50 years before The Martian, this piece of survival adventure was brought to screen by director and special effects great Byron Haskin (War of the Worlds). But where The Martian was all about sciencing the hell of out of stuff, Robinson Crusoe is more like Cast Away, surviving on luck, happenstance, and a serious dose of colonial mentality. OK, not all of that is Cast Away, I was referring mostly to the surviving parts.
While Crusoe won’t win any science, or even acting awards, there is something compelling in its portrayal, especially given when it was made. Paul Mantee must solve challenge after challenge to survive on Mars after being stranded. You’d be forgiven thinking the lead for this tale was going to be Adam West as he is much more recognizable in the current times thanks to Batman and Family Guy. In addition to being a familiar face, for some reason he also dominates the opening of the film which is weird structurally.
Given the title, it should be no surprise that Friday shows up in the guise of Victor Lundin. He, along with the surviving monkey who, for some reason got to take a trip to Mars with Mantee and West for experiments, fight the elements and unseen enemies to make it to a rather abrupt and unlikely conclusion. Friday’s role is subtle, pushing back against some of the colonialism in Mantee and the audience in quiet ways, but never really rising above the noble savage in the script.
So why spend time with this you ask? Well first, the Criterion restoration is pretty incredible; the visuals are crisp and clean, though, admittedly, some of the sound levels are a bit loud. The story itself is universal, in terms of survival against the elements and the unknown. And, perhaps because of the highly clinical response to the dangers, the result is less melodramatic and more a fascinating puzzle. Certainly to modern audiences aspects of the discoveries and solutions are laughable, but this film was made after we’d barely gotten into orbit and not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis. We really didn’t know much about Mars at the time, though more than the script might suggest, and we were deep into the Cold War. While it is admittedly more a curio than a great film, the experience is a fascinating look back to a time not all that long ago and, honestly, not a bad evening for popcorn.