September 10, 2008

Film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe

Some film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe, with a particular emphasis on how films have portrayed the Crusoe/Friday relationship:

Robinson Crusoe in HollywoodROBINSON CRUSOE, 1926

We must begin with 1926, as three earlier versions and adaptations from 1913, 1916, and 1922 have been lost. The picture in question, Robinson Crusoe, is an English production and stars W. A. Wetherall. A foreword informs the audience that the picture was photographed on the very island in the Caribbean where Crusoe spent his years as a castaway.

In 1936 sound was added for re-release as a children's picture, the voice-over coming from a well-known children's program host, Uncle Don Carney. Uncle Don's voice provides a curious hypertext to the images we are about to see. What is interesting is Friday's frantically digging in the sand, his fear exaggerated for comic effect--another version of Step'n'Fetchit's "Feets, don't fail me now!" Moreover, there is no display here of Friday's boldly cutting off his enemy's head. Finally, Friday's assumption of Crusoe's grotesque garments reveals volumes. It looks ahead (or behind) to colonial adoption of imperial attitudes and to American missionaries in Hawaii and Samoa forcing women to cover themselves. Although the film replicated Master's pleasure and Friday's submissiveness, the cinematic dramatization of Crusoe's attitude tellingly conveys that superior confidence which made empires possible.


Six years later the most dashing screen figure of the silent screen, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., attempted to revive his fading career with Mr. Robinson Crusoe, a film he produced and which Eddie Sutherland directed. Described by the New York Times as an "amusing satirical skit" and praised as "artful, jolly, and imaginative," the picture was filmed in Tahiti. Crusoe takes a bet that he can live on a desert island for a year. Most striking about him is a fund of Yankee resourcefulness and ingenuity and the heroic individualism which Fairbanks epitomizes. The Friday figure is a native so innocent that he considers radio tubes suitable for adornment. After Friday, comes Saturday, a European woman playing a native in a grass skirt. Variety recognized the picture as a minor effort: "good on the eye, but as entertainment will impress the kids mostly."


In 1952, the great surrealist poet Luis Buñuel filmed an account which at first viewing appears to be a fairly straightforward retelling of Defoe's story.

Buñuel breaks with previous tradition showing Crusoe as dominator and Friday as slave. The two develop into friends after an initial period of paranoia on Crusoe's part. He is the relief to the terrible solitariness we have witnessed earlier, and equality operates in their joint work. But when the English vessel comes to take them away, Crusoe attires himself in the dress of a gentleman and Friday wears the clothes of the ordinary sailor. Pastoral egalitarianism will not exist in mercantile England.


In 1965, in Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Byron Haskins underscored Crusoe's removal and isolation by situating him in space. The Crusoe figure is an astronaut pulled into the gravitational field of the red planet. This American carries with him the hubris of the imperialist. Here again the one who names the names has the power. The astronaut makes no attempt to understand the language of Friday who is escaping from cruel masters. In this exchange the superiority of the American to the alien, the Other, is never questioned. Friday submits.


Adrian Mitchell's script for Jack Gold's picture Man Friday offers the most heavily revisionist version of the Crusoe myth. Here the story of the two on the island is seen through Friday's eyes, and the result is a savage discrediting of traditional Protestantism and imperial pretensions. Were Crusoe not so grotesquely deranged and were not Friday the noblest of noble savages, the film would have been more interesting and not so simplistically unbalanced. Friday recounts his version to his tribe, who suggest a touring company of Hair, complete with tribal songs and macramé outfits. In a series of varied scenes Crusoe instructs Friday on English sport, Protestant theology, economics, dance, and education.

CRUSOE, 1988

Our penultimate example, Crusoe, is an extraordinarily beautiful picture filmed in 1988 by the cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, now turned director. Deschanel updates the setting to Tidewater, Virginia, 1808, the last year the importation of slaves was constitutionally permitted. This young man is a confident slaver returning to Africa for some fresh merchandise when the ship encounters a terrible storm. He establishes himself successfully, but his subsequent encounter with "cannibals" is strange and mysterious. They are not childlike simpletons, but inscrutable beings obviously of some sophistication.
Comment:  To reiterate, the 1926 film was "photographed on the very island in the Caribbean where Crusoe spent his years as a castaway." Since Crusoe was marooned on a fictional island, this claim may have been marketing hype. But it's clear the filmmakers wanted audiences to think the island was Caribbean. Whether implicitly or explicitly, their Friday was a Caribbean Indian, not a Polynesian.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

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