Robinson in Space

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ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, directed by sci-fi old hand Byron Haskin, is a movie I should really have seen as a kid, but I only just saw it now. Fiona kept insisting that we had watched it already, but that she wanted to see it again, only the second of which was true, apart from the “again” part. I may sometimes entirely forget the details of a film I’ve seen, but I’m generally right about what I’ve seen and what I haven’t.

Fiona likes monkeys. I like them too. Maybe I should say Fiona loves monkeys. So as far as we were concerned, Mona the monkey, billed only as “the woolly monkey” — to protest sensitive young minds to the fact that Mona was played by Barney — a monkey in drag, the obscenity! — was the star of the show.

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Fiona read up on the movie beforehand and was able to point out that when Man Friday is being agonized by his electric slave bangle, Barney/Mona started spontaneously copying actor Victor Lundin’s writhings.

Barney being so charismatic and so adorable in his spacesuit is kind of unfair to Paul Mantee, who holds the film together with a really committed and credible performance. I don’t really believe Mantee knew what oxygen starvation is like, necessarily, but I certainly believe he chose a way to play it which is compelling and disturbing. I do wish Haskin hadn’t introduced him hanging upside down, pretending it’s zero gravity: Mantee’s forehead veins look fit to burst. Mantee being main character, he ought to have been right-side-up, with co-star Adam West inverted. After all, West was good at defying gravity, look at all those wall-climbing scenes in Batman.

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Some really attractive Mars-scapes seal the deal. This is probably Ib Melchior’s finest hour, certainly finer than REPTILICUS! or JOURNEY TO THE SEVENTH PLANET. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES looks gorgeous and has some interesting sci-fi ideas to boot, but I always struggled with the boring characters and lack of humanity. The leads are so bland Mario Bava was able to replace one of them halfway through filming and hardly anyone notices (thanks in part to the dubbing, I guess). But I must confess I have yet to watch ANGRY RED PLANET, which always fascinated me when I saw stills of it. Old Ib, who passed away this March, had what you would call an interesting career — no masterpieces, but working in a genre if not despised then at least loftily patronised, he contributed to a bunch of amusing or fun movies and made them better than they might have been.

Fiona would also like you to know that co-star Lundin’s bizarre song, which he would perform at conventions, is available to enjoy on YouTube here. Few songs can be said to evoke so many emotions at once, none of which really belong together.

Movie is available with a really nice package of extras (including the song) from Criterion.

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15 Responses to “Robinson in Space”

  1. It’s tragic that you didn’t see THE ANGRY RED PLANET when you were 9 or ten. I did see it, in a proper theater on its first release, and it weirded me out for months afterwords. Everything that has no prayer of working for the modern adult viewer worked like gangbusters then. It actually had the effect, unapproached by any film until ALIEN, of making you feel as though you really were on an alien world. The flick is terrible in just about every way of course, but oddly, as a kid I was unaware of its fungal pace. It’s certainly more enjoyable than JOURNEY TO THE 7TH PLANET or REPTILICUS, if nowhere near the class act that ROBINSON is.

  2. You just make me more excited to see it! I hope I can recapture that state of infantile weirded-outness.

  3. “I must confess I have yet to watch ANGRY RED PLANET”
    Oh dear me. You might be best advised to curtail the Confessions; there is a danger of intense credibility loss. What *did* you watch when you were a kid, while I was down South hoarding copies of FM via the only newsagents in town who stocked them, and when I howled at the moon to see Tarantula! until Dad pointed to the devilish ‘X’ on the poster, or staring at the lobby cards for First Man into Space (double bill with High School Confidential!, but denied admittance to either for the same damn reason) or pining to see Demons of the Swamp (aka Attack of the Giant Leeches, with the ill-fated Yvette Vickers), or when successfully lobbying Dad to take me to ‘A’ rated movies (Earth vs The Spider! The Brain Eaters! Escapement (aka The Electronic Monster)! The Lost Missile! The Mole People! The Amazing Colossal Man!

    What jearp2013 just said; it’s the wide-eyed, all-accepting, wildly – chaotically – imaginative mental processes of childhood that are needed to inhabit these glorious movies. You and I, David Cairns, should have been childhood friends bunking off school and sneaking into a double-bill of Day the World Ended (also ‘X’ but “yes, of course I’m 16” at the box office) and Terror in the Haunted House but dammit, the cogs and whirrings of Time denied it, much like Forrester and Helen Loomis in the Bradbury story (viz. ‘The Swan’ in Dandelion Wine).
    jearp has it absolutely right. Nailed it.

