Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Byron Haskin, 1964) "This Film is Scientifically Accurate!" screamed the poster. "It is only one step ahead of present reality!" If "present reality" means ignorance about conditions on Mars, then one has to agree.  One might go so far as the opposite side of the orbit as to say Robinson Crusoe on Mars is more fantasy than science fiction.

But, I still love it, with the same affection I had for it when I first saw it on some TV movie matinee show in the late 60's.*  Taking Daniel Defoe's classic story and putting it in the space realm wasn't much of a stretch, but what the filmmakers did with it made it an ingenious adventure film, full of obstacles that the lone survivor of a mission to Mars must overcome in order to last more than the 60 hours his air supply will allow in the too-thin Martian atmosphere.  With his mother-ship (out of fuel due to maneuvers to avoid "an unidentified mass") circling enticingly out of reach in orbit, Commander Kit Draper (Paul Mantee) must eke out an existence with anything the Martian surface can provide, even though it has all the appearance of a dead rock with volcanic activity. With the aid of a "mascot" monkey named Mona,** Draper is able to find sources for air, water and food, enough that the isolation on Mars starts wreaking havoc on his psyche. Be careful what you wish for, because soon he's being buzzed by creepily moving, thrumming spacecraft (looking suspiciously like the floating Martian craft from The War of the Worlds). ***
The director was special effects wizard/cinematographer Byron Haskin, who was a fine adventure director, helming that 1950's era The War of the Worlds, Disney's classic version of Treasure Island, From the Earth to the Moon, and many of the better episodes of "The Outer Limits." The man had a way of grounding the most fantastic of concepts to something that felt real, but his alien ideas always seemed sleek and properly "out-of-this world." And he knew how to keep things moving, with new surprises around every papier mache escarpment.
Particular praise must go to actor Paul Manteewho looks like he could have been one of the Mercury 7 astronauts, short, wiry, and with rugged features that made him no candidate for matinee idolatry—as for the majority of time RCOM is a one-man show. This sort of science-fiction story could easily be played for camp (and for that, see Mantee's unfortunate co-pilot, Adam West), but Mantee's low-key performance—an extended monologue with recorded soliloquies—never strays into that territory, even when an escaped slave from those pesky spacecraft shows up to serve the purpose of "the man Friday." Mantee would go on to make a career in television, and pop up in episodes of many dramas (and the occasional comedy), sometimes playing more than one character over the course of their runs—and had a recurring role on "Cagney and Lacey." A jouneyman actor with features that could be of a villain or a tough guy, he's one of those character actors you could depend on to "blend," and even excel when the need arose. Like shouldering an entire science fiction film and keeping it from spinning out of orbit. Mantee (and "Friday" actor Victor Lundin) did a commentary track for the Criterion release.  I'll have to give that one a listen.
* I estimate it to be 1966-1967.  The reason I watched it is that Adam West (then TV's "Batman") had a small role in it, barely a cameo, really.  Despite the actor's lack of presence, I was captivated by the film.

** It is, basically, a "kids'" film, as the makers regularly do "insert" shots of Mona to reassure us that the monkey is doing just fine. 

*** Thanks to some very intricate gap-editing tricks.

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