It's a story at least as old as the Bible. A man or a group of people is lost in the wilderness and has to figure out how to survive. Moses, of course, had divine assistance in providing for the wandering Israelites, obtaining manna from the heavens and water from a rock.
Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe dates back to the early eighteenth century with its tale of a man fending for himself on a remote island inhabited only by savage cannibals. A century later Johann Wyss would offer up The Swiss Family Robinson, about a family traveling to New Guinea and ending up shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. Even with multiple TV and movie adaptations of both stories, the genre still fascinates, as demonstrated by the Tom Hanks film Cast Away (2000), about a Federal Express executive trapped on another of those conveniently well-stocked, but out of the way desert isles.
For some reason the 1960s was a time when this type of saga was especially popular. The most enduring example is, of course, Gilligan's Island, the legendarily silly sitcom that spawned numerous reunion movies, documentaries, memoirs and even a reality TV series. Disney would do a 1960 adaptation of Swiss Family Robinson with Tommy Kirk and his elders fighting off pirates. What may be most interesting is that the early '60s saw both the Robinson family and Crusoe adventures recast in the future, with those desert islands being transformed into other planets.
First would come a comic book series remembered, perhaps, only by comic aficionados: Space Family Robinson. Then would come the TV series Lost in Space, about a completely different but equally lost Robinson family. The stories were essentially "space opera," with little regard for reality or scientific speculation. As with Gilligan's Island, the emphasis was on entertainment and adventure, not on practical problem solving. It's something of a joke, regarding Gilligan, that the Professor (Russell Johnson) could make a short-wave radio out of coconut shells but couldn't figure out a way to get the castaways home. Neither of the Robinson families managed to match the achievement of their literary forebears, with both the comic and TV runs ending with them still lost among the stars.
The notable exception to this was the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars. If the solutions the film comes up with in terms of air, water, shelter, and food seem like cheats, it helps to remember what our practical knowledge of life in space, and on Mars in particular, was some forty years ago. Looked at now, it's not the solutions that are interesting, but the problems. If manned landings and bases are hoped for on the Moon and Mars in this century, then a study of this film by prospective astronauts seems worthwhile. Could you survive under these circumstances? Could anyone?
The story opens aboard Mars Gravity Probe One. Its two-man crew consists of Col. Dan McReady (a pre-Batman Adam West) and Col. Christopher "Kit" Draper (Paul Mantee). There's also a monkey named Mona. When we see what passes for high-tech equipment, Kit checks the reading on what looks like a spinning odometer with its faceplate removed, and hear the astronauts joking about their fancy space dinners ("I like mine in paste form, you know, in a tube"), it doesn't look very promising.
Then a meteor hits the ship, and Mac and Kit have to eject separately. They plan to meet up on the Martian surface and figure out what to do next. Out of contact with Mac, and with much of his equipment ruined in the crash, Kit is now alone on an alien planet where he needs to find some solutions fast or he will die. What does he need to do first?
Obviously, oxygen is the top priority. If there's not enough to breathe, nothing else matters. Kit discovers there's oxygen in the Martian atmosphere and tests it by lifting his visor. One could quibble about his risk of infection, but if one is doomed to die by asphyxiation, the prospect of possibly contracting Martian influenza might seem an acceptable risk. The air, however, is too thin for him to breathe, and he must rely on his dwindling reserves.
One can imagine a team of scientists examining the film and trying to figure what they should do to avoid the situation. Plant caches of oxygen tanks on the surface? Terraform the planet? Genetically alter astronauts to be able to breathe in the thinner atmosphere? As we drift more into the realm of truly speculative science, the film's solutions may not seem as far fetched, although they rely a bit much on wishful thinking.
Kit stretches his supply through calculation. He can breathe the Martian air and take short "boosters" from the tanks every fifteen minutes or so. He can sleep for an hour before requiring a booster. He sets up an alarm system to rouse him from sleep to take the needed oxygenated breaths, but this is a stopgap, simply staving off the inevitable. So the filmmakers provide the convenient discovery that certain rocks seem to spontaneously combust and, in fact, contain oxygen to feed their flames. In short order he is replenishing his supply from the abundant rock piles.
It serves the requirement of the story, since if Kit chokes to death it's not going to be much of an adventure. However, it raises the interesting question of how to provide for planetary explorers. There are supplies aboard Kit's still-orbiting ship, but his radio controls prove ineffective. The supplies might as well be back on Earth, for all the good they do him.
