Robinson Crusoe On Mars: Criterion Collection Review

Robinson Crusoe On Mars is one of the most unusual Science Fiction films ever made in Hollywood. At a time when the genre meant death rays and monsters, it offers, for the most part, a quiet, even meditative study of survival against the odds which only develops into a more traditional action movie towards the end. It’s certainly among the best work of all those involved and a career highpoint for director Byron Haskin who is perhaps best known for his 1953 film version of War of the Worlds. It would be fascinating to know why Paramount thought it would ever be commercial but at a time when the studio was struggling to find commercial or artistic success, it’s one of the studio’s most interesting productions.

Commander Christopher ‘Kit’ Draper (Mantee) and his colleague McReady (West) are on an experimental mission to orbit Mars. When a technical fault forces the crew to abandon ship, Draper finds himself stranded on the Red Planet with only a monkey, Mona, for company. Gradually, he learns to survive, step by step, and meets up with another marooned traveller, Friday (Lundin) with whom he makes friends. But having apparently conquered the adversities of the hostile planet, the travellers soon find themselves up against an awesomely powerful, and malevolent, alien force.

The original screenplay for the film by Ib Melchior was considerably changed before production began. Melchior’s original version of the film was disparagingly described by Byron Haskin as “Dancing Girls on Mars” and was apparently full of monsters which would have made the film more like a juvenile adventure movie. It would appear that Haskin’s final film is a good deal more serious and certainly more scientifically considered. However, it’s also fair to say that Melchior claims that his original screenplay was actually a lot more influential on the finished film than Haskin claims. The extracts from Melchior’s script included on the DVD certainly indicate that his version would have been rather different – a lot more action, much more ambitious in terms of structure (including an earth-based flashback), and some considerably more radical political ruminations on the theme of colonialism. Haskin and co-writer John Higgins junked a lot of this, simplifying but also, perhaps, streamlining the film.

The most interesting thing about Robinson Crusoe On Mars is the seriousness of the endeavour. At least initially, it isn’t a popcorn flick, despite the rather silly (if fairly accurate) title. Great efforts were made at scientific accuracy, bearing in mind that virtually nothing was actually known about Mars in 1964 that hadn’t been construed by Percival Lowell in the first part of the 20th Century. In visual terms, it’s astoundingly prescient. The Death Valley landscapes are perfect, especially when matched with the stunning matte paintings by Albert Whitlock.

The use of a complex geography and geology is also very impressive, particularly when we get to the ice caps. The science is less impressive; the atmosphere of Mars is not remotely breathable; there is no standing liquid water; it’s even unlikely that a module could land on the surface given the devastating dust storms. But this is in line with what was known at the time. Had the film been made a year later, the discoveries of Mariner 4 would no doubt have been included. If the film didn’t make such a song and dance of being technically accurate, the mistakes wouldn’t be quite so jarring. As it is, the film works more as an excuse to say something about the human capacity for survival than as a serious work of SF.

Indeed, as a survival story, it’s absolutely riveting. Paul Mantee pulls off a stunning performance as Kit Draper, working on his own for the most part and keeping us interested through force of personality. Never a great talent, Mantee is one of those actors who turns up in just about every American TV series of the 1970s that you can think of. But some jobbing actors have one great part in them, and this is Mantee’s. He goes through the emotional wringer here and his final triumph is a genuine catharsis. His best acting comes in the scenes where the planet is playing with his head and he hallucinates. The terrors of loneliness and isolation are vividly evoked here as is the force of will needed to survive in such an environment. In comparison, Victor Lundin is more of a stereotype but the alien from Alnilam is a likeable character and he plays off Mantee very well, using mime skills and a language based loosely on Mayan. For many people, it must be said, the real star of the film is Mona the monkey – played in a feat of cross-dressing by a young simian named Barney.

The film was shot in Techniscope, a widescreen process which is relatively cheap and tends to result in a rather grainy appearance. However, the wide frame is well used by Haskin and cinematographer Winton C. Hoch to emphasise the remoteness of Draper amongst the vast Martian landscape. Hoch was coming to the end of his career at this point – his only cinema credit after this are the ineffable Green Berets and the appalling Necromancy - but he had enjoyed a distinguished career working with John Ford on visually outstanding Technicolor films such as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Quiet Man and, of course, The Searchers. His mastery of film colour is vital to Robinson Crusoe On Mars and the results are outstanding and distinctly psychedelic in places. He was also used to working with special effects, as was Byron Haskin, and those provided by Lawrence W. Butler are fairly good considering the relatively small budget of just over a million dollars – to put that in perspective, My Fair Lady from the same year cost 17 million dollars while the adaptation of the Harold Robbins novel The Carpetbaggers cost 3 million . The alien warships are pretty good, albeit reminiscent of those from Haskin’s War of the Worlds, and the physical effects have an impressive sense of scale. I’m not convinced that the change in tone of the film when the malevolent force invades is entirely successful however. It helps the pacing but the quieter first half of the film is more suspenseful than the special effects action scenes.

There’s a sense of scale and majesty about Robinson Crusoe On Mars which is hugely impressive and one longs to see it on the vast cinema screen where it truly belongs. Byron Haskin’s direction is tremendously effective, combining a seriousness of tone with enough family-friendly elements to please most sections of the audience. It was a failure at the box office in 1964 however and it would be another four years before a really grown-up science fiction film would find commercial success.

The Disc

Criterion have released Robinson Crusoe On Mars as part of their new distribution deal with Paramount, an arrangement which will bring us Days of Heaven and The Naked Prey in the next few months. It’s a great deal for film fans since Paramount has never shown much interest in giving its back catalogue the attention it deserves and Criterion have the talent and resources to do these often undervalue films justice. Certainly, Robinson Crusoe On Mars is a worthy addition to the Criterion library.

The film is presented in the original Techniscope ratio of 2.35:1 and the image is anamorphically enhanced. It’s an excellent transfer which offers stunning colours throughout – a particularly important element of the film. The relatively high level of grain is characteristic of the original film while the very minor print damage is not distracting. Detail is staggeringly good throughout and there is no over-enhancement to be or artifacting to be seen. The mono soundtrack is absolutely pristine and is encoded as Dolby Digital 1.0.

The extras are not particularly generous in quality but what we get does enhance the film. The best feature is a commentary track, recorded in 1994 and featuring Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Ib Melchior, designer Al Nozaki, film historian Robert Skotak and, by virtue of a 1979 audio interview, Byron Haskin. Everyone concerned is in good form, offering some honest and amusing reflections on the making of the film. Haskin comes across as somewhat crusty but with an surprising recall of details. Skotak is a particularly valuable addition as he knows so much about the production history.

In addition, we get a 20 minute piece called “Destination Mars” which looks at the scientific aspects of the film and how accurate it was about the realities of Mars. Also present are the theatrical trailer and a very extensive gallery of production and promotional materials. Script extracts from Ib Melchior’s original draft are also featured in PDF format. Finally, there is a music video of Victor Lundin’s song, named after the film. This is so bizarrely terrible that it’s essential one-time listening. Any more than one exposure might, however, be dangerous.

The film has optional subtitles in English but, sadly, this doesn’t extend to any of the extra features.

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