Home > Reviews > ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS – Nathan Van Cleave



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Robinson Crusoe on Mars was conceived by Ib Melchoir (Angry Red Planet), who envisioned it as the first in a series of literary classics that he would update to the 20th century and adapt to an outer space setting. The film was directed by Byron Haskin (Conquest of Space) and featured stunning cinematography of Martian vistas that were designed by the brilliant team of art directors. It starred Paul Mantee (Kit) as a marooned astronaut who is forced to eject from his spacecraft due to a malfunction. Stranded on an unforgiving surface, he struggles to find food, water, oxygen and combat a terrible loneliness born of his isolation. He is eventually joined by an escaped slave (Victor Lundin), who becomes his man “Friday.” Together they must evade cruel aliens that seek to regain their lost property. Adam West of Batman fame also appeared in the film as Mantee’s co-pilot along with the monkey Mona who steals the show! Regretfully Melchoir would not realize his grand vision of an outer space series as the film just did not resonate with audiences.

Haskin had first collaborated with Van Cleave on his film “Conquest of Space” (1955) and recruited him for the new undertaking. He and Van Cleave chose to ensure that both the film and his music did not lose its intimacy and that they spoke to the indomitability of the human spirit despite the extraterrestrial setting. The score was supremely orchestrated by Fred Steiner who would gain later fame in the 1966 Star Trek series. Given a modest budget, an orchestra of 24 players that included two electronic organs was assembled. Van Cleave used his meager resources quite well as was able to create a fascinating array of timbres that effectively expressed the alien colors and moods of the harsh Martian terrain. So, let us begin the Martian adventure…

“Seal and Main Title” opens portentously with ascending heraldic brass chords that crescendo and introduce a bravado trumpet line that plays atop sparkling woodwinds. The cue plays as a rocket ship soars amidst a brilliant starscape and speaks to the adventure of humanity’s quest to explore space. At 0:34 Van Cleave introduces with fanfare his bold and heroic five note Main Theme that inspires and makes one dream of adventure. This theme permeates the entire score and is the prime thread that holds together the tapestry, which is the film’s narrative.

“Fires of Mars” is a brilliantly conceived cue. As Kit is forced to eject after a near miss with a rogue asteroid, he descends to the Martian surface. Van Cleave employs a descending horn line played over repeating string and woodwind chords to score the descent with a low register orchestral chord signaling the landing. A trumpet line arises that repeats the descent motif, which is in turn taken up ominously by low register horns. From here the horn line builds to crescendo as Kit leaps to avoid a fiery plume that destroys his ship. In “Martian Night” Kit seeks and finds shelter for impending nightfall. We hear forlorn French horns playing over sustained string chords as Kit contemplates his fate. The mood changes at 0:31 as a twinkling organ line arises while a dazzling aurora bursts upon the starlit sky. Sunrise brings forth strings abounding in sadness as Kit faces a grim reality. As he explores his new world woodwinds and dissonant horns evoke a sense of futility and desolation.

“Search for Shelter” is a complex cue that introduces the ten note Martian Theme which emotes Kit’s dire circumstances and plays whenever he sets forth upon the vast desolate expanse that is the Martian landscape. This tri-tone droning theme is carried by a series of repeating string chords that play atop a steady timpani pulse. The theme’s march is interrupted by a descending horn line that plays over tremolo strings as Kit falls down a hillside, but resumes anew with occasional muted horn calls as he rights himself and pushes on. At 1:45 his theme sounds, eliciting hope that his matches can light the strange rocks. A dirge like organ and bassoon line with contrabass accents signals failure, but hope remains as trumpets introduce a new hopeful four-note motif carried by strings and ascending horns as Kit uses a crystal to focus the Sun’s rays and at last light the rock.

In “Search for Partner” a solo violin heralds a new day as Kit set’s off in search of his partner. As he plods across the barren terrain the Martian Theme plays with occasional counters of the six-note horn motif. The discovery of the ship elicits an ebullient sounding of the Main Theme as trumpets play over bright strings and trilling woodwinds. As Kit moves inexorably towards the craft we hear playing with increased urgency, the Martian Theme pitted against the four-note motif expressed as counterpoint, first as woodwinds then later as strings. When Kit finally arrives, his hopes are dashed by the sight of Marc’s dead body. An ascending horn line played over tremolo strings that transition to woodwinds signals the grim recognition that Kit is truly alone.

“Homeward Trek” is a cue of despair and despondency, as Kit must accept the bitter reality that he is alone, his one respite being Mona a Woolly Monkey. Van Cleave slows and weakens the Martian Theme to reflect Kit’s inner state. An occasional interlude of the six-note horn motif does not assuage the sense of dread. As Kit and Mona arrive home in “Return to the Cave” his oxygen is depleted and he faces his end as he lifts Mona and makes what may be his last climb to the cave. Here the Martian Theme emotes with more urgency with the four-note motif playing in counterpoint.

