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Robinson Crusoe on Mars Review

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A tremendously thoughtful and evocative reworking of Daniel Defoe's classic

by Chris McEneany Jan 29, 2011

  • Movies review


    Robinson Crusoe on Mars Review
    This review for Criterion's excellent Region A Blu-ray release is a typically expanded version of the one I originally wrote for the earlier SD DVD edition.

    Despite being saddled with one of the worst titles in the genre, science fiction gem Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964), is actually a tremendously thoughtful and evocative reworking of Daniel Defoe's classic castaway saga of a lone traveller forced to survive against adversity in an environment far removed from anything he is familiar with. Directed with a measured panache by Byron Haskin, who had previously brought the Martians to us on Earth with the colourful, and Oscar-winning The War Of The Worlds, and also tackled the nuts and bolts of intergalactic adventure with Conquest Of Space, Crusoe would mark a turning point in sci-fi and how filmmakers went about depicting the prospect of otherworldly encounters. Scribed by veteran of science fiction screenplays, Ib Melchior, who was originally intended to direct as well, Haskin's take on the tale of a human astronaut marooned on the surface of Mars was channelled into the realistic psychology and moral dilemma of such a dangerous and lonely predicament, rather than simply being a vehicle with which to crowd the screen with creatures on the rampage. Given that audiences throughout the previous two decades had been inundated with monsters from the Id, monsters from the atom and monsters just from beyond and had lapped them all up, rubbery tentacles and all, this was quite a gamble. Yet the basic concept was a solid one and a confirmed favourite, with Dafoe's book never going out of print and America's desire to keep its flag flying in the face of the ultimate adversity - the Space Race had just begun as had the country's involvement in Vietnam - proving to be vital and obsessive urges to both Haskin and Melchior. The War Of The Worlds had ensured that the viewing public demanded spectacle and no-one understood that more that Haskin, whose career reached back into the days of D.W. Griffith (working as a cinematographer, and later in the special effects department for Warner). But their determination to provide something more thought-provoking was to be the double-edged sword that would sink the project at the box-office and garner wildly diverse critiques, yet ensure the movie a lasting place in the hearts of sci-fi fans the world over. For a long time the darling of Criterion's esteemed Laserdisc collection, and then arriving on a sublime DVD, the cult, but still rarely seen movie can now finally be properly reappraised in this lushly transferred Blu-ray.

    Paul Mantee would portray the unfortunate, but eminently courageous and resourceful spaceman, Commander Christopher “Kit” Draper, who, along with his Colonel and mission mascot, Mona The Monkey, is forced to abandon his Mars orbiter, the Elinor 1, when a cosmic fireball knocks them off course and they use up all their fuel in a vain attempt to right themselves. Crashing down on the blighted, arid desert surface of the Red Planet - actually Death Valley, which stands in proudly for the Martian landscape - he has his work cut out just trying to survive in this hostile new environment. With Colonel Dan MacReady, played by a dependable and surprisingly serious Adam West, killed during the landing, Draper and Mona struggle with the basic necessities of life - oxygen, shelter, fuel, water and food - in short order, carving out a frontier-like existence at the extremity of Man's endurance. But, since this is an adaptation of Dafoe's desert island fable, this technological Robinson Crusoe - in the film he first likens his situation to that of Christopher Columbus discovering the New World - needs his Man Friday. Thus, the more flamboyant second half of the movie contrives to have Victor Lundin's alien quarry slave escaping from his despicable space-suited captors to become Draper's companion and soul-mate. Together they must overcome their language and cultural barriers and work as a team in order to survive on a planet that neither can call home, and now also the slightly peeved alien miners who, in their mountain-flattening warships pursue the mismatched duo all the way to the polar icecaps of Mars.

    It is certainly an epic tale with an equally epic canvas as its backdrop.

