Isolated, much like the film's hero, in a vacuous low-point of serious science fiction filmmaking and virtual non-production of movies of this type, Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) is a true original, the missing link between the fanciful yet scientifically-grounded wonders of producer George Pal's 1950s films (Destination Moon, War of the Worlds, The Conquest of Space) and the Stanley Kubrick's genre-redefining 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Originally intended as an epic, three-hour roadshow, Robinson Crusoe on Mars saw its scope and budget drastically reduced, almost to the point of inadequacy, and its subsequent and very poor advertising campaign - with its Buck Rogers-esque poster art and give-away-the-store, spoiler-filled trailer - doomed its chances at the box office. Over time though many fans of the genre, this writer included, discovered it on television, often UHF channels running the picture late into the wee hours of the morning. Unlikely fans included Janus Films' Saul J. Turell, who before his death in 1986 had three personal favorites, pet projects he hoped his Criterion label would eventually release to laserdisc: Scaramouche, Here Comes Mr. Jordan - and Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
It's a wonderful, even magical movie. Its detractors see only its faults - and it has more than a few of those - but more importantly they completely miss its many fine qualities. Even fans often misinterpret its core appeal, instead pointing to an atypical fidelity to actual science - at least based on what was then known about Mars and space travel. But no, the film's real appeal lies in a combination of varied elements, with its unmissible basic story and especially star Paul Mantee's extremely appealing performance; the character he creates is both identifiable yet also a genuinely heroic one, a reflection of the Mercury and Gemini Program astronauts appearing on TV and the front pages of newspapers almost daily.
Criterion's Blu-ray release is identical to its September 2007 DVD version - so much so that when it arrived I momentarily thought I'd been sent the DVD by mistake. The big difference, of course, is the high-definition transfer. Though shot in the inherently grainier Techniscope process, this Blu-ray release is a significant, measurable improvement - sharper with richer color; some of the process shots actually look better, not what you'd necessarily expect.
Set sometime in the near future - the only specific hint is a 52-star American flag, briefly glimpsed - the crew of the Gemini-like Mars Gravity Probe 1, commanded by Col. Dan McReady (Adam West) and Commander Christopher "Kit" Draper (Paul Mantee) are forced to use all their fuel to avoid colliding with a fiery meteor that's in a decaying orbit around the red planet. They have no choice but to eject independently in small escape pods to the surface, hoping to survive on Mars until another NASA craft can rescue them.
The film is consistently clever. The opening sequence is shot in a manner as to suggest handsome, all-American McReady is going to be the film's hero while Draper, first seen in an unflattering black & white closed-circuit monitor and later comically floating upside-down in the zero-gravity craft, is going to be more the Sid Melton-esque comedy relief.
But the movie sticks with Draper, not McReady, on the violent descent to Mars, and follows his early struggles to survive. When, about two days later, Draper finds McReady's pod wrecked and the astronaut dead - his mangled arm half-buried in the rubble is all the audience sees - it's a real shock, the first of several. Draper's only solace is that Mona, the woolly monkey also onboard McReady's ship, has survived.
The first-half of the film deals with Draper's basic survival: his oxygen is running out, he'll need water, food, shelter. How he solves each of these problems is irresistibly compelling and reasonably believable (given what was then known about Mars; in 2011 terms it takes only a bit of suspended disbelief). For instance, to avoid asphyxiating during the night should his oxygen tank run out - a scary proposition - Draper rigs an hourglass-type alarm clock. Clever and logical.
The second-half of the picture perhaps too literally adapts Daniel Defoe's original story: months after being marooned Draper, wracked with loneliness, encounters an escaped alien slave (Victor Lundin), an Egyptian/Mayan-like tanned humanoid dressed in Ten Commandments hand-me-downs. Draper names him Friday, as in the novel. Friday's alien captors - and it's here where the money was obviously running out; everything is depressingly scaled back in these scenes - are humanoid also, wearing early-1950s style pressure suits that were already clichés when Abbott & Costello went to Mars (Venus) in 1953, and may have even been the same ones used in George Pal's 1950 Destination Moon. For no clear reason other than sheer spitefulness, the aliens seem obsessed with locating and killing Friday*, chasing him and Draper all the way to the polar icecaps in their zippy manta-shaped spaceships, closely modeled after the Martian war machines in Pal's War of the Worlds.
The film was conceived by Ib Melchior, who did an enormous amount of pre-production work and who had planned to direct but, for reasons not entirely clear, those duties were reassigned to Byron Haskin, probably because he had directed several larger-scale George Pal-produced A-films (including War of the Worlds) compared to Melchior's decidedly smaller-scale Bs. Haskin later quite unfairly dismissed Melchior's considerable contributions while Melchior understandably resented the changes Haskin made to his script, as well as Haskin's proprietary attitude. Nevertheless, the film clearly and measurably benefits from each man's unique skills: Melchior's thoughtful, carefully-considered concepts and Haskin's better-than-workmanlike direction and talent for special effects-heavy productions.
Though it bears some resemblance to Pal (and Haskin's) '50s sci-fi efforts, at other times the film resembles Disneyland's Tomorrowland (the cave sets, Draper's futuristic hardware) and the real NASA and its emerging spacecraft (and colorful personalities). There's also a beguiling dream/odyssey quality to the film, exemplified by its many quirky concepts and the execution of some of its special effects, such as the dreamy Aurora Borealis in the night sky that flicker on-and-off like Christmas tree lights, in step with Van Cleave's alternating rousing and haunting score.