In “Alarm Clock” Kit discovers that the yellow rocks emit oxygen and fashions an alarm clock to wake him so he might replenish himself. The cue opens with a trumpet line played over tremolo strings that is joined by woodwinds. This quickly segues to “Alone on Mars” where we hear mid register strings and woodwinds emoting a resurgent Main Theme that slowly assumes a dance-like rhythm as a sense of optimism has bee restored. “Dinner for Two” is a tender cue that features Kit decorating his new home and adorning it’s entry with an American flag. Fully satisfied, he and Mona enjoy a dinner of tube rations. We hear a warm and folksy rendering of the Main Theme with a horn flourish at 0:21 when Kit salutes the flag. As the theme continues, its statement is filled with spritely woodwinds that dance to and fro. In “Water” Kit makes the astounding discovery of water in a grotto after trailing Mona. A bass line plays as Kit stalks Mona with the Opening line of the Main Theme and four-note motif sounding with the grotto’s entry. As he steps and falls clinging to a ledge, the music has a string glissandi descent, and as he raises himself to see the pool, so too the music ascends on strings and woodwinds with trumpets declaring a sense of joy for the discovery.

“Lonely Lights” features Kit cutting up plant bulbs and gazing at dazzling Martian Aurora. Van Cleave reintroduces his Aurora Motif, although this time it is emoted by twinkling flute and glockenspiel playing atop mysterioso strings. In “Martian Matzo Balls” Kit makes ‘Matzo Ball’ soup from the plant bulbs. A solo oboe plays the opening line of Main Theme with interludes of repeating discordant chords as Kit’s soup makes him nauseated and he passes out. “The Dream” is a haunting cue that opens with a solo French horn as the dual Martian moons rise. From here we again hear the twinkling Aurora motif born by flute and glockenspiel playing eerily over mysterioso solo violin and strings as Kit hallucinates and invites his friend Dan in. The alarm clock shatters the illusion.

In “Strange Grave”, a French horn introduces a four-note variant of the Main Theme that is taken up by vibrato flute as Kit discovers a grave. After determining by a hole in the skull that the being was murdered, restless strings and trumpets emote this new proto-theme with a sense of urgency. In “Enter Friday” as Kit is observing three alien ships emitting high energy beams used for blasting excavation, a humanoid with wristlets similar to those he found at the grave site appears in front of him. Recognizing the danger, the two flee to Kit’s cave. A horn shock chord leads into a choppy ostinato by celli as the two flee. At 0:46 we switch to the Aurora Theme now emoted strongly by urgent strings with woodwind counters as the men finally reach the cave. The two men break bread in “Guest in the Cave” as woodwinds and strings emote the Main Theme with horn echoes. We segue into “And So to Bed” with the Main Theme continuing on woodwinds played over a methodical pizzicato bass beat. Sonorous strings play as Kit sleeps but the onset of tremolo strings and muted horns alert us to a fascinated Friday playing with the alarm clock which ends quickly as Kit awakes.

We return to the Martian Theme as Kit searches for a missing Friday in “Search for Partner” and segue at 0:29 into “Pit of Death” which opens abruptly with a descending shock chord as Friday playfully startles Kit. Friday then takes Kit to a deserted stone compound and motions him to descend to it. At 0:58 an eerie descent motif of strings and woodwinds is introduced as they slowly descend into the compound. A sad dirge-like six-note low register line carried by woodwind portends a sad epitaph as they discover the dead remains of other slaves. Suddenly in “Ask Them” a fiery meteor explodes overhead raining pumas debris that falls with such volume as to bury the men. The cue opens with a powerful surge of low register horns, which give way to a repeating trumpet line that plays over a relentless four-note ostinato as Friday searches franticly for the now buried Kit. We segue at 1:26 into what I believe to be the stand out cue of the score in “Storm’s Aftermath” as a desperate Friday tries to revive Kit. We shift to a cyclic violin line that plays against a repeating low register bass pulse. Slowly and inexorably the violins with increasing urgency begin a sustained and glorious ascent, changing keys along the way, to reach an emotional climax carried in denouement by woodwinds as Kit’s life is saved. We continue with a warm statement carried by woodwinds, strings and muted horns as the men recover from their ordeal. The cue concludes with the Main Theme played as a happy march over pizzicato bass.