    With Death Valley's naturally spotless azure skies acting as the biggest blue-screen imaginable, Haskin's depiction of Mars is acutely captivating. Throbbing reds dominate the horizon, intense orange heavens hang heavily over a scampering astronaut dwarfed by a landscape of towering rocky pinnacles and high-rise canyons, dazzling multi-coloured light-shows ripple through the Martian twilight ... and eerie balls of glowing fire scoot across the ground like blazing tumble-weeds. But perhaps the strangest and most inspired sight is that of the Elinor 1 passing overhead, locked in a perpetual orbit that will tease and infuriate its former occupant who looks up at it longing for the supplies that are locked, uselessly, away within its steel hull. The recreation of this surreal world is arresting and hypnotic, especially when Draper ventures out of his cliff-face abode into the cave system below that comes to provide many hidden and, indeed, essential wonders. It is perhaps unsurprising that this Crusoe works best during the first half, when we are getting to know our lonely adventurer, than during the slightly more conventional and familiarly structured second act. Mantee does a fine job of convincing us that he can overcome all the obstacles in his path with a likeable, go-for-broke demeanour and an authentic physicality. He may have the tough chin and muscle-bound arms of the American ideal, but Mantee also has tremendously soulful eyes and a strangely sensitive smile that is completely disarming. He is also, barring a couple of moments of justifiable despair, a resoundingly upbeat character which, of course, is exactly how the United States wanted to depict its brave rocket-travelling heroes ... and its military servicemen. In a decade when the country was going to experience massive social and political upheaval and begin an odyssey of soul-searching that doesn't seem to have ended even now, Mantee's Kit Draper is possibly the last cinematic embodiment of true-blood, All-Americanism. He has no hang-ups, no haunted past. No ill-feeling towards his plight and no axe to grind. Instead he faces adversity with a willingness to get the better of it, even making a record of his trials and tribulations, spoken into a voice recorder that, even when he feels he is about to die, he believes could be of some use to other intrepid explorers who might stumble across it one day. This is precisely the fighting/smirking, “take whatever fate throws at me” attitude that the Super-Power that would put the first man on the moon wanted to extol to any, and all, rivals. But perhaps more pertinently, to its own increasingly suspicious, paranoid and disillusioned population. This was a shrewd move on the part of Melchior and Haskin. With so much of the genre concerning itself with threats arriving from space and making war upon us, SF was just as guilty of making society insular and conservative as the Administration's belligerent foreign policy. This was certainly something different, and far more charitable and optimistic. It depicted a prime example of an everyman as being resolute, determined and imbued with tireless practicality and resourcefulness. He was also, in Mantee's expert and memorable portrayal, compassionate, adaptable and full of good cheer.

    And in this context, Robinson Crusoe On Mars becomes almost a true historical chronicle of the times and its mass ideology. Space travel was a serious field of endeavour … and having proved that we couldn't get along with our fellow Man, this was a radiant statement proclaiming that we would probably entertain an alien more favourably. More and more, people were looking to the stars in the hope of finding something better … and not merely shrinking away from imagined and metaphorical terrors. Robinson Crusoe also cemented the notion that wherever Man finds himself, he will never sacrifice his own dignity or identity.

    But, however lurid its depiction of a world beyond our own may be - so akin to the glowing visualisation of many a sci-fi comic or novel's glorious cover artwork - Robinson Crusoe On Mars is most definitely not the typical genre offering that the era was fond of churning out. Melchior, himself, had fashioned exactly the sort of run-of-the-mill monsterfests that summed up people's expectations of celluloid sci-fi already, with The Angry Planet and the more enjoyable Voyage To The Seventh Planet under his gravity-belt. But this time out, the notion was to create a believable world and a grittier, more realistic situation in which to place our imaginations ... and Crusoe was no less entertaining or exciting because of such attempts at authenticity. The attention to detail and the known scientific facts of the time (the fledgling NASA boffins were extremely keen to help Melchior and Haskin furnish their movie with credible equipment and a Martian environment that was true their current beliefs) created a milieu that, whilst surreal and breathtaking, was no mere flight of fancy. Thus, Draper can breathe for limited amounts of time on Mars without his oxygen cylinders. He can find water and edible plant-life. There are rocks that, when ignited, can provide breathable air. The orbiter features computers and electronics that were based on actual instrumentation in use at the time, with a few very feasible modifications. The escape pods that Draper and MacReady flee the Elinor in are incredibly accurate to the lunar landing module that wouldn't sift the dirt on the surface of the Moon for a number of years yet - even down to the landing struts. Check out the toothpaste style food-tubes that Draper is forced to ration for himself and Mona the monkey, pure prototypes for the food substitutes that real astronauts were to live off whilst in space. This was cutting edge stuff, folks. Even the portable video-recording unit that Draper constructs and uses to spy on the alien miners is something that wouldn't actually exist in this size and form until later that decade. But the point being is that such a thing, like so many of the other technical bits and bobs featured in the movie, would come into being.

