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Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Director: Byron Haskin
Screenplay: John C. Higgins and Ib Melchior (based on the story by Daniel Defoe)
Stars: Paul Mantee (Cmdr. Christopher “Kit” Draper), Victor Lundin (Friday), Adam West (Col. Dan McReady), Woolly Monkey (Mona)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1964
Country: U.S.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars: Criterion Collection DVD
Robinson Crusoe on Mars Because it is the closet planet to Earth, Mars has always held a special attraction to both scientists and science-fiction writers. The “red planet” is so close and yet so far, and it has long captured the imaginations of those who would dare to ruminate on what lies beyond our own atmosphere. From Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who peered through his telescope in the 1870s and discovered channels that others mistook as purposefully constructed canals on the planet’s surface, to H.G. Wells, who forever connected Mars with alien invasion by making it the home planet of the attackers in his 1898 opus The War of the Worlds, to Marvin the Martian, the determined but diminutive helmet-headed adversary of Bugs Bunny, Mars has loomed large in both the scientific and pop culture imaginations.

Not surprisingly, then, Mars has appeared frequently in the movies, starting as early as Thomas Edison’s 1910 short film A Trip to Mars, which imagined the planet as being home to scary trees and giant aliens. Most early scenarios borrowed from H.G. Wells’s nightmare scenario, which saw Mars as home to various invaders and conquerors who had to be repelled by the resolute human race. Starting in the late 1950s, when the space race was heating up between the United States and the Soviet Union and the idea of not only sending human beings into space, but landing them on distant planets, was gaining genuine scientific credence, movies began to take the red planet more seriously, even if little was actually known about it.

In this respect, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, which borrows the basic plot from Daniel Defoe’s classic 1719 novel, is one of the more fascinating movies of its era because it dares to take its science seriously (bear in mind that it was released the same year as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians). It was one of a number of increasingly serious-minded sci-fi movies whose low budgets and minimal resources didn’t stop them from exploring the potentials of outer space as new terrain for human drama, arguably paving the way for Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Of course, viewed today there are elements of it that are undeniably hokey, but given the extent of knowledge we had in the mid-1960s about both interplanetary space travel and what the surface of a distant planet might be like, it is surprisingly plausible.

The story concerns a two-man mission, Mars Gravity Probe I, which gets caught in the red planet’s gravitational pull. Both astronauts are forced to eject and land on the surface, but only Cmdr. Christopher “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee, a veteran of numerous TV series) and the mission’s pet monkey, Mona, survive (the astronaut who dies is played by Batman himself, Adam West). As Robinson Crusoe did in Defoe’s novel, Kit must struggle to stay alive in his new environment. Of course, being stranded on a distant planet rather than a deserted island poses significant new challenges, including how to breathe. The film imagines that Mars has a thin atmosphere with just enough oxygen to sustain Kit for about 15 minutes at a time before he needs a “booster” of pure oxygen. He eventually solves the problem by discovering that yellow, coal-like rocks on the surface produce oxygen when they’re burned. Likewise he discovers sources of food and water, which means he is physically self-sufficient, even if the tedium of being alone with only a monkey to converse with begins to weigh on him.

For the first half, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a fascinating tale of survival in extraordinary circumstances. Director Byron Haskin, who had started his career as the head of the visual effects department at Warner Bros. in the 1930s, already had significant experience in science fiction, having directed The War of the Worlds (1953), Conquest of Space (1955), and From the Earth to the Moon (1958). He was intent on making Robinson Crusoe on Mars as realistic as possible, which is why the more fantastical elements of the original screenplay by Ib Melchior (The Angry Red Planet), which included numerous Martian creatures, were jettisoned in favor of a more plausible and scientifically defensible survival tale.

Although shot on a relatively meager budget, the film has an epic sweep to it, partially because it was shot in CinemaScope, whose wide frame is well suited to capturing the extensive and daunting terrain of the Martian landscape, played here by California’s Death Valley. The long stretches of desert and jagged ridges, as well as the astoundingly strange Devil’s Golf Course create a fully credible alien environment, which is enhanced by special effects that turn the sky into a daunting canvas of red and orange. Mars is imagined as an inhospitable place where portions of the landscape are constantly burning and random balls of fire wander among the rocks, which we now know to be completely phony, but works within the parameters of the story.

