Posted by Greg Ferrara on April 2, 2017
To view Robinson Crusoe click here.
Luis Buñuel, the controversial and much banned filmmaking genius, has become so associated with the surreal cinema that the idea of him directing a straightforward adventure seems, well, surreal. But in 1952, gaining funding for a joint Spanish and English language production of Robinson Crusoe (it wouldn’t be released until 1954), based on the 18th century novel by Daniel Defoe, Buñuel did just that, although Buñuel the iconoclast was never far out of sight. Starring Dan O’Herlihy in the title role, the movie invents just about every deserted island trope you’ve probably ever heard of (from the novel of course), but along the way, touches on some very controversial subject matter, both reflecting the time the novel was written, the time the movie was made and bigoted notions of the white man’s dominion over the earth.
Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe, following the rough outline of the novel (it diverges fairly drastically from the plot details), begins when Crusoe, as we discover through his narration, leaves home in England to pursue adventure. His father is against it but he goes anyway. Of course, disaster strikes and Crusoe finds himself alone on an island with no companions, no supplies and no hope of rescue. He makes his way to a high point on the island and sees the ship he had booked passage on, shipwrecked among the rocks a couple of hundred yards out. Swimming out to them, he surveys the booty and determines if he can get enough of it back, he will be set. There’s food stores, rum, guns, ammunition, clothing, even flint for starting fires. And there’s another survivor, a cat named Sam.
Crusoe constructs a raft to get the supplies back to shore and once he’s done, sets to building a stable enclosure to protect himself from the elements, and the wild things of the jungle. He also discovers that Rex, the dog on the ship, made it ashore as well. For now, at least, Crusoe has the companionship of both cat and dog.
The island itself seems pretty magical. It’s got coconuts, oranges, bananas, goats, fresh water in abundance and even wheat. Yes, wheat. Somehow, Crusoe surmises, some seeds must have made it ashore from the ship and taken root. With no want or need of anything, Crusoe realizes two things: he stinks at doing things by himself, as he always had servants, and he wants someone to talk to, despite having everything he needs.
Indeed, this is what Buñuel wanted the primary concern of the story to be, the struggles of a man dealing with solitude. Not dealing with how to survive physically, but mentally. Eventually though, the movie arrives at other people on the island and it is here that movie, following the source material, takes on a duality of intentions, not entirely successful in either one. That duality deals with the colonial attitudes exemplified by the so-called “white man’s burden” and the efforts of Defoe, Buñuel, and O’Herlihy to humanize Crusoe in a way palatable to the audience. It begins when Crusoe discovers that cannibals have been coming to the island for years without him knowing. He’s been there for almost 18 years but it’s a big island and they’ve been coming to the shore on the opposite side to murder and eat their victims.
While observing them, Crusoe sees one of them escape. He chases him down and the two of them kill the two cannibals chasing him. The island native is overtly grateful, submits to Crusoe and Crusoe takes him back to his enclosure. There, he asks his name and when the native does not understand, Crusoe christens him Friday after the day of the week he was discovered. When he tells him that his new name is Friday, he also tells him to address him, Crusoe, as “Master.” True, he says “friend” too but, let’s face it, after “master” anything else comes off as an empty gesture. And so we see Friday working hard, grinding up the wheat for bread, learning English, eating with utensils and Crusoe narrating how good it is to have a servant again. Ugh.
Back in 1719, when Defoe wrote the book, such story elements likely made not a single reader cringe. In fact, the parts where Crusoe calls Friday his friend and treats him on equal ground as he comes to trust him, probably caused much more consternation than any of the condescending civilized man versus savage turns. After all, Crusoe sets off on a slave ship, intent on getting slaves from Africa for Brazil to make his fortune. That he goes from that to living with a man of color was most likely seen as progressive at the time. Today, of course, it’s much different. And in 1952 as well.
Buñuel was aware of this and really wanted to concentrate on Crusoe’s solitude and even work in his own doubts about God. Early in the story, Crusoe picks up the Bible and sagely intones that only God can save him. Later, he yells the 23rd Psalm in frustration in a ravine to hear his voice echo back. Then, when he tries to teach the Bible to Friday, Friday pokes so many holes in the story that Crusoe is left laughing at the absurdity of it all. It wasn’t much, but it was the most Buñuel could squeeze in and still get financing. Otherwise, Buñuel tried to focus as much on solitude and as little on the Friday relationship as possible but it’s there and can’t be ignored.
For instance, the two men are presented immediately as student and teacher, before we even get to know Friday. Crusoe has to make big gestures to get Friday to understand simple things, like digging a hole. He instructs Friday that it is not right to eat human meat. He teaches him how to use a fork. And all the while, Friday is a willing student. And the condescension is thick. Even after learning rudimentary English, Friday never once says, “Oh, by the way, my actual name is…” You’d think he would but, instead, he seems content to be called “Friday.” And when they have the chance to finally leave the island, does Friday choose to go back to his island, just a few miles away, and return to his own people? Of course not. He’s only too happy to travel to England and continue on as Crusoe’s servant.
The novel tells a pretty different story, one in which Crusoe comes off even worse. In the novel, he has a separate adventure before the deserted island everyone knows from the movies, one in which he gets captured by pirates, enslaved, and then, when he escapes with a slave boy, sells the boy to book passage on a ship heading for Brazil! The movie versions always bypass that segment and moves straight to the marooned section, wisely enough, which takes us to Buñuel’s adventure.
Dan O’Herlihy received a nomination for Best Actor for his performance and it’s a nomination well-deserved. Taking us from young Englishman to wandering islander, half insane and starved for companionship, O’Herlihy never makes the character ridiculous or undignified. Jaime Fernandez, as Friday, is excellent in a very difficult role. He’s got to play the simple savage without sinking into caricature and succeeds very well at keeping Friday at Crusoe’s level. And Luis Buñuel keeps everything grounded, though he does give us a dream sequence where his surrealistic instincts make their mark. Robinson Crusoe is a difficult story to tell today and even a version as even-handed and cautious as this one still has moments of cringing old world European attitudes and racism. But O’Herlihy and Fernandez play it well and Buñuel keeps the adventure and the theme of loneliness at the center. That makes it a movie worth watching, even if it ends up being both fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.
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