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.
The movie is highly engaging throughout thanks to the chemistry between Mantee and Lundin, even if they do make a cinematic odd couple. Lundin sports a caveman like hairstyle that makes him look like young Sonny Bono while Mantee bears a striking resemblance to a younger version of Republican big wig John Boehner. So if your idea of fantasy film casting would be seeing rock legend Bono team up with the Speaker of the House in sci-fi movie, your spaceship has come in. One of the most charming aspects of the movie is the special effects, which are understandably crude by today's standards, but impressive in their own way. In some sequences the production design is actually outstanding and there is a suitably stirring score by Van Cleave.
The Blu-ray is top notch with special features carried over from the previous DVD release. These include commentary tracks by Mantee, Lundin, screenwriter Ib Melchior (who was originally slated to direct the film, albeit when the project was markedly different from the final movie), production designer Al Nozaki special effects designer and "Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian" Robert Skotak. There are also excerpts of an archival interview with the late Byron Haskin. There's an excellent featurette titled Destination: Mars by Michael Lennick in which science experts give high marks to the film for predicting many innovations that NASA would eventually introduce. There is also a catchy song included by Victor Lundin that pays tribute to the film and captures the movie's quaint charms. Rounding out the set are a very impressive stills gallery that includes early production designs never used in the movie, as well as marketing materials. The original trailer is also included. There is also a very informative illustrated booklet on the making of the film (remember when all DVDs had those?)
If you are packing away a stash of "desert island" films in case you get stranded yourself, make sure Robinson Crusoe on Mars is among them.