With the advent of the Space Race in the early nineteen sixties, the American film industry turned its attention once more to a genre which had been languishing in trashy B-movie hell since the previous decade. This time around the emphasis turned away from alien invasion to adventure films based on the real-life events and technology being presented to the American people after John F Kennedy’s Rice Stadium speech of September 1962 kicked off the Moon Race.
Trumpeted as “scientifically authentic,” Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars first saw light in the summer of 1964 and has now been released as a Blu-ray/DVD double pack by Eureka accompanied by a twenty eight page booklet containing a new essay, notes and archive images.
Based very loosely on Daniel Defoe’s much-adapted novel, it stands interesting comparison with Ridley Scott’s recently-released The Martian as the two films share a great many similarities. Both revolve around an American astronaut stranded alone on Mars who keeps a personal log as much for the benefit of the audience as his own sanity while he awaits rescue.
Beyond that, both employ extensive location shooting in desert regions tweaked to look “Martian” and boast their “scientific” credentials while employing credible current technology to support their accounts, and each film also employs striking visual palettes to enhance the narrative. The single biggest difference is the presence of humanoid aliens in Robinson Crusoe on Mars which pushes that film firmly into romantic sci-fi territory while The Martian remains strictly singular.
The plot is relatively simple, as a two-man survey mission to Mars crash lands on the planet after taking emergency evasive manoeuvres to avoid a meteor. Mission commander Dan McCready (Adam West, soon to be cast and forever remembered as Batman) dies in the crash but his colleague Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) survives along with his simian crewmate Mona, a woolly monkey.
Draper keeps a log on his portable communicator whilst striving to remain alive on the Martian surface, where quite by accident he discovers first how to release oxygen trapped in Martian rocks before Mona leads him to edible aquatic plants growing in rockpools in a sheltered cave. Now with food and a supply of fresh water, Draper turns his attention to attempting to signal Earth to attract a rescue mission.
As time goes on, he discovers an alien quarrying operation using humanoid slaves, one of whom escapes and who is promptly impressed into Draper’s own service. “Friday,” as he names him (Victor Lundin, a former opera singer who would later appear as one of the first ever Klingons in Errand of Mercy), becomes an invaluable asset as he helps Draper survive in the harsh Martian conditions, though it is best not to examine how easily Crusoe, having liberated him from one enslavement, then places another yoke on his shoulders.
For budgetary reasons, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was cast with experienced but unknown actors and Paul Mantee does a thoroughly capable job here in the title role. He has an attractive physical presence of the beefcake variety popular at the time while still having the acting skills required to pull off long stretches performing alone or opposite an unpredictable scene-stealing monkey.
Adam West has little screen time but uses it well and pops up post-mortem as a ghostly visitor in a chilling hallucinatory segment, while Victor Lundin has the most thankless task but carries it off with quiet dignity. In fact, most of the modest budget for Robinson Crusoe on Mars is up on the screen and, for its time and cost, its visuals and production values remain outstanding, particularly the a strong painterly quality throughout inspired by the work of the great science illustrator Chesley Bonestell.
The film was shot in Techniscope, a popular widescreen format of the time for film-makers with a limited budget but big ideas such as those which science fiction demanded. Compared with the premium formats of the period its much smaller negative, when projected, gave a grainier image with poorer colour saturation but on the plus side there is no optical distortion and when restored as proficiently as this has been the print can look pretty good on modern widescreen televisions.
Having been dismissed as a low-budget B-movie for decades, in recent years Robinson Crusoe on Mars began to be reassessed for its production values and its rehabilitation was confirmed by a Blu-ray release in the USA in 2007 by the premium arthouse label Criterion. A beautiful digital restoration was performed for that release with a digitally-restored mono soundtrack and this forms the basis for this new UK release, meaning Albert Whitlock’s stunning matte work can now be seen to its best advantage.
There is just one significant extra on this set, a commentary track recorded in 2015 in which Michael Felcher interviews Oscar-winning visual effects artist Robert Skotak who was, for decades, a friend and associate of Ib Melchior who co-scripted Robinson Crusoe on Mars with John C Higgins and shares his in-depth knowledge of Melchior’s extraordinary life and the production history of this film.
Melchior’s film background was in low-budget creature features and his early scripts for Robinson Crusoe were in a similar vein, however when the film was taken up for production by a major studio the exotic Martian creatures were dropped for budgetary reasons which had the inadvertent benefit of improving the film tonally.
With experience in the genre from The War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955) for producer George Pal as well as From the Earth to the Moon (1958), director Byron Haskin brought his accomplished visual style and even predicted that Mars would have a red sky, some thirteen years before the Viking lander observed it directly.
Overall, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is an engaging family adventure film and fans of the bigger-budget epics of the time such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959) and Mysterious Island (1961) and their ilk will find much to enjoy here. It is dated now, perhaps, but in a comforting Sunday-afternoon-by-the-fireplace way, and if the alien ships hark back to the floating Martian war machines of The War of the Worlds, the meteors look forward to the disco glitterballs of the next decade.
It is undeniable, however, that it has resonated down the years and significant traces of it can be found in Wolfgang Petersen’s 1985 film Enemy Mine, 2013’s Riddick and, of course, Sir Ridley’s The Martian released just this year.