In “The Attack” Alien spacecraft bombard the cave as their scanners detect their wayward slave. Kit and Friday seek a perilous escape with Mona in tow. The cue opens quite dramatically with a powerfully repeating portentous horn line as the men flee. A repetitive series of a Dies Irae Theme that undergoes several chromatic shifts plays against a cyclic violin counter. After a pause the Dies Irae motif continues for two additional statements in “Along the Ledge”. In “On to the Ice Cap” Kit, Friday and Mona continue their arduous trek northward toward the pole in hope of evading the aliens. Van Cleave provides a funereal march carried by strings with horn counters and a percussive pulse to emote the harshness of the unforgiving trek. At 1:22 in “Friday’s Sacrifice” Friday offers Kit an oxygen pill, yet withholds one for himself as a sacrifice for his friend. Van Cleave emotes the tragic Dies Irae Theme to juxtapose the noble sacrifice that Friday makes for his friend. Yet Kit discovers this deception and a warm French horn line sounds as Kit insists that Friday take a pill.

“Water Hazard” is an amazing, dramatic and powerful cue that evokes in me a tremor and shivers. As the party struggles through a pool, the ground gives way and Friday falls into the watery depths. Yet Kit reaches for his friend, grasps him, and pulls him unto the light there-by saving him. Van Cleave brilliantly scores the opening scene with a dramatic descending variant of the Main Theme born by horns with bass counters. At the 0:46 the score ascends to a dramatic climax as a striking trumpet line sounds while we see Kit reach under the water to grasp and pull his friend unto the light. This cue is brilliantly conceived – bravo!

In “Snow Storm” the Martian Theme returns, this time emoted eerily by solo violin over the four-note motif, as the party arrives at the cold and unforgiving North Pole. The passage begins an ascent to mirror the party climbing to a view ledge. As they struggle in their ascent, violins play against harsh woodwind counters. With “Finale” the meteor crashes into the polar ice cap causing a cataclysmic eruption that melts the polar ice cap there-by freeing the party. During the liberating chaos, a rescue ship is seen aloft and Kit successfully sends out a rescue call that saves the day and ends their long trek. Van Cleave scores the cue with an ascending but struggling string statement with woodwind counters that gives way to a declaratory woodwind line with celli pizzicato that ushers in a thankful and celebratory statement of the Main Theme. In “End Title” the score concludes with a grand and refulgent statement of the Main Theme.

Hand over heart, I must thank Lukas Kendall and Craig Spaulding for a most unexpected and deeply appreciated premiere release of the complete score of the classic score of “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”. I watched this film as a starry eye kid and have never lost my affection for it. The score is newly remixed from the original 35mm three-track scoring masters, preserved in recent years on 2” analog tape by Paramount Pictures. The sound quality is pristine and offers testimony to Lukas Kendall’s commitment to issuing quality scores. Folks, this score is a gem worthy of your collection. It has a multiplicity of themes that are perfectly attenuated to the film’s imagery. The score supports the film’s emotional narrative in exemplary fashion and succeeds in forging an indelible bond between the listener and our heroes. This score is why I love film music! I highly recommend this wondrous score as a worthy inclusion in your collection.

Rating: ****

Buy the Robinson Crusoe on Mars soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Seal and Main Title (0:58)
  • Fires of Mars (1:01)
  • False Alarm (0:50)
  • Martian Night (1:25)
  • Search for Shelter (5:07)
  • Search for Partner (4:06)
  • Enter Mona (0:30)
  • Homeward Trek/Return to the Cave (3:08)
  • Alarm Clock/Alone on Mars/The Flutestone (1:50)
  • Dinner for Two (1:20)
  • Water (1:07)
  • Lonely Lights (1:36)
  • My Echo, My Monkey and Me (0:43)
  • Martian Matzo Balls/The Dream (3:29)
  • Strange Grave (1:34)
  • Enter Friday (1:20)
  • Guest in the Cave/And So to Bed (4:05)
  • Language Lesson (1:06)
  • Search for Partner (excerpt)/Pit of Death (2:14)
  • Ask Them/Storm’s Aftermath (4:45)
  • The Attack/Along the Ledge (3:13)
  • On to the Ice Cap/Friday’s Sacrifice (3:56)
  • Water Hazard (0:56)
  • Snow Storm (1:50)
  • Finale/End Title (4:06)
  • Selection for Tape Recorder (1:11)
  • Bagpipe No. 1, 2 and 3 (consisting of “Dixie” by D.D. Emmett) (0:56)
  • Organ—23rd Psalm (0:29)

Running Time: 59 minutes 58 seconds

Film Score Monthly FSM Vol.14 No.5 (1964/2011)

Music composed by Nathan Van Cleave. Conducted by Irvin Talbot. Orchestrations by Nathan Val Cleave and Fred Steiner. Album produced byLukas Kendall and Craig Spaulding.

  1. Randal
    April 13, 2011 at 3:09 am

    Thank you for such a descriptive and insightful review.
    I couldn’t agree with you more on just how special this score is for this retro sci-fi classic. So very colorful and emotional. Van Cleave was a great talent indeed.
    I loved this film in my youth and watched it countless times in video.
    What an outstanding release from FSM! A dream come true.
    Oh,and the film is now available on blu-ray in remastered glory!

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