The film suffers somewhat in its final third when Kit comes across a fleet of alien spacecraft that seem to have flown in from Haskin’s own film version of The War of the Worlds. Drawing on the myth of the Mars canals, the film imagines that these visitors from another planet are mining the surface of Mars with the use of slave labor, one of whom escapes (Victor Lundin) and becomes Kit’s ally (naming him “Friday” is the film’s only self-conscious reference to Defoe’s source novel). I would not be the first to note that Friday looks like he wandered in from the set of a bad sword-and-sandals epic or that the two-dimensional alien spacecraft that zip in and out of the sky look like paper cut-outs, but that is part of the bargain when it comes to low-budget ’60s sci-fi. Even if these arguably campy elements disrupt what was otherwise an effective story of survival, Robinson Crusoe on Mars is still one of the more fascinating films of its era and a crucial brick in the pathway to making science fiction respectable.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Audio commentary featuring screenwriter Ib Melchior, actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, special effects designer and Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian Robert Skotak, and excerpts from a 1979 audio interview with director Byron Haskin
  • “Destination: Mars” featurette
  • Excerpts from Ib Melchior’s original screenplay
  • New music video for Victor Lundin’s song “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”
  • Stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos, production designs, and promotional material
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring a new essay by filmmaker and space historian Michael Lennick, Melchior’s “Brief Yargorian Dictionary” of original alien dialect, and a list of facts about Mars from his original screenplay
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateSeptember 18, 2007

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Another one bites the dust--one of the last of the only-available-on-Criterion-laserdisc films has made it to DVD. Robinson Crusoe on Mars is presented in a new high-definition anamorphic widescreen transfer taken from the 35mm 2-perforation A/B interpositive struck from the original negative. Given the age of the film and its low budget, it looks incredibly good. The brightly saturated Technicolors of the Martian environment are appropriately bold, and detail is good throughout. Some of the process shots are a bit soft, but this is the inherent look of the image. The MTI Digital Restoration System has done wonders in removing dirt and debris, leaving the image clean and virtually brand-new (again, the process shots contain some dirt, which is typical and representative of how the film would have looked in 1964). The original monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm full coat three-track master and digitally restored. It also sounds impressive, with the long stretches of silence on the red planet being completely free of hiss while the roar of the space probe and the strange whining of the alien craft have impressive depth.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Virtually all of the supplementary material that appeared on Criterion’s 1994 laserdisc have been ported over to the DVD, along with several new supplements. Making a repeat appearance is an excellent all-inclusive audio commentary that features screenwriter Ib Melchior (who doesn’t hold back on his disappointment with how his script was changed), actors Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, and special effects designer and Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian Robert Skotak. All of the participants were recorded separately and edited together, and the commentary is also sprinkled with excerpts from a 1979 audio interview with director Byron Haskin (which is a bit hard to hear at times). Also included from the laserdisc is an extensive stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos, production designs, and promotional material. Many of the production designs are for elements in the original screenplay that did not make it into the final film, so they provide an intriguing glimpse into what the film might have been like if Byron Haskin not taken over. More of what the film might have become can be discerned from the excerpts from Ib Melchior’s original screenplay, which is downloadable as a PDF file. New to the DVD is “Destination: Mars,” an excellent new video featurette by space historian Michael Lennick about the science behind the film. It features several experts on space travel, as well as old NASA designs and animation. A rather goofy addition is a music video for Victor Lundin’s cultish song “Robinson Crusoe on Mars.” Unfortunately, the video is just a compilation of shots from the movie, so there’s nothing really new here. Hard-core fans of the film will appreciate the inclusion of the song, which Lundin originally wrote to perform at conference appearances, but most of them probably have his CD already. The insert booklet features a new essay by Michael Lennick, Melchior’s “Brief Yargorian Dictionary” of original alien dialect, and a list of facts about Mars from his original screenplay.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Paramount Pictures


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