This science fiction film from 1964 played frequently on television when I was a kid in the early 1970s. Favorite movies from childhood tend to disappoint when seen through adult eyes, but I'm happy to report Robinson Crusoe on Mars (directed by Byron Haskin, the man who helmed Conquest of Space and The War of the Worlds) has aged very well. The title makes its DVD debut on Tuesday September 18, thanks to the prestigious Criterion Collection.
A two man expedition to Mars takes an unfortunate turn when a large meteor forces the crew to alter their course, bringing them within the planet's gravitational pull, and the two crewmen are forced to eject. Since Colonel Dan McReady (a pre-Batman Adam West) gets most of the screen time while aboard Mars Gravity Probe One, the audience is led to believe he will be the film's main character. McReady, however, dies when his escape vehicle crashes on the Martian surface, leaving Commander Christopher "Kit" Draper (Paul Mantee) marooned with only a monkey named Mona for companionship.
Mars is an inhospitable place in the film, with a large amount of volcanic activity, and on a couple of occasions we see our hero chased by an unexplained roaming fireball. The atmosphere is somewhat breathe-able, but too thin to sustain Draper for any period of time without taking a booster from his oxygen tanks which are quickly dwindling. Water and food supplies are also limited. He finds shelter and sets up house in a cave, and creates a makeshift alarm clock to let him know when he needs an oxygen boost. Just as his air supply is running out, Draper realizes that the coal-like rocks he's been burning for heat also give off oxygen. Mona soon leads him to an underground water supply, and a species of edible plant, providing our hero with all the ingredients for survival save for human companionship.
When Draper sees a space vessel land nearby he believes he's about to be rescued, but the craft turns out to be a mining vessel from a distant star system. One of the aliens' slave laborers (Victor Lundin) escapes and takes refuge with Draper, who dubs his new companion "Friday, with apologies to Robinson Crusoe." The film stumbles a bit at this point. Up to now we've had a classic man against nature tale of survival, with scientific elements that were believable enough for the period. The sudden arrival of aliens from a distant star system late in the film is jarring, and the fact that the alien overseers are wearing space suits from Destination Moon doesn't help. It's not a fatal flaw, though, and Friday's character is pivotal to what the film ultimately becomes -- a story of friendship and loyalty -- as these two men struggle together for survival.
The look of the film is dated but still quite effective. Matte paintings, some more convincing than others, represent certain aspects of the Martian landscape, with much of the terrain actually shot in Death Valley. Stock footage is used for some of the volcanic activity and avalanche scenes, and the controls of the space ship are oh so analog.
As one might expect from The Criterion Collection, the extras on the disk are top-notch. Perhaps the best of them is an audio commentary with the film's director (via an interview recorded in 1979) and stars Mantee and Lundin, production designer Al Nozaki, Oscar-winning special effects designer and Robinson Crusoe on Mars historian Robert Skotak and screenwriter Ib Melchior (who penned many classic science fiction films including The Time Travelers and Planet of the Vampires. Excerpts from the original screenplay are available on the disk in PDF form, and there is a short documentary on the scientific realities of Mars and how they relate to the film. Also included are a stills gallery, the original trailer, and a music video for a song written about the film by actor Victor Lundin.