    Of course, the film also has its downsides. Nowadays, the depiction of Mars appears quite rose-tinted and ludicrous. They may have gotten the rocky terrain right, but the atmosphere and pressure conditions are, sadly, way off the mark. But in a science fiction story, such liberties are not only expected but entirely welcomed. Where the movie definitely takes a misstep, however, is with the alien spacecraft, which are practically deadringers for the Manta-ray ships that the Martians use in The War Of The Worlds. It is still disputed as to their exact production origin - some say that they were a completely separate design and it is merely a coincidence that they look so familiar, but there can be little doubt that the sleek beauty and menace of the earlier ships was a direct influence upon these newer models. Their curious flight pattern, so erratic and jagged, is rather novel, though. Apparently their bizarre habit of zig-zagging around the skies and then coming to a sudden, abrupt halt was fashioned to mimic the oft-reported movement of the supposedly real UFOs that were still being sighted frequently over the United States. Either way, the colourful, laser-blasting fun to be found with these fascist sky-raiders is somewhat jeopardised by having too many shots of them repeated ... and, worse yet, the damning image of the beings who actually pilot them as viewed through Draper's video unit. Let's just say that the effect would have been much, much better if the helmets they wear had kept their faces hidden from us.

    Of the other characters, Adam (Batman) West's Dan MacReady hangs heavily over the film despite being killed off right at the start, such is the presence of his performance and the hopeful reverie and idolising that Kit Draper invests in him. Mantee is brilliant at portraying the underdog just waiting for his ultra-cool and indomitable skipper to return and save the day. His hopes and eventual crushing despair at losing his friend and commander are also keenly felt by us as Draper's increasing sense of desolation is slammed home, and profoundly eerie hallucinations set in. Lundin's Friday is a puzzling kettle of fish, though. As good as he in the role - assuming an air of almost Native American Indian nobility and pragmatism - he has a style of reserved watchfulness that makes him appear vaguely wooden and, at times, almost like a prop come to life. Bedecked in plainly Egyptian-extra-inspired clobber also seems to detract from his alien aura. The makers were after something exotic and ethnic, but Lundin actually looks as though he has just wandered in off the set of Charlton Heston's The Ten Commandments. Yet, there is an unmistakable chemistry between him and Mantee that makes their bonding and determination to save one another at all costs tangible and poignant. The tit-for-tat of life-saving becomes all the more touching when we discover the sacrifices that Friday seems to be making for his friend along the way. And then there's Mona. Actually a boy-monkey from South America called Barney, the poor little thing not only had to endure scenes whilst dressed in his own miniature spacesuit, but also wear a small furry codpiece to conceal his obvious manhood from the camera. However, the cute cosmic critter does a sterling job of providing a credible presence throughout the movie without ever once becoming the overt and trite object of fun or schmaltz. In fact, some of the most iconic imagery from the film features just Mantee and the monkey seen against the vast backdrop of the Martian wilderness as they explore their barren, yet beautiful new home.

    The photography from Winton C. Hoch is ravishing. He knows how to use the super-expansive Techniscope wide screen for both the deep shots of Draper traipsing across his immense back-yard, and for the more intimate moments of solitude in his cave. He should do, too – Hoch painted the majesty of Monument Valley for John Ford's The Searchers and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, winning a well-earned Academy Award for the latter. His ability to convey wonder and awe in a fantastical environment would also see service in Darby O' Gill And The Little People and Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea. The sets are quaint but beautiful. The little lagoon high up in the rocks that becomes the private health-spa is a fabulous visual indulgence. A lost and ruined alien settlement is a moving edifice for the loss and tragedy that they both feel. The bravura sequence in which the two survivors are forced to traverse precipitous rock walls in a vast subterranean cavern, all the while being bombed by the alien warships above, is lovingly stretched in scope, and is somewhat recalled in Logan's Run a decade later. The painted backdrops for some of these vistas are obviously fake, but they are still glorious to behold and easily expand that bubble of disbelief suspension. Like the surface of Altair IV in the great Forbidden Planet, Mars, matte-shots, painted reliefs and colourful sets and all, actually creates a landscape that you can readily believe as unutterably and intoxicatingly alien. Composer Van Cleave was also no stranger to SF. He had scored several episodes of The Twilight Zone, and the films The Space Children and Destination Space, and his experience with Westerns, such as Wagon Train and Have Gun Will Travel would also provide him with a solid understanding of the desert milieu and the theme of a dangerous new frontier.

