Monday, March 12, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Robinson Crusoe" (1954)

Here's an oddity: the 1954 film version of Daniel Defoe's castaway novel, in vivid Technicolor, directed by Surrealist Luis Buñuel and starring Dan O'Herlihy, best known to my generation as the aged corporate honcho in "Robocop" referred to simply as The Old Man.

O'Herlihy had a low-profile but interesting career, careening back and forth from film to television and back again, in leading and supporting roles. All told, he worked with great regularity from the mid-1940s until the late '90s -- few can say as much.

As the castaway Crusoe, O'Herlihy narrates the story in a soft, meditative tone. But whenever Robin speaks during the film, it's in a deep stentorian voice that sounds like he's trying to call out Shakespeare to the back of the auditorium. Far raspier in his old age, we still get a taste of the old basso profondo pipes at the end of "Robocop" when he delivers the best line of that movie, "You're fired, Dick!"

Buñuel is best known for his playful and sometimes disturbing surrealism, including collaborations with Salvador Dali, but he also made plenty of straight narrative pictures. "Robinson Crusoe" is more or less devoid of freaky-deaky images, with the exception of one dream sequence where Robin sees his father's face disappearing into of a pool of water, and so forth.

The story of the loner trapped on an island or similar desolate place has become an iconic one, and Defoe's novel -- first published in 1719 -- is more or less the wellspring of that mythos.

I noticed that Buñuel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Hugo Butler, kept some of the visuals from the book's original illustrations (you can view them on Wikipedia) in the look of the film -- especially Robin's costume as he approaches the end of his 28 long years on an island off the coast of Brazil.

By the end he's transformed into a wizard-like figure trailing robes of stitched-together animal hides, carrying a patchy umbrella, sporting a long bushy beard and a towering pointed cap. The result is a rather silly figure, sort of a crazed South Seas Santa. The hat is especially incongruous -- peaked headgear like that is designed for trapping in heat in cold climes. In the blazing tropics, I'd imagine Robin would cook his noodle wearing that thing.

Robin has plenty of the trappings of his former life to sustain him, though. He manages to salvage a treasure trove of supplies from the wreck of his ship (which curiously produces no corpses or other castaways of the human variety). He's got furniture, tools, chests of gold, books, even tobacco. He also appears to have a seemingly endless supply of gun powder and bullets, not to mention casks of rum.

Outfitted like a well-heeled safari for one, Robin's survival never is really in doubt. He even has a cat and dog to keep him company, until the cats -- somehow his singular kitty becomes impregnated -- run wild and the dog, Rex, dies of old age. This is actually one of the movie's few genuinely moving scenes, when Robin returns from hunting up a "tasty" for the lame Rex to find the animal has crawled out after him into a monsoon, dying in a pool of water.

The savages are anything but noble in Buñuel's depiction. Robin spies cannibals performing a flesh-eating ritual on his beach, though they soon return to their own nearby island. In a particularly gruesome scene for 1954, he looks over the bones and skulls of their victims afterward.

Eventually, of course, Robin confronts the cannibals to free one of the prisoners they're about to eat. This becomes His Man Friday, named after the day of the week upon which he's rescued. Interestedly, Friday (Jaime Fernández) wears the exact same garb and hairdo as those who were about to eat him. One generally thinks of cannibals as preying upon other tribes, but in this case it appears they literally eat their own.

Robin insists upon being called Master, and during the time he works to gain the native's trust -- i.e., train him to speak and become his servant -- he even briefly locks Friday up in slave manacles. Of course, this was the initial purpose of his seafaring travels, to obtain slaves from Africa for the South American plantations.

Even though it's set nearly three centuries in the past, it's still hard to relate to a slaver as the hero of any fictional story.

I also found it interesting that Defoe's novel and most cinematic adaptations of it have been presented as rousing adventure stories. Most people would think of spending nearly 30 decades on a rock in the ocean as Job-like torture, not high adventure. More recent iterations, including the wonderful "Cast Away" starring Tom Hanks, focus more on the toll such an existence exacts upon the soul.

"Robinson Crusoe" is a great-looking film, with crisp colors and beautiful island vistas. In the end, though, the tale is too antiquated to translate to modern audiences.

2.5 stars out of four

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