Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Original Cast Away

Film: Robinson Crusoe (Adventures of Robinson Crusoe)
Format: Streaming video from Kanopy on laptop.

Daniel Defoe’s book about Robinson Crusoe is one of those stories, much like Robin Hood, that pretty much everyone knows but that pretty much no one has read. I’m guilty of that myself, although I did once try to read Robin Hood. Anyway, it’s hardly surprising that someone would make the story into a movie. I’m a little surprised it took until 1954, and I’m equally surprised that the person in charge of it was Luis Bunuel. No matter. Robinson Crusoe, also known as Adventures of Robinson Crusoe awaits.

We learn right away that our hero, Robinson Crusoe (Dan O’Herlihy) has gone to see against the wishes of his father since, as a third son, he has few prospects. What we also learn is that our hero Robinson’s first gig away from home is on a slave ship hoping to transport captives from Brazil. We’re off to a rip-roaring, wholesome start for the whole family. A storm forces him to abandon ship and he swims for a nearby island. The next day, he discovers his ship floating and abandoned in a nearby cove. He swims out to it, collects supplies as well as the ship’s cat and dog, and returns back to his island laden down with food, firearms, and other supplies. Sadly, the ship soon sinks, meaning that everything he’s found is all he has, and aside from his pets, he’s now alone.

Over time, Robinson learns how to do, well, everything. He builds a house that seems to be up to code, learns to hunt, becomes a fairly accomplished potter, and essentially rediscovers agriculture, starting from nothing to having a thriving farm, including animals he has tamed. I suppose in that respect it’s a good thing that it was he who was marooned on an island. I’d probably have been dead within the first week.

What may not be known about the tale be the person who has only a casual knowledge of the tale is just how long he is on the island—it’s just over 28 years. He’s alone for a good deal of that. Eventually, the cat becomes feral and the dog dies, leaving him completely alone. Naturally, he starts to go a little bit loopy until one day he notices some other humans on the island. Sadly for him, these people are cannibals who have rowed over from a nearby island to perform some hideous human-eating ritual. Robinson stays hidden until the next day and starts to be on his guard against potential attacks.

Eventually, he spots the cannibals again, but this time, one of their captives makes a break for it. Robinson heads down and defends the fleeing man from a couple of chasers. This man becomes Friday (Jaime Fernandez), whom he does not trust for a good amount of time. Eventually, he figures out that Friday is not a cannibal and is actually thankful for being rescued. The two live together on the island for a number of additional years until fate brings another ship to the island and the plan a way to get rescued.

The fact that Crusoe is initially starting out on a slave ship is a moral problem, and I imagine that was equally true in 1954. This isn’t the only place where the story has some significant issues with basic morality. I understand that the story takes place in the late 17th century. I understand that for its time, there were a number of things that were different, particularly attitudes toward institutions like slavery. Additionally, there are real issues with the entire concept of the “white man’s burden” and the idea of “civilized” versus “primitive” civilizations. The most telling moment comes when Crusoe brings Friday back to his house/farm and names him. While this won’t be the exact dialogue, it’s essentially, “You, Friday. Me, Master.”

Dan O’Herlihy is the reason this showed up in my parade of Oscars, and I have to say that it’s an interesting nomination in a number of ways. My guess is that O’Herlihy’s nomination came specifically for a couple of scenes in which he screams to the heavens about his isolation and frustration. The truth is that it’s a pretty good performance. There are several places where gives a bug-eyed series of looks at everything that is happening. It’s a little odd, but it also works for a guy who has been living completely without human company for a decade and a half.

The problem is that Robinson Crusoe is a difficult film to recommend. It’s one of those stories that, in many ways, is better the less you know the actual details.

Why to watch Robinson Crusoe: Survival stories tend to be compelling.
Why not to watch: It’s politically incorrect in some surprising ways.


  1. It's been a long time since I've watched this and I hadn't realized O'Herlihy was nominated. Though I like him as an actor I don't recall him being particularly memorable in this. It was a decent, colorful adventure but like you I knew the basic story without having read the actual book.

    This was better than the 80's version simply called Crusoe with Aidan Quinn, which wasn't bad nor was it great. And it's leagues better than the absolutely awful Man Friday from the 70's that starred Peter O'Toole and Richard Roundtree.

    1. It's not bad. There's just a great deal in the story that is hard to let go from a modern perspective. That was probably true when the film was released as well, but it's much more the case now.