    Robinson on Mars (I see what you did there, your tribute to Keiller, heh heh) is one of my favorite movies, *ever*, on a big screen, a completely unexpected ecstatic experience for a 14 year old (me) back when I’d buy a ticket and sit myself down in one of the many cinemas in town, illicit cigarettes in hand, not worrying about what I was going to see, thrilled to see ANY movie, and occasionally being – as with RCOM – thrilled beyond measure. That experience has never left me this past half-century, and Criterion’s excellent DVD sits here on the shelf next to – surprise surprise – The Criminal, Hercules in the Haunted World, Circus of Horrors, L’Atalante, Un Chant D’Amour. Let The Right One In. I consider it worthy of such timeless company.
    And as is customary, I give a gay shout-out to the Hero – when Paul Mantee takes the shirt of, I am his for life. Which alas ended in November 2013. His, not mine.

  4. Mantee, Lundin and Melchior all left us so recently!

    What was I seeing at 14? Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, E.T. A less innocently conceived set of fantasies.

    But I did discover the Universal horror films and the later sci-fi classics via BBC2 seasons, and was lucky enough to see the original King Kong at the cinema before I was ten. For some reason, I missed RCoM even though it aired in one of those seasons — possibly a family camping holiday interrupted my viewing. That’s certainly what caused me to not see Bride of Frankenstein for years.

  5. Hey kids, it’s “Scientifically Authentic”!

  6. Thank heavens for that! I’d hate to think we were being taken for a ride.

  7. Fiona W Says:

    Here’s some stuff I’ve been writing on FB about the movie and the use of primates in entertainment – This is now totally unacceptable but the movie’s kind of good. I was unable to find out where he came from or his post stardom fate. As far as we could discern, Mona aka Barney, wears a tiny merkin to hide his monkey junk when he’s not in his space suit looking like a toddler staggering around in pyjamas. Other great highlights include the lead’s priorities on Mars. Air. Food. Water. Improvised bagpipes?! Yep. Gotta have entertainment on The Red Planet because a transvestite primate isn’t enough. Maybe he has some Scots blood in him, leading him irrevocably towards this choice of musical instrument.

    AND

    He’s not required to do tricks. Just be in the scene and react naturally to what’s going on around him. The worst thing they do is put him in a tiny space suit for a couple of scenes(complete with miniature oxygen cylinders!) which he’s clearly not too happy about. The rest of the time he’s out of the suit and is just a monkey doing monkey stuff. They don’t sentimentalize or anthropomorphize him. At the beginning there’s a suggestion that Mona was meant to be sent down to Mars on her own while they monitor her vital signs, which might lead to death. Both astronauts are relieved when that idea is aborted as they’d become attached to her. The writers were clearly aware that primate experiments were being carried out during the space race and wrote her in for added ‘authenticity’. They obviously didn’t know the primates were chimpanzees, or just figured it would be easier to work with a much smaller monkey species. Barney never made another film as far as I can see, and my dearest hope is that he never worked in entertainment again. But what’s done is done. I hope he had a decent life. He is now an indelible SF movie cult character. As a girl.

  8. NASA claimed that Laika’s terrible fate was bad publicity for the USSR, so “We sent a chimp up — but we made sure we got the chimp BACK.”

    Is there some implication that Mona is the last of a series of monkeys, the others having been dropped onto the Martian surface already? I forget.

    Ridley Scott is doing a virtual remake of this, entitled The Martian, starring Matt Damon (who has castaway practice from Interstellar). It won’t be as fun.

  9. That’s the one! Don’t know if Scott is the right man for “hard” science fiction.

  10. Jeff Gee Says:

    When I was an usher at Caldwell, NJ’s Park Theater, this was shown as a kiddie matinee. The evening feature was “Zabriskie Point” and our projectionist managed to insert a reel of ZP into RCOM, to excellent effect. 200 suddenly silent 10 year olds, their circuits permanently rewired by Daria Halprin. The projectionist claimed to have been in an alcoholic fog. I always thought it was deliberate. It’s not that easy to mix reels from entirely different films.

  11. THIS would work quite well:

  12. There ARE slow motion explosions in Robinson! I would love to see a cut from the nippy little flying saucers firing their rotoscoped blasters, to Antonioni’s erupting consumer goods.

  13. Among the many obvious pleasures of Shadowplay (getting to find out about great movies you’ve never heard of, sharp prose translations of ephemeral cinematic impressions), one of the less-obvious ones is the running commentary on the appearance of animals in film, both real and cartooned. It’s a fascinating subject to me – particularly in the case of real animals in fiction films, which, when they appear, always tear open a hole in the narrative surface, being windows into behavior (whether caught on the fly or prompted by training) rather than performance. I always appreciate it when you or Fiona peek into that diagetic hole with your notebooks at the ready. If you don’t already know about it, there’s an absorbing book called “The Wachula Woods Accord,” by Charles Siebert, which revolves around a center for retired show business apes. It’s built around a questionable conceit, framed as though the book were a transcription of a stream-of-consciousness reverie Siebert had one night at the center, but the content is fascinating and heart-rending, and I think you’d both dig it.

  14. Thanks for the compliments and the tip. I suspect Fiona will find herself compelled t buy that book!

    I always thought it was a mistake in ET for Spielberg to let his titular alien interact with the family labrador. I saw it, and thought “THAT’S what a non-human character is like.”

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