring your enemies right back into this cave.” As the old saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The first and only direct reference to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe arises as Draper warms up to the as-yet-unnamed Friday, and determines, “Come on, Joe, or whatever your name is. Friday, that’s it, with apologies to Robinson Crusoe.” He is delighted to discover that Friday is not mute, and he decides to teach him English. It is clear, however, that Friday has his own distinct language, and he tries to teach Draper as well, if a bit less forcefully. Their relationship, in fact, subverts the master/slave theme of Defoe’s tale and focuses instead on their growing friendship. When a meteor explodes above, covering them in ash, Friday rescues his partner and carries the unconscious Draper to safety. When Draper recovers, he thanks Friday and says something in Friday’s own tongue (and incomprehensible to the audience), seemingly along the lines of “I’m an idiot.” Draper’s willingness to learn at least some of Friday’s language is a compelling shift from the original tale, and allows us an American hero who does not merely shill nationalistic propaganda. Draper truly does not want Friday to become an imitation of himself, and he finally asks Friday, “But don’t just copy me. You tell me something. Tell me what’s inside you. Tell me, ah, for instance, where do you live? What planet? Where’s your home?” The two stare into the sky and point to their own home planets, with Draper finally commenting that he lives “just around the corner.” It is not just the world, but the universe that is becoming smaller.
Another significant reference is made to race relations and the history of slavery in America when Friday and Draper are forced into underground tunnels by the aliens. Friday has been tagged with metal cuffs on both hands that also serve as locators for the aliens. While underground, Draper works to remove these symbols of pain and servitude. Friday draws a picture of the Martian canal system for Draper to show that they can travel a great distance free from view, and Draper declares, “They’ll be our underground highway, our bomb shelter. And somewhere we’ll come out again and make a new home. What’s been done before can be done again.” This overt allusion to the Underground Railroad used by escaped slaves during colonial times suggests that, even in the far future, there will be a need to escape racism, xenophobia, and, in the worst case scenario, slavery.
Among the most analyzed passages of Defoe’s work are those sections that deal with Crusoe’s crusade to convert Friday. Although religious themes could have easily been excised from the film, they are addressed both metaphorically and directly. The planet itself is essentially a desert, and Friday greatly resembles a Philistine slave (in the images presented by Cecil B. Demille at any rate). After being rescued by Friday, Draper recites the Lord’s Prayer as they make their way back to the cave. As the film progresses, the viewer realizes that Friday takes on, whether purposefully or not, a religious significance akin to a Martian Moses who will lead Draper through a desert, a kind of valley of the shadow of death (keeping in mind that the film was shot on location in Death Valley). According to Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. / He makes me lie down in green pastures;/ he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. / He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” In a remarkable inverse of Defoe’s tale, Friday becomes Draper’s shepherd. On their journey through the tunnels, they are forced upward by an unexpected fiery core, and they decide to travel over the desert towards the polar ice cap. Friday determines when they walk and when they rest, and he secretly saves his oxygen pills for Draper, essentially restoring his partner’s soul at the potential loss of his own life. And it is Friday who ultimately leads Draper along the right ethical paths, building friendship and trust in an otherwise hopeless environment. By the film’s conclusion, when oxygen is instantly released from the melting ice cap and a rescue ship suddenly appears, Draper is ready to return not with his man, but rather with his companion, Friday.3
- Cope, Kevin L. “All Aboard the Ark of Possibility; or Robinson Crusoe Returns from Mars as a Small-Footprint, Multi-Channel Interdeterminacy Machine.” Studies in the Novel 30.2 (1998): 150-163. [↩]
- I transcribed subsequent quotations from a videotape of Robinson Crusoe on Mars. [↩]
- The film Total Recall (1990), written by Gary Goldman and Dan O’Bannon, directed by Paul Verhoeven, and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the hero trapped on Mars ends in a strikingly similar manner, with the polar ice cap melting just in time to provide oxygen to the entire planet. [↩]