Having just returned from a seaside vacation, I thought I might pick a “beach movie” to recommend for my classic movie pick. I began racking my brain to recall one I enjoyed, one that is considered a true “classic”. The alarm bells went off in my head when I remembered having watched about 1 year ago on Turner Classic Movies, Spanish/Mexican director Luis Bunuel’s Robinson Crusoe, made in 1952 but not released to English speaking audiences until 1954.
Bunuel was an unfamiliar director to me, so I did a bit of research into his life: Born in Spain on Feb. 22, 1900, made movies in France, Spain, left Spain for the US right before the Spanish Civil War ended, made movies in the US, then moved to Mexico and ultimately made that country his home. He received many nominations and won awards for his work: best film, or director, or screenplays at Cannes, The Academy Awards, the Venice Film Festival, and the Berlin Film Festival. He died in Mexico on July 29, 1983.
When I began watching Bunuel’s version of Robinson Crusoe, the story captured me immediately. I was vaguely familiar with the plot of Daniel Defoe’s book, but had never read it. Bunuel’s screenplay was quite faithful to the book and he co-wrote it with Phillip Ansel Roll, beginning in 1950. The producers of this film wanted Orson Welles to be cast as Crusoe, but director Bunuel told them no, that Welles was too loud for the part and too overweight. 300 actors were considered and Bunuel wanted Dan O’Herlihy for the lead, who had in fact, just finished co-starring in Orson Welles’s version of Macbeth, playing the role of Macduff. With Bunuel’s direction and O’Herlihy’s skill as an actor, O’Herilihy won an Academy Award nomination for best actor in 1955. The other pivotal part in the film is Friday, the native who Crusoe saves from cannibals, and who becomes Crusoe’s friend. Jaime Fernandez was cast as Friday. He was working as a grip on a film when Bunuel discovered him and he was also the younger brother of Emilio Fernandez, who at that time was a movie star in Mexico. Jaime knew no English, so he learned to speak it on the set, in much the same way Friday learned to speak it in the movie! The film was shot in technicolor, and two versions were shot: English and Spanish. The English version was released in 1954 and the Spanish version in 1955.
The plot is all about one Robinson Crusoe who is from York, England. He is the third son with not a lot of opportunities befalling him. He decides to go to sea, against his father’s will. At sea, Crusoe begins his job on a slave ship. On a journey from Brazil to Africa, the ship runs afoul of a storm and Crusoe abandons the ship in order to save his own life. He manages to swim to a deserted island and begins his life there, and he notes the date, September 30th, 1659. Luckily for Crusoe, he finds the ship near the shore and manages to get a lot of supplies out of it before it sinks. He finds no other human survivors, but he does find the ship’s cat, Sam, and dog, Rex. Sam, the cat, turns out she should have been called Samantha, is pregnant and soon has a litter of kittens. Crusoe decides to let the cats fend for themselves and they do, running wild around the island. Rex, however, being a loyal and faithful dog, is Crusoe’s main companion. When Rex dies of old age, Crusoe almost loses his mind with loneliness. After 18 years of this island life, Crusoe discovers that cannibals are coming to the island to kill their victims. One day, Crusoe sees a group of cannibals arriving with their one victim, a young man. Crusoe rescues the victim from the cannibals, killing one and the victim kills the other one. Crusoe names the native he has rescued Friday, as it was a Friday when he first saw him. Crusoe begins teaching Friday how to speak English, and teaches him customs and habits of an Englishman. At first, Crusoe treats Friday as a servant, even putting him in leg shackles at night as he thinks Friday might also be a cannibal and might try to do him in. However, Friday is able to prove he is not a cannibal and even saves Crusoe from another cannibal attack. The leg irons are not used on Friday again, and Crusoe treats Friday more as an equal from this point on. Another 10 years go by, when two men stumble upon the island: Captain Oberzo and his bosun are being dumped upon the island as the other sailors on the Captain’s ship have mutinied against him. The sailors are going to gather more fresh water for their ship and then sail away, leaving the Captain and bosun behind. Crusoe find the two men, and with Friday’s help, come up with a plan to save the ship and a way for Crusoe and Friday to get to England.
As I wrote earlier, this film caught my attention and held it for all of it’s 90 minutes. O’Herlihy is great as the shipwreck survivor. Without too much hamming it up(as I fear Welles might have done in the role), O’Herlihy manages to convey the emotions of a shipwreck victim, who has to go it alone for quite a while: gratitude at having survived and finding the supplies, sorrow at being alone without another human to talk to, continuing to live day after day on this island with only himself to take care of, trying to hang on to his faith in God during this experience, wondering if he’ll ever get rescued and see civilization again. O’Herlihy also displays Crusoe’s bit of arrogance around Friday when they first become friends, an attitude of “I Know More of Life Than You Do You Poor Savage”. As Crusoe gets to really know Friday’s character, even saving Crusoe’s life, the arrogance fades away to an equality of treatment and thought, on Crusoe’s part.
For a great adventure tale, one a whole family can watch, seek out Luis Bunuel’s 1954, Robinson Crusoe. It is available to purchase on dvd at Amazon, it appears on Turner Classic Movies from time to time, and if you know Spanish, the entire Spanish-language version has been put up on Youtube!