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America's NASA space program brought movies about fantastic flights to other planets almost to a dead stop. With the Mercury and Gemini missions part of our daily news, the monsters and nonsense science in writer Ib Melchior's The Angry Red Planet and Journey to the 7th Planet no longer seemed relevant. 1 Ib Melchior's next script began as the story of a stranded astronaut coming in contact with the same kinds of monstrous Martians, but was rewritten as a more realistic tale of survival. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a real transition picture. Caught between silly efforts like Queen of Outer Space and the high budget wonders of the later 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a unique and serious adventure.
The story begins in Mars orbit. When a fireball-like meteor threatens their command ship Elinor M, astronauts Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) and Dan McReady (Adam West) are forced to land on Mars in separate capsules. Only Draper survives the landing. With his flight mascot Mona, a monkey, Draper must find shelter, water and a source of oxygen on the barren planet. Just as he's beginning to get settled, alien ships arrive with humanoid slaves to mine for valuable metals. Draper helps a slave (Victor Lundin) to escape, and they form a strong bond despite communication problems. Draper names his new companion Friday.
An impressive show filmed on a modest budget, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a reunion for top talent from the earlier Sci-Fi hit The War of the Worlds. Director Byron Haskin was enjoying a second life in the genre making some of the best episodes of the Outer Limits TV series. Art director Al Nozaki had been a key designer on both of George Pal's Paramount space films as well as Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. With special effects by Lawrence Butler and Albert Whitlock, Haskin's picture had the benefit of big-studio resources usually lacking in movies about outer space. The vegetation-free canyons of Death Valley stood in as the surface of Mars. Some scenes of spacecraft in motion were created with the kind of flat animation seen in official NASA promotional films.
Given the year that it was made, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is scientifically very impressive. Twin landing craft separate and descend much like NASA's later Lunar Excursion Module. Mars presents a grim challenge to the marooned astronaut. Instead of encountering pulp fiction monsters, the resourceful Kit Draper seeks out the basic necessities of life, just as Defoe's imaginary Crusoe from a century before. Draper carries some practical-looking modular equipment, including a portable video camera identical to a porta-pak from the 1980s.
The version of Mars imagined by screenwriters Melchior and Higgins does indeed stretch reality. Atmospheric pressure and temperature are cheated to allow Draper to breathe with only periodic boosts of oxygen. The blazing red sky is an impressive matte effect. Odd fireballs dance on the surface like tumbleweeds. Draper finds rocks that emit oxygen when heated, pools of potable water and plants that yield convenient breakfast sausages. But the film treats Astronaut Draper with respect at a time when NASA spacemen were being depicted as comedy material, as in Disney's fairly charming Moon Pilot. Kit Draper is a likeable, essentially fearless American hero. He's trained to do the best he can, and if survival is impossible, he'll leave a sensible record of his experience for the next guy. Kit's only enemy is loneliness, and he suffers some frightening hallucinations.
Then comes Friday, the escaped slave pursued by alien masters, and the fantasy returns to familiar territory. We can tell that the story will be resolved in conventional terms, with no more surprises. The alien slaves are ordinary people in leftover Egyptian slave costumes and wigs suitable for Brazilian natives. The alien masters wear pressure suits from Destination Moon, while their space mining ships are re-cast Martian war machines from War of the Worlds. Draper and Friday successfully elude the aliens by hiding in vast tunnels beneath the surface depressions once called canals. Instead of battles and conflict, the film concentrates on the fugitives' growing relationship. Draper and Friday find mutual understanding and save one another from additional natural dangers. Friday proves to be a standard noble primitive, sharing his precious 'oxygen pills' with Draper. He soon learns to communicate in English. While the soundtrack slips into church organ music, the comrades discuss the nature of God. Robinson Crusoe on Mars goes to another world to deliver familiar moral lessons.
Despite laudable efforts from all concerned, the film didn't click with audiences. Indifferent distribution was blamed, but it's also likely that the public preferred to see its astronauts on the 6 O'Clock News. I remember our grammar school teachers cramming a hundred kids into one classroom to watch a Gemini space walk on TV. A couple of seasons down the line, Sci-Fi fans would embrace the big-concept TV show Star Trek, with its 'Great Society' mission to extend Earthly influence across outer space in peace-loving warships. The Enterprise projected a democratic example for the alien cultures of deep space, while carrying Uncle Sam's familiar Big Stick. Now that's the kind of space saga that might find a following.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Robinson Crusoe on Mars offers an exceptionally good transfer that allows us to appreciate the effects techniques of the pre- 2001 era. As the movie was originally shot in the 2-perf Techniscope process, the added resolution of Blu-ray reveals some shots to be soft and grainy. The matte work is so sharp that we wonder if the effects scenes were finished in full 35mm. Although some of the weird Martian landscapes are more convincing than others, the film's look is remarkably consistent, with almost undetectable rear-screen effects.
Disc producer Curtis Tsui's DVD extras are carried over; they were originally produced for a pricey laserdisc, now a collector's item. Special effects artist and film researcher/author Robert Skotak provides much of the structure for an interesting edited commentary, joining actors Vic Lundin and Paul Mantee, writer Ib Melchior and the late Albert Nozaki. Archived statements from director Byron Haskin, a wonderful raconteur, appear as well. Paul Mantee's remarks on his starring role are thoughtful and balanced. Nozaki explains how his happy career in the Paramount art department was interrupted by Pearl Harbor. Melchior complains about the changes to his original screenplay and scoffs at the many burning objects in the oxygen-challenged Mars atmosphere. The story stipulates that some oxygen is present, and who's to say that the fire isn't chemically fed, like a magnesium flare?
Excerpts of Melchior's script are available as a DVD-Rom extra, along with fat galleries of preproduction sketches and the usual stills and trailers. Just as on the DVD, an unlisted audio track on the trailer is an amusing theme song for the film rather optimistically designed to be played on top-40 radio. Actor/singer Victor Lundin recorded a song about the movie, which is presented in the form of a music video. Michael Lennick's featurette compares the fanciful Mars of 1964 with four decades' worth of new information about the planet. The attractive cover evokes the look of a 1960s Sci-Fi paperback.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Robinson Crusoe on Mars Blu-ray rates:
1. It took the ingenious Nigel Kneale, creator of the Quatermass films) to make Ray Harryhausen's First Men In the Moon palatable for space-age viewers H.G. Wells' story was set in 1900. Kneale updated it by starting with a present-day moon landing before flashing back to the Victorian Era.
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