As originally written by Ib Melchior, the red planet of Robinson Cruse on Mars was filled with abominable creatures of all shapes, sizes, and demeanors, not least of which was a friendly armadillo mutant named Marza who served as a sidekick to the film’s astronaut protagonist, Cmdr. Christopher “Kip” Draper. This dense and dangerous terrain Melchior envisioned was not all that different from the glut of B-movie sci-fi actioners that were being released at the time and Melchior had already had experience in the field, penning the Godzilla rip-off Reptilicus and the space adventure Journey to the Seventh Planet only a few years earlier. He studied rock types and earth science with his time and a detailed explanation of the rock formations of Mars are among the innumerable things that Byron Haskin, working with second screenwriter John C. Higgins, changed when he took on directing responsibilities on the film. Marza’s role would be filled by a screeching black monkey named Mona and with only two exceptions, she would be Draper’s sole supporting character.
The immense and inarguably more stimulating changes that Higgins and Haskin enacted rendered the film something closer to a family film, but were detailed with patience and plotting that would suggest something of an art-house auteur in Haskins. Commander Draper’s battles were no longer with overgrown lizards with bifurcated tongues or extraterrestrial arachnoids, but with his elements and adapting to life on the planet, making the film infinitely more akin to its eponymous, elemental influence than Melchior had originally foreseen it. When Draper, played well and with a good measure of campy naïveté by Paul Mantee, crash-lands on the planet, his initial problems are finding shelter and a regular source of oxygen. The former problem is solved expediently, but the latter takes up a good amount of time in the film’s first half and is only matched by the search for water and food in the planet’s underground canal system. There’s a great self-aware moment, right before Mona is discovered outside Draper’s co-pilot’s (Adam West) wreckage, where Draper mistakes the monkey’s contorting tail for the antennae or appendage of an alien monster.
Looking back on it now, Robinson Cruse on Mars appears to be high camp, kitsch deployed with an expert’s taste. Nothing much else could explain why Haskin would allow for Draper’s ability to breathe regularly and walk around without more than a T-shirt and slacks on in outer space. In fact, prevailing theories on the atmosphere of the red planet at the time were not completely unlike Haskin and Higgins’s vision and the basic survival scenario that they had decided on lent the film an odd pseudo-realism at the time. We were, after all, a whole five years away from landing on the moon when the film was released; the dubious information available about Mars at the time spawned a litany of theories with variable certainties offered in each one.
None of them, of course, had the inclusion of Friday (Victor Lundin), an alien slave wearing garb that looks vaguely Egyptian and who works the mines on Mars for a neighboring planet. Adding uneasy, though certainly well-intentioned, racial ramifications to the proceedings, the introduction of Friday offers a break from the isolation and alienation of the film’s first half and adds a dash of the urgency that must have been pervasive in Melchior’s original script. Though some time is spent on Friday doing chores, popping oxygen pills and learning about God and the English language (“buddy” is slang for “brother”!), the film eventually becomes a chase across the alien landscape as Draper and Friday try to make their ways to the ice caps while being tracked by lazer-shootin’ spaceships.
The spaceships that hunt Friday and Draper are very similar to the spacecraft in War of the Worlds in terms of design, a fact not surprising when you consider that Haskin had previously helmed the 1953 film version of War of the Worlds. Otherwise, however, Robinson Cruse on Mars was more reminiscent of Jack London novels than it was of any extraterrestrial adventure that had made it into the cinemas. The creative stature for many films in Robinson Crusoe on Mars‘s chosen genre laid squarely on the shoulders of special effects and the sheer lunacy of the script, but Haskin, working with cinematographer Winton C. Hoch, found all the visual fascination he needed through location shooting in the ridges of Death Valley and decked the rest of the film out with nifty inventions and subtle surrealist touches, including the red and orange matte skylines in the Technicolor-enhanced background.
At the time, this all added up to heavy bupkis and the film did poorly at the box office, sending Mantee into a series of small television appearances and Haskin into a lengthy bout of directing jobs on The Outer Limits. Now, Robinson Cruse on Mars serves as a useful reminder on the narrative pleasures implicit in verisimilitude and an uneasy first step toward legitimizing science fiction as an art form, which would become something like gospel when 2001: A Space Odyssey broke out four years later. Robinson Cruse on Mars remains somewhat familiar in its narrative trajectory and doesn’t share the existential rigor of that film, but it has something in the way of the great joy of discovery and imagination that 2001: A Space Odyssey had. The 1969 moon landings added a sense of gravity to space travel that made it somewhat impossible to make a popular sci-fi film that didn’t at least acknowledge the technological state and the importance of the event. Robinson Cruse on Mars is tethered to nothing which makes its focus and the honesty of its narrative all the more remarkable. Whether Draper’s ideas on how to properly prepare space sausages damage that honesty or make the film all the more unique (or both) is merely a matter of taste.
Byron Haskin and director of photography Winton C. Hoch opted not to use anamorphic lenses, and as a result there are a few moments in the film that look soft or even discolored for brief moments. That being said, most of these problems are tied directly to the film's age and production budget. When all is said and done, Robinson Crusoe on Mars proves to be another all-around strong visual transfer from the Criterion Collection. Clarity is unimpeachable and the Technicolor vistas are crisply rendered in colors that lean towards pastels generally. Detailing and textures are superb and there is a negligible lack of debris and print damage. This goes ditto for the audio treatment: Dialogue is out front and perfectly balanced with the mixture of Van Cleave's score, the whirl and click-clack of machinery and the alien atmosphere.
This is the first disc in a while from Criterion where I've felt like the extras are barely worth the disc's price. The best thing here is the commentary track, which includes not only actors Lundin and Mantee, but excerpts from an old interview with Haskin where he talks about his disdain for the original script by Melchior, who also lends his voice here. It makes for a strong reminder of why the filmmaker remains the chief creative agent in the making of a film, or at least did at some point. A featurette, "Destination: Mars," gives a brief but informative look at the information on Mars that was available when the film was produced and how that informed the production, but a music video for Lundin's titular track is good only in its kitsch factor. Stills and a theatrical trailer are also included. The Blu-ray booklet includes a nice piece on the film by Michael Lennick, along with some facts on Mars and a small glossary of the alien dialect that Friday initially speaks in.
Byron Haskin's cult classic is, like their release of House, a chance for Criterion to pay homage to an ambitious narrative and truly weird visual experience which begat several more celebrated classics and yet remains largely unknown.