May 24, 2009

Review of Man Friday

Man Friday (film)Man Friday is a 1975 British/American film. It is adapted from the 1973 play by Adrian Mitchell based on Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, but reverses the roles, portraying Crusoe as a blunt, stiff Englishman, while the native he calls Man Friday is much more intelligent and empathic. The film can be regarded as being critical of western civilization, against which it draws an idealizing picture of Caribbean tribal life.You can read the rest of the Wikipedia entry if you're curious about the plot. Meanwhile, here are some reviews:

Man Friday (1975)

O'Toole, Roundtree in A 'Crusoe' Version"Man Friday," written by Adrian Mitchell, is Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" with a dopily raised consciousness—the story of the once-great, resourceful, 18th-century shipwreck survivor told from the point of view of his native manservant, Friday. In this version, Friday becomes a sort of exotic flower child who values fun, laughter, song and sex-without-guilt, while poor old Crusoe is an uptight, mean-spirited, self-righteous, Bible-quoting bigot.

The time is still the early 18th century, but the witlessness is strictly of the 1960's. While Crusoe (Mr. O'Toole) tries to teach Friday (Mr. Roundtree) the meaning of private ownership, money, sin, work and sportsmanship, Friday, just as unsuccessfully, attempts to liberate Crusoe from his hang-ups. This reversal of roles might possibly have stimulated George Bernard Shaw to an interesting idea or two, but it does nothing for Mr. Mitchell, whose screenplay is a spinoff from an earlier television script and a theatrical play.

The movie, which was photographed prettily in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, seems to have been carefully aimed about two inches over the heads of an audience of 8-year olds. There are some incidental songs in it that I can imagine being sung better by animated rabbits than by Mr. Roundtree. There is also a lot of smug discourse, the tedium of which is occasionally relieved by ludicrous inspiration, as when Friday offers his body and his love to Crusoe when he finds his master flagellating himself for having had an "immoral dream."

Mr. O'Toole looks and sounds right, and he might have made a fine Crusoe in a film of fewer confusions and pretensions. Mr. Roundtree, whose first "Shaft" film had a good deal of style, has a terrible time trying to mime a primitive man's saintliness. Mostly he chooses to look baffled. He wrinkles his brow, cocks his head to one side and assumes a quizzical expression. The last actor to get away with this was Lassie.
Man Friday (Roger Ebert)
Man Friday (Time Out London)

Rob's review

The point of this movie is the clash of cultures: the rigid, rule-bound West (represented by Crusoe) vs. the loose, life-loving indigenous (represented by Friday). Reviewers didn't seem to like this clash. The above reviewer's opinions (witless, tedious, smug, pretentious, etc.) are probably typical.

I don't think the idea of a cultural clash was the problem. It's the execution that was a problem. Crusoe and Friday are more like two-dimensional archetypes than three-dimensional characters. They engage in a series of bits that go on too long and don't flow from the characters. The results are only mildly, intermittently interesting.

The source of the problem is Man Friday's tone. For the most part it's like a Disney film--a two-character Swiss Family Robinson. Friday's tribe resembles a free-wheeling Jamaican party, complete with marimba and drum music and women in crocheted hippie beachwear. Meanwhile, Crusoe is a typical O'Toole character: the campy, half-mad iconoclast we've seen many times.

When the story veers into darker places, the shift in tone doesn't work. It's a little like combining Archie and the Punisher or Bambi and Godzilla. You can put them in the same story, but they aren't going to mesh into a coherent whole.

Because its premise is sound, Man Friday could've been a brilliant movie. But to achieve this it probably would've needed a new writer and director. As it is, it's a mishmash--a watchable but odd mess.

Rob's rating: 7.0 of 10.

The native aspects

Man Friday suffers almost exactly the same problem as last year's Crusoe TV series. It doesn't make sense historically or geographically.

Friday is supposedly marooned on the island when a storm blows his boat across the sea. A few images make it clear he comes from an African tribe.

The island's location isn't specified, but an English slave ship returning from Africa stops by. Crusoe tells the Englishmen he's had to avoid "savages" and Spaniards, which implies a Caribbean location.

But when Crusoe and Friday finally sail to Friday's island, it's only a couple of days away. So Friday's tribe must be a black tribe indigenous to the Caribbean region. No such tribe exists.

Do filmmakers use blacks rather than Indians because they want to play up the master/slave relationship? Or are they simply ignorant about Friday's Indian heritage? Whatever the reason, it's stupid. The story would've worked just as well with Caribbean Indians.

For more on the subject, see Robinson Crusoe and Friday and The Best Indian Movies.


dmarks said...

A 7.0 out of 10? You didn't really give this film the Shaft.

Stephen said...

"The rigid, rule-bound West (represented by Crusoe) vs. the loose, life-loving indigenous (represented by Friday)."

That description isn't accurate; Norse culture for example wasn't rigid or very rule bound on the other hand various northwestern tribes had class systems and slaves not to mention the Aztec or Mayan societies.

"The above reviewer's opinions (witless, tedious, smug, pretentious, etc.) are probably typical."

Wow look who's talking. ;)

Rob said...

Actually, yes, the description is accurate. I was talking about the general traits of Western civilization, not the specific traits of various subcultures within that civilization.

But I forgot: You don't understand the concept of a generalization. As you've proved once again.

And once again you've proved that your reading comprehension is poor. I didn't say the reviewer's opinions were witless, tedious, etc. I said the reviewer's opinions were that the movie was witless, tedious, etc.

As usual, your pathetic attempts to embarrass me have only succeeded in embarrassing yourself. Grow up, lightweight.