RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Lee Pfeiffer
The 1964 sci-fi film Robinson Crusoe on Mars has always eluded me until the Blu-ray release from Criterion. The fact that a company as selective about its titles as Criterion would endorse a deluxe edition of a film that was written off as kid's matinee fodder back in its day gives testimony to the movie's many merits. Directed by Byron Haskin, an old hand at classic sci-fi (War of the Worlds, The Outer Limits), Robinson Crusoe on Mars owes more than its title to Daniel Dafoe's classic adventure novel. Despite its setting in the future, the movie adheres rather closely to the basic premise of the book. Paul Mantee and Adam West are astronauts orbiting near Mars when their attempt to avoid an astroid causes them to be drawn into the planet's gravitational pull. The two men eject separately in escape pods but West is killed in a crash landing. Mantee survival seems like an even worse fate: he has only a limited amount of water and the air is too thin to breathe. He is forced to watch his oxygen tanks deplete gradually, knowing it will lead to certain death. How he overcomes these obstacles provides an intriguing aspect to the movie. It becomes obvious that, although Mantee is accompanied by a surviving NASA chimp, the film's intelligent screenplay appeals as much to adults as it does to kiddees.
Mantee is a charismatic leading man who impressively carries off the more difficult aspects of the role such as trying to remain optimistic even when he suffers setback after setback in his attempts to use a radio to call earth for help. Then there is the chronic isolation. Although he solves the problem of food, air and water, he yearns for human companionship. He gets his wish through an unexpected development. An alien race frequently visits Mars to use slave labor as part of a mining endeavor. When one of the slaves (Victor Lundin) escapes, Mantee rescues him and names him Friday. Before long, the two men are valiantly trying to learn each other's language and customs. Soon, they're sitting around shirtless in their man cave indulging in some male bonding. Before the movie can become Brokeback Mountain on Mars, however, they find themselves under nearly constant assault by the alien spaceships who are relentlessly pursuing Friday. Forced underground, Mantee and Lundin are exposed to various climates and dangers on the red planet as they try to find isolation in the polar ice cap.