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Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Blu-ray Review)

17 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Paul Mantee, Victor Lundin, Adam West.

Someone I know once claimed to have gone to school with a guy named Moldy Akers, and another acquaintance worked at a box factory with an Oral Grummutt. Their lot in life was probably no worse than to be a movie with this audience-killer of a title, even one with considerable charms.

To the surprise of many at the time, Criterion long ago issued a laserdisc of this 1964 sleeper (as well as one of 1958’s The Blob) back when it really didn’t have much of a relationship with original distributor Paramount — apparently negotiating out of sheer love on someone’s part. This most prestigious of home market distributors has basically replicated its initial Crusoe release (and the standard DVD that followed years later) — yet this Blu-ray is worth noting and even savoring for a couple standout reasons. One: it’s gorgeous — a prime example of how brilliant Paramount’s designers and labs could make Technicolor look in the early 1960s, even with a release shot in the economizing Techniscope process, whose trade-off was to make movies look grainier than anyone wanted (though not in this case). Second: Criterion did a wonderful job with the commentary track, covering the movie from all angles.

To hear the production principals reminiscing here in a commentary that was smoothly assembled from many sources, no one really wanted to retain a moniker, for public consumption, that was basically just a working title — though this said, it does describe the movie. A U.S. astronaut (Paul Mantee, who may have been cast because he looked a little like pioneer real-life counterpart Alan Shepard) crash-lands on you-know where. For much of the picture, his only companion is a monkey (source of many behind-the-scenes anecdotes), but eventually there appears the equivalent of Crusoe originator Daniel Defoe’s “Friday” character: here an “escaped intergalactic mining slave,” as described in Michael Lennick’s excellent accompanying essay.

Stitched-together commentaries don’t allow for literal “interplay,” but we basically get some anyway when a 1979 audio interview with veteran director Byron Haskin is juxtaposed against comments by Ib Melchior, the film’s predominant screenwriter. Melchior had previously directed and co-written 1959’s The Angry Red Planet, so he had plenty of “Mars” on his resumé. Haskin had done War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space and some "Outer Limits" episodes, so he doubtlessly thought he knew what was and what wasn’t, Mars-wise. In any event, they are always dumping on each other’s contributions and adherence to scientific fact, though Melchior is more diplomatic. Truth is, more was known about the planet later than during the production.

Striking the friendliest tone is Mantee, who had to carry the film and, to more of a degree than anyone else, carry the commentary. He talks of the difficultly in acting mostly alone (or with a monkey) and expresses political discomfort in the way his character turns the slave (Victor Lundin) into the kind of lackey Tonto sometimes seemed to be for the Lone Ranger (or worse). Mantee talks of the great hopes everyone seemed to have for the picture and how Haskin seem pleased (it remained a personal favorite from the director’s long career). But studio personnel changed around the time of release, and there remained the problem of a title tacked on to what is actually a pretty solid movie about making do with isolation and one that’s still a dream to gaze upon despite the primitive special effects of the day.

Discussing the movie’s vistas is effects designer and Crusoe on Mars historian Robert Skotak (who won Oscars for Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day; he also worked on Mars Attacks!). Also this film’s production designer Al Nozaki (who also had a lot to do with the unforgettable look of The Ten Commandments). Just to show that you never know what you’re going to hear on a commentary, Japanese-descended Nozaki talks of how he talked his way into the Paramount art department as a youth (something almost no one over did) and then suffered the humiliation of being dismissed for four years just after Pearl Harbor, only to be rehired at war’s end. He later went blind and had to retire. Man.

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