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 visual obsessions.
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 Cobra Verde.
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:
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!