Robinson Crusoe

Reviewed By Lybarger
Posted 10/27/04 22:13:12

"Don’t cast away this lost classic."
5 stars (Awesome)

It’s sadly ironic that this terrific adaptation of the most celebrated castaway story of all has been missing for decades and unavailable for home viewing until now.

Why It’s Worth Re-Discovery
Exiled Spanish surrealist master Luis Buñuel, who helmed such mind-bending classics as Un Chien Andalou and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, created a micro-budgeted but remarkably effective adaptation of Daniel DeFoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe.

Pairing the screenwriter-director whose first image is an eyeball being sliced with a razor with the author of a revered adventure story seems suicidal. But much of the joy of Buñuel’s 1952 Mexican take on the story is that he and DeFoe shared a lacerating wit and a keen sense of irony.

For example, in 1702, DeFoe lampooned religious discrimination in England with his essay “The Shortest-Way with Dissenters.” It suggested harsh treatment to those who didn’t follow the High Church’s commands. High Church readers who lacked DeFoe’s eye for satire didn’t know that the author, a dissenter, was mercilessly ridiculing them.

Similarly, Buñuel once said, “Thank God, I’m an atheist” and directed Belle de Jour, which told the story of a bored housewife who becomes oddly liberated by moonlighting as a prostitute.

While dismissed by some purists as hackwork that Buñuel did until his more characteristic films like Simon of the Desert came along, Robinson Crusoe is covered with the director’s fingerprints. There’s a fever dream that’s reminiscent of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Belle de Jour, and the novel’s themes of isolation must have appealed to a filmmaker who hadn’t set foot in his native country for 14 years.

There’s also an amusing exchange between Crusoe and his sidekick Friday (Jaime Fernandez) in which the tribesman suggests to the white castaway that God must not have much against sin if he’s willing to allow the Devil to exist. The passage is pretty much straight from DeFoe’s pen, but Buñuel’s irreverent attitude shines through.

It’s also interesting to note that co-screenwriter Hugo Butler (billed as Phillip Ansell Roll) and producer George Pepper had run afoul of the Hollywood blacklist the way that Buñuel run into problems with Franco in Spain. In fact, Buñuel had been working at Museum of Modern Art in New York from 1939 to 1943, but lost the job because of he'd been denounced as a Communist.

Despite being filmed in Mexico for a relatively paltry budget, Buñuel, shooting for the first time in color, made the most of gorgeous and somewhat dangerous locations (there were LOTS of scorpions) near the town of Manzanillo. While Buñuel and Butler may have been able to figure out how to make DeFoe’s story cinematic, they were lucky to find Irish character actor Dan O’Herlihy, who’s been in everything from Odd Man Out to Robocop, for the title role.

As the former slave trader, O’Herlihy carries the film almost single handedly. As Crusoe spends decades trying to adapt to his island prison, O’Herlihy manages to avoid making things seem dull or redundant by demonstrating an astonishing range. He can portray Crusoe’s elation at discovering wheat on the island or his grief at the death of his pets with equal finesse.

In the first 60 minutes of Robinson Crusoe, O’Herlihy is the only human on screen. In the hands of a less charismatic or versatile lead, the film would have sunk rather quickly.

How It Almost Got Lost Again
Initially dumped onto the U.S. market in 1954 as part of a B-movie double bill, United Artists, the American distributor of Robinson Crusoe thought it had merely picked up a tawdry 90-minute Mexican import. That changed when Robinson Crusoe received some stellar notices (Pauline Kael stated, “Luis Buñuel's version of the Defoe novel is free of that deadly solicitude that usually kills off classics.”), and O’Herlihy picked up a well-deserved Best Actor nomination (it’s still a major achievement to lose to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront).

Despite having scored a sleeper hit, fans of Buñuel have had to be as patient as the title character to catch the film. There was confusion over who actually had rights to the movie, preventing its video release, and a massive 1982 fire at the Cineteca Nacional film archive in Mexico destroyed many of the original materials.

Fortunately, a British print has been unearthed, and the new DVD edition from VCI Entertainment features a decent digital refurbishing. The DVD also comes with an astonishing before and after demonstration, a reproduction of the original United Artists press book and a photo gallery. The bios of O’Herlihy and Buñuel need some corrections (Buñuel actually directed two English language films, not one. The other was The Young One), but there’s an interesting 20-year-old audio interview with O’Herlihy.

The recording doesn’t center around Robinson Crusoe, but the portions that do deal with the film are worth it, particularly his recollections on how he managed to get the film seen by Academy voters despite its anemic release.

It’s been a crime that such an engaging adaptation of a classic has been neglected for so long, but this new DVD edition rescues both the film from obscurity and its viewers from boredom.

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