    Looking at Robinson Crusoe On Mars in the grand scheme of things reveals it to be a sort of progenitor of Spielberg's War Of The Worlds and Shyamalans's Signs in that it refuses to show us the many big moments that more conventional movies surely would have done, concentrating instead upon the human - both psychological and emotional - elements of the story rather than the more juvenile eye-candy of the fantastique. The setting may be extraordinary, the situation mind-boggling, but, as with the directors of those two later films, Haskin shies away from the huge spectacle that you would, naturally, anticipate that he is going to show you. And, it is interesting to note, all three movies divided audiences and critics for, perhaps, this very reason. Therefore, it is testament to their makers' confidence in the narrative of their films that they don't splash the cash on elaborate effects-laden set-pieces to paper over any cracks. In many ways, Robinson Crusoe would be a much lesser experience if it dwelt more on extravagant action and dramatics. That we don't see Draper and Friday conspire to take down one of those alien warships, or somehow raise a rebellion against the tyrannical race that flies around in them only adds to the grandeur. And another beautifully ironic thing is that, as intimate as their tale of survival is, we are never allowed to forget that they are merely dots struggling to exist in the vastness of something far beyond their comprehension. They do effect change … but it is within themselves and not depicted as a grand-scale, interplanetary tsunami a la Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. In 1985, when Hollywood went to war with Russia in Rambo First Blood Part II, they were saying, quite categorically that one man could make a difference … but that he would have to wipe out whole armies in the process. They did, of course, realise the error of this crusade and, with the same leading man, Sly Stallone, paving the way, then sought to make America the first party to offer the hand of peace and change in, ahem, Rocky IV, which at least made the statement that two men battling one another was better than twenty million. Two decades before this, Paul Mantee and Victor Lundin did exactly the same thing in no less an escapist format, but in a much more considered and sensitive way. It was still America extending the hand of friendship, of course, but the point of comradeship is no less potent.

    This is another reason why the film was lost upon many who saw it at the time. If they wanted love and understanding and brotherly bonding, and the glorious fight against oppression, then there was always Stanley Kubrick's awesome Spartacus, from 1960, to light the way. But that was historical and its overriding ethics easily dismissed by a society that had already adopted the Senate, itself, and many of the other ideological concepts of Roman politics as their own. It is also pertinent to understand that Crusoe's theme of working together for mutual support and tolerance of that which is not immediately familiar are strong connective tissues to how Gene Roddenberry saw the universe and Man's place within it. Thus, Star Trek was born, and Robinson Crusoe On Mars does, at times, feel like an imaginative foundation stone in the construction of that enduring phenomenon.

    But with a film and a story that were, inarguably, ahead of their time, it is true that Paramount Pictures had no idea how to market Haskin's revolutionary production. The film may have had aliens and adventure and laser-beams, but the ingredients weren't to the distributor's taste and, fearing that they had a dead duck on their hands - “Where were the monsters? What about a fight scene?” - they elected to allow it only a very spotty release, usually as the lesser half of a double-bill. Nevertheless, Haskin, Mantee and the film, itself, did receive a lot of positive recognition from people who appreciated a genre flick that dared to be different from the plethora of galactic flotsam and jetsam, and to take itself seriously. The thinking man's sci-fi had finally arrived and, hardly by coincidence, Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick began extensive pre-production work on what would become the seminal intellectual space-trip, 2001: A Space Odyssey - a film that really would challenge and change perceptions of what the genre was about, and what it could say. Continuing the theme of intelligent SF parables, the classic Planet Of The Apes would also capture this vogue for emotional pioneering and deep philosophical conjectures amid wild visual fancy, its stunningly evocative first act of intimidating explorations across a seemingly “alien” world would be acutely emulative of the fascinating and visually compelling odyssey of discovery that the lone astronaut makes in Robinson Crusoe.

    But it was Ib Melchior and Byron Haskin who were, in no small measure, at the root of this fabulous new cinematic tangent. Despite those cast-off Martian Manta-rays, Robinson Crusoe On Mars opened the door for a more cerebral and emotionally complex type of space opera. It fits into a curious niche, though. Ahead of the game back in 1964, the film is now inarguably dated and incorrect in many of the things that it put forward – yet I believe that this just supplies a greater mythos and enigma to its already unique depiction of far-flung adventure.

    Highly recommended.