Let's grant the film its solution and move on to the next necessity. He's found a convenient cave, so shelter isn't a concern at the moment. After oxygen, it's his water supply that is at issue. In a touch of gritty realism, Kit's supplies include educational tapes prepared for the astronauts. He views one about searching for water and is warned against drinking seawater or his own urine, no matter how desperate the situation. The problem in both cases (besides taste or, indeed, disgust) is the salt. Salt goes into the blood stream where it draws out water. So drinking saline solutions would simply exacerbate the problem of dehydration.
Once again the film provides a fanciful and convenient answer. Kit has found Mac's escape pod, but Mac is dead. He buries his comrade but then discovers that Mona the monkey has survived. In a major plus for the film, Mona is not merely a cute pet but proves the key to the water problem. Kit notices that Mona refuses his offers of water, and deduces she has found her own supply. He denies her water for a several days while restricting her movements, then lets her go. He then pursues her to see if she has found a water supply.
Indeed, she has been imbibing from an underground pool. Mona isn't writhing in agony from drinking from it, so he figures what does he have to lose? The more fastidious of us might want to boil it first. Monkey germs aside, there's no telling what microorganisms might exist in the water. The fact that there's plant life in the water becomes another convenient solution (hey, it's edible!) but it does raise the question of what else is there, and what the plants are feeding on.
However we react to the discovery (with willing suspension of disbelief or a rolling of the eyes), it's not the answer that's interesting but the question. Is there a way to prepare oxygen and water for emergencies on the Moon or Mars? Are there natural resources already there that can be utilized? This has to be one of the major factors in planning any long term exploration or settlement of space.
In keeping with the Robinson Crusoe theme, Kit's extended stay has him adapting to his primitive existence. The plants in the waters prove amazingly versatile. "This is manna from heaven," he declares. "You eat it, you weave it, and you wear it." (Kit proves amazingly versatile as well, as weaving was presumably not part of his training. Oddly, there is no scene of him improvising a way to shave or cut his hair, yet he retains his military look throughout.)
There is one more survival issue with which the film has to deal before it gets to the alien space slavers in the final part of the story, and that is Kit's loneliness. Sure, he has tapes and he has the monkey, but nothing like real companionship. One night he makes a stew of the strange Martian plant and it is implied that it has some hallucinogenic chemical. Whether from the plant or oxygen deprivation, Kit imagines that Mac is alive and visiting him in the cave. It is an eerie sequence in that Mac does not react to anything Kit says or does. When Kit awakens and realizes it is a dream, we understand that after months in what amounts to isolation, the strain is taking its toll.
This being Robinson Crusoe on Mars, the solution to this problem is the arrival of Friday (Victor Lundin), a humanoid alien who is not native to Mars, but has been brought there to work by aliens from another system. (The film cleverly avoids focusing on the aliens by simply having scenes of their ships appear in the sky as they attempt to track Friday through his manacles. They dart through the sky in a method suggesting either a limited knowledge of physics by the filmmakers or else an alien science far in advance of our own. Both assumptions are arguably correct.)
Friday's solution to the oxygen problem is the pills he takes that allow him to survive in the thin Martian atmosphere. He offers to share them with Kit but the astronaut, heretofore showing no reticence in breathing Martian air, drinking Martian water, or eating Martian plant life, suddenly decides to play it safe and declines. Later, when Kit is nearly buried alive, Friday rescues him and makes him take a pill. By film's end, Kit becomes one of the few '60s castaways to make it home when an Earth ship arrives to rescue him (and, presumably, Friday).
It's no surprise that Robinson Crusoe on Mars is as thoughtful as it is about the difficulties in surviving on an alien world. Director Byron Haskin was no novice to the world of SF, having directed such movies as The War of the Worlds and The Conquest of Space for producer George Pal, and then working on the early '60s TV series The Outer Limits. Ib Melchior, who originated the script, co-wrote and directed the quirky 1964 feature The Time Travelers, and has other SF credits to his credit, including the original story for the '70s cult classic Death Race 2000. It was Melchior who thought of using Death Valley as the location for the film, being inspired to write the film after a visit there.
Ultimately this movie might be classified as an intelligent but minor effort. It simply isn't equal to the pantheon of great SF films of the era, like Forbidden Planet or The Day the Earth Stood Still, that were about big ideas and which challenged the imagination. In a way, that's its strength. Kenneth von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock, in their useful (and, alas, out-of-print) Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films (Arlington House, 1982), compare the film to the sorts of stories that John Campbell, Jr. was running in Astounding. It posits a realistic problem that can be solved through scientifically trained minds applying "reason, knowledge, determination, and a little luck." As such it remains fascinating viewing because of the issues it raises about the potential problems for space explorers in the twenty-first century and beyond.