Had Byron Haskin waited a year to shoot 1964's Robinson Crusoe On Mars, it might have been a very different film—or gotten scrapped altogether. Ib Melchior's original script adapted Daniel Defoe's classic novel Robinson Crusoe for the space-race age, populating it with armadillo-like Martian beasts and three-fingered space travelers. But when Melchior left to film another of his scripts, The Time Travelers, Haskin and screenwriter John C. Higgins threw out the '50s pulp elements and set out to make a "factual" science-fiction film, proudly proclaiming in their ads, "This film is SCIENTIFICALLY AUTHENTIC It is only one step ahead of present reality!"
But "present reality" changed in 1965, when Mariner 4 brought back the first images confirming Mars as a rocky, dead desert. In 1964, Mars was still presumed to hold water, a thin but possibly breathable atmosphere, and potentially even extraterrestrial life. So in the film, when a near collision with a planetoid forces astronauts Adam West (due for Batman fame two years later) and Paul Mantee down to Mars' surface, Mantee is able to follow in Crusoe's footsteps, working out sustainable native sources of heat, air, food, and water. The film's first half plays out with the plodding earnestness of early Star Trek, with West flipping giant switches in their amusingly clunky spaceship, and Mantee bumbling around silently making discoveries, then dutifully audiotaping his diary to update viewers on his goals. Eventually, a space fleet (repainted props from Haskin's classic The War Of The Worlds) descends, and Mantee finds his man Friday in Victor Lundin, dressed and acting like a Ten Commandments reject. But until he arrives, the film strives studiously for a speculative brand of "authenticity."
Which may help explain why such a lumpy, plodding film was so highly praised in 1964; its attention to detail and lack of rubber-suit monsters made it a thinking fan's picture. These days, it mostly seems naïve and self-important, not to mention dull next to similar but superior fare like War Of The Worlds and Forbidden Planet. At least the Technicolor vistas still look gorgeous, and it's easy to see the early influences on Star Trek. (Haskin co-produced that show's pilot.) While it's still considered a classic, and it remains a fascinating time capsule, in some ways, Robinson Crusoe On Mars was dated almost before it left theaters.
Key features: A trailer, production gallery, and massive group commentary cut together from a 1979 Haskin interview and 1994 sessions with Melchior, Mantee, Lundin, and others. Best and worst of all, a video featuring movie footage cut to a horrible song about the film Lundin wrote to perform at science-fiction conventions.