Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Luis Buñuel's celebrated version of the Daniel Defoe classic finally comes to home video: In
thirty years of looking for this film, I've never known it screened or shown on television. VCI's
copy is good in all basics and is an excellent opportunity to see the master of surrealism and
subversive political cinema put his talents to use on a straightforward adventure tale. There are
only the barest hints of Buñuel's wicked sense of humor, and trace elements of his well-known
Robinson Crusoe (Daniel O'Herlihy) is stranded alone on an island. Thankfully able
to raid his ship's stock before it sinks completely, he has some necessities to learn how to survive
and support himself, and the ship's cat and dog to keep him company. Crusoe conquers his new land
and avoids cannibals from a neighboring island, but becomes so lonely he fears going insane. Then
one day he rescues a native companion from the cannibals, who he re-names Friday (Jaime
Luis Buñuel plays his storytelling straight in Las Aventuras de Robinson Crusoe, his
only film shot in the English language and I believe his first in color. A Mexican movie intended
for an international market, it received a wide release in the U.S. through United Artists, which
long ago lost the rights. Daniel O'Herlihy's performance won him an Oscar nomination.
Following the story faithfully and imitating the look of old illustrations, Buñuel takes
the opportunity of showing a self-made civilized man triumphing in the wild through ingenuity,
hard work and optimism. Crusoe describes himself as "a third son," a fellow destined to inherit
nothing, and therefore best recommended to
go out into the world and see what he can make of it. He's also a privileged man, for he must
teach himself things that he'd only seen his servants do before, such as start a fire with
flint and steel. Buñuel also refrains from cleaning up the story: Crusoe's sailing mission
was to Africa from Brazil, to buy slaves just like the villain played by Klaus Kinski in
Crusoe does get a head start with tools, a chest of weapons and some wheat seed rescued from the boat.
Soon he's built himself a stockade and is hunting and farming like a pro, tending goats he's found
and otherwise making himself a comfortable living.
The Buñuellian touches show themselves only intermittently. A couple of insects show up, including
a scene where Crusoe feeds an ant to some Ant Lion bugs for amusement. While feverish he has a
dream of his father refusing him water, with some restrained but recognizably Buñuel-style
imagery. When a woman's dress erected as a scarecrow gets Crusoe's attention, the scene is G-rated
but we know exactly what he's thinking about.
Crusoe's adventures with Friday are quite well done in that Defoe's European/savage equation isn't
softened. At first a trembling slave, Friday is mistrusted and treated harshly until Crusoe realizes
that he's sufficently grateful and loyal to accept as a friend. From then on their teamwork (with
Crusoe still boss) is a little utopia of cooperative harmony. Crusoe tries shackling
Friday with leg irons intended for African slaves (this Friday seems to be a South American Indian)
but then begs forgiveness.
Friday is soon speaking reasonable English. Crusoe is a devout Christian and Bible reader, and one
of the best scenes has Friday ask Crusoe why this all-powerful God he talks about so much doesn't just
destroy the devil and make all creation perfect. Crusoe tries to use the, "So man can make a
choice between temptation and righteousness" speech, but gives up. It's playfully mild statement
of Buñuel's anticlerical position.
Daniel O'Herlihy will be well known to Carol Reed adepts (Odd Man Out) and genre fans alike
for his role thirty years later as The Old Man in the first two RoboCop films. He's likeably
fallible and a good representative of Western culture at its best circa 1670. Likewise Jaime
Fernández is an excellent Friday as sort of an adult Sabu type. Some pirates and merchantmen
show up for the conclusion, but 3/4's of the show is Herlihy's alone, and he's always good. Even his
beard seems right. Buñuel paces the tale evenly across Crusoe's 28 long years on the island.
VCI's DVD of Robinson Crusoe is a good rendering of a rare film from a well-preserved
print given a vigorous digital buff-up. I only saw one splice go by and two or three scratches; the
rest have been exorcised as shown on a restoration demonstration included in the extras. The color
varies as some scenes or shots are rather bleached out, but most of the show looks fine - not
razor sharp and a little low in contrast, but more than acceptable. The sound has been given a good
going over as well, even though a few errant pops show up now and then.
Part of the first reel seems to have shrunken and rides a bit. Either it stopped, or I got
used to it.
The main extra is an audio interview with Dan O'Herlihy done in 1985 and conducted by David
Del Valle. Herlihy is eager to talk and gives a nice accounting of his overall career. It's a good
thing that forward-thinking people like Del Valle were doing this kind of oral histories before the
genre explosion of the 1990s. There's also a brief bio on O'Herlihy and Buñuel, some
nicely-presented ad art and stills, and the above mentioned restoration demo.
Although the film was made in English and O'Herlihy's voice is an important part of the show, there
is also a Spanish track on board, and optional English subtitles. The packaging uses United Artists'
rather chintzy ad campaign art, and an colorful insert reproduces pages from the original pressbook.
If Defoe's Robinson Crusoe is still taught in school, this film will be an excellent
teaching aid. Many images, such as a goatskin-clad Crusoe walking the beach carrying a parasol, come
right from the old book illustrations. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Robinson Crusoe 50th Anniversary Edition rates:
Supplements: O'Herlihy interview, text extras, ad art, bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 29, 2004
1. Stephen King once wrote
about classical authors making mistakes too: In Robinson Crusoe, King said,
Crusoe strips naked to swim out to the wreck before it sinks to find more useful supplies. Once he gets
to the boat, he locates a bunch of small items, and to carry them back to the island, puts them
in his pockets!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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