Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of Jaime’s bi-weekly Criterion review series where he explores the depths of the Criterion Collection.
My first trip to space, on Criterions’ dime, takes me all the way to Mars. But it’s not the traditional sense of Mars you and I are quite used to. It’s something different, and it’s pulling me…
Robinson Crusoe on Mars tells the story of two astronauts named “Kit” Draper (Paul Mantee) and Dan MacReady (a really young Adam West) who run into a rogue meteor during their routine check on Mars. They’re forced to to leave their home ship (though it does not get impacted), and Draper lands solo on the mysterious planet. HIs pod is wrecked, he’s running low on oxygen, and he can’t find MacReady nor the ship’s monkey, Mona. While trying to survive, he meets someone else that’s stranded, though he’s not human. An alien slave named Friday (Victor Lundin) is now by his side, and together they must find a way to survive the gorgeous yet hostile environment we know as the Red Planet.
…together they must find a way to survive the gorgeous yet hostile environment we know as the Red Planet.
It was hard for me to not think of Robinson Crusoe on Mars as something else the whole time I was watching it. This was one of director Byron Haskin’s last films before passing away in 1984 (he’s best known for directing Treasure Island and the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds). Haskin came from a special effects background lasting 19 years, with four Oscar nominations and a honorary Oscar win for his work to show for that part of his life. There’s not doubt that he was an innovator in the effects world, but the passion of his vision as a director is nowhere near as recognized. Is it maybe because he films weren’t seen as being that good or worthy enough, or could it be that his methods, especially towards the end of his illustrious career, were considered too old school…even for the 1960’s?
I digressed before (as I seem to always do with these pieces) about the effect that a movie like Robinson Crusoe on Mars would have on today’s film society. A film like this definitely took a lot of chances with its approach. Even for the standards of the 1960’s, it was low-budget and had a cast of primary unknowns (I’m not counting West) and yet it was under the care of Paramount Pictures, a juggernaut studio whose status will always last the test of time (or will it?…how many of us said that about MGM). Apparently studios were doing the ‘dumping’ thing decades ago, and we can use Robinson Crusoe on Mars as exhibit A. The movie was basically ignored by Paramount throughout the production, and when it came time to market and release it, it was barely given a glance. All of those actions led the inevitable “box office bomb” card it received.
It’s hard for the cast and crew of this film to not be disappointed by the result. Now, if a film like Robinson Crusoe on Mars or even the film itself had been released today, it still may not be a huge box office draw (the B.O. has become more unpredictable now than ever, let’s face it) but through social media, the internet and good-old-fashioned word of mouth, this would have found a level of success that would have embraced this with a warm hug. In my eyes, movies these days are given the ‘cult classic’ status way too easily as a result of the aforementioned tools, so perhaps it’s a catch-22. What’s a way to find the true gems through that kind of muck, especially since movies way back when had to earn that CC sticker? Alas, a catch-22. To me, if movies show a real trait, or if it has something that’s worth all of us checking out despite it’s various flaws, it’s given attention. And who knows, maybe that one trait is enough for someone to treasure that film. Point is, it has to have something special.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a nearly forgotten sci-fi gem that’s full of sincerity and earnestness.
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a nearly forgotten sci-fi gem that’s full of sincerity and earnestness. In reality, any film that has the Criterion label can’t possibly be fully forgotten but let’s pretend it didn’t have the label for a second. Now, first and foremost, it’s definitely not a classic. The screenplay’s take on the famous novel is able-bodied enough to build up a structure, but it lacks in certain areas (namely its dialogue) and mainly it fails to build upon real opportunities to make itself stand out. However, when a film tries to make itself stand out in other ways despite of its own script, and in the way this did, it plants a huge smile on my face. The most obvious case it has for positivity is its production design. Cinematographer Winton C. Hoch (The Quiet Man, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and the production design team do a remarkable job with this unique vision of Mars (play this film on your HDTV and thank them a thousand times over). Their spectacular work also provides one of my favorite cinematic examples: your budget does not dictate your look. They were creative with their set designs and locations; where they got them, how they used them. It was handled with care.
But the primary use of the care displayed by Robinson Crusoe in Mars is most evident in Haskin’s direction with his small but stellar cast. Mantee and Lundin weren’t household names, but that’s something you couldn’t tell them back in 1964. They both give performances that channel every actor’s extreme attempt to move us, and oh man they just nailed it. Mantee is a one-man show for half of the film, and there’s a particular scene that stands out where he imagines a possible survivor “a” crash. Kit starts to get frantic. Human composure deteriorates completely and while it’s a very short scene, Mantee absolutely nails it. It sets the tone and the level for the rest of the film, and when Lundin’s Friday shows up, the two actors let their performances feed off of each other beautifully. It’s the true mold of the film. Haskin must have known that, but he couldn’t ignore his own background, and the point where Robinson Crusoe on Mars fuses both to form that perfect marriage is when the film truly earns its status. Granted it might have taken a while to get to that point, but it was worth it.
My time on Mars was a worthy visit, but now I must leave it. I hear something calling me all the way from Japan. It’s a potentially sinister call, but it’s pulling me in, even from outer space…
Robinson Crusoe on Mars is a sci-fi gem that deserves a proper look from anyone who calls themselves a lover of the genre.