And there's that scene. That scene. After months devoid of human companionship, Draper suddenly hears a knock on the Flintstones-like front door of his cave/shelter and there standing before him his is long-dead pal, Col. McReady. Draper is delighted - someone to talk to at last. The words and excitement pour out of him - but McReady just stands there like a zombie, saying nothing. Draper, agitated by his friend's unresponsiveness, begins yelling at him to say something, anything. And then Draper's oxygen-alarm clock goes off and he wakes up to find himself standing in the middle of the cave, screaming at no one. It's an unnerving moment.
Paul Mantee was by no means a star or even particularly well-known among the more successful, working actors of his generation when he was cast in Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Probably a big part of the reason he was cast in the first place was his resemblance to famous Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard (long face, large wide mouth, receding hairline, etc.). Like a few others of his generation - Robert Lansing comes to mind - Mantee could've/should've had a major starring career, perhaps something along the lines of a Steve McQueen. He's as good an actor with a similarly understated, introspective intensity, but the film's commercial failure sent both Mantee and Lundin back down into the TV salt mines - within just a few years they languished in criminally anonymous, trivial roles on crappy Irwin Allen shows and the like. Each hung on, though, and Mantee eventually landed a good long-term role on Cagney & Lacey. In recent years Mantee has turned to writing and just a few days ago celebrated his 80th birthday.
Here Mantee's got the Right Stuff; though admittedly wary of a project unappetizingly entitled Robinson Crusoe on Mars, once signed he gave it his all. No performance in all of science fiction cinema is more sincere, more committed, and few are as memorable. No one remembers John Archer in Destination Moon or Eric Fleming in Conquest of Space. Even Leslie Nielsen's Commander Adams in the classic Forbidden Planet is pretty much a stiff. Fans are fond of those movies for other reasons. But Mantee's astronaut is one you'll never forget.
The screenplay helps. Draper may be almost superhumanly nonchalant as he runs short of oxygen, food and water but, all-importantly, his humanity and humility he shares with the audience. When Mona the monkey leads him to a source of water and food, Draper softly acknowledges the little primate: "Thank you, Mona," he says. In Mantee's hands, there's no doubt he means it.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Techniscope, Robinson Crusoe on Mars avoids the disadvantages of anamorphic lenses (always problematic for special effects films with lots of opticals) at the expense of added grain. But even on big monitors the film looks awfully impressive in high-definition, with better, richer color than ever before and an increased sharpness revealing new details in the set design, costumes, etc., along with a few faults. Barely perceptible until now, for instance, is the extensive use of rear-screen projection - not projected film but enlarged still photographs, a technique Kubrick later employed with great success in "The Dawn of Man" exteriors in 2001. The transfer was sourced from a two-perf-high A/B interpositive struck from the original negative and provided by Paramount.
The original, surprisingly strong mono track was culled from a 35mm magnetic three-track master. The disc is region "A" encoded.
Supplements are identical to the DVD version, much of which dates back even further, to the superb laserdisc release. Melchior, Mantee, Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, film historian and special effects designer Robert Skotak provide audio commentary, one of the best ever done - it's both enormously informative and even touching at times - and which also incorporates audio from a 1979 interview with Haskin. "Destination: Mars" is an interesting featurette looking into the film's science and how what we know about Mars changed through the years, and why. A horrible, spoiler-filled trailer (which, predictably, sells the film as "science-fact") is in high-def, as is a gallery of still and production drawings. Space historian Michael Lennick offers an informative booklet essay.
I groaned when I first learned the DVD release would contain a "music video" of actor Victor Lundin's song "Robinson Crusoe on Mars." Actors that in their later years attend fan conventions - particularly anyone and everyone associated with Star Trek (Lundin was the franchise's first onscreen Klingon, in fact) - often pitch wares that sometimes include awful, amateurish CDs of original songs. But Lundin's tribute to the film (and his father), and the neatly edited montage of film clips from the movie that accompanies it disarmed me completely. It's utterly charming, and like Mantee on the audio commentary track, unexpectedly sweet and even moving.
It's interesting to speculate what Robinson Crusoe on Mars might have been like as the big, three-hour epic it was originally conceived as. Certainly all the business with Friday, the slaves and their captors wouldn't have looked so cheesy, for instance, and it might have attracted a bigger rising star, maybe a McQueen or Bronson or James Coburn. But this reviewer is glad the movie is exactly what it became, faults and all. With a larger budget and a longer shooting schedule it might have been more polished but quite possibly it would have lost a great deal of its unique charm, the result of artists and technicians who did the best they could with what they had to work with. It's not on the level of Citizen Kane or Ikiru but I adore it just the same. A DVD Talk Collector Series Title.
* Reader Sergei Hasenecz adds, "It may be spitefulness on the aliens' part, but I think you are missing another interpretation here, particularly considering the Civil Rights marches and pending legislation of the Civil Rights Act during this movie's release. In the US, prior to the Civil War, escaped slaves were pursued into the North, all the way to the border with Canada. US laws allowed for slaves to be reclaimed even in the free states. Canada was the only safe haven, with only Canadian law preventing the slave hunters from trying to retake them there."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.