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In the early 1950s, before he had become an internationally acclaimed auteur, Luis Bunuel was a prolific director in the Mexican film industry specializing in popular comedies and melodramas for the domestic market. Most of these were for producer Oscar Dancigers, who had ambitions beyond the local market. Dancigers had already produced Bunuel's Los Olvidados (1950), still considered one of Bunuel's great films, so when he decided to make an English language film for the international market, he offered Bunuel the chance to direct the project: The result was Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954).
"I didn't like the novel but I did like the character of Crusoe," Bunuel noted later in an interview. And he must have appreciated the opportunity. None of his previous films had had a shooting schedule more than 28 days. For Adventures of Robinson Crusoe he had a luxurious three months to shoot his very first color film, for which they left the studio and went to Manzanillo, then a small Pacific seaport near Acapulco with a lush jungle interior. It was shot simultaneously in English (another first for Bunuel) and Spanish with an acclaimed young actor in the lead: Daniel O'Herlihy.
O'Herlihy first made his name as a star of Dublin's Gate Theater (where Orson Welles also had his first stage success) and made the leap to the big screen in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and Orson Welles' Macbeth (1948). Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, shot in 1952, was his first film lead and the first half of the film is essentially a one-man show. O'Herlihy doesn't just carry the entire story with a largely wordless performance (his narration, which plays as if read from a journal, provides the audience's need for dialogue) but presents the evolution of a man stripped of civilization and human companionship, from hope of rescue to resignation to his isolation. As in the novel, the film spans 28 years on the island and (according to the film's own publicity notes) O'Herlihy had a wardrobe of eleven beards to mark his evolution.
Apart from a fever-dream where his father's disapproval delivers an I-told-you-so monologue to the hallucinating Crusoe, O'Herlihy is the sole human actor on screen until the arrival of Friday (Jaime Fernndez) late in the film. He talks to animals rescued from the ship for companionship and, at one point, screams into a vast valley simply to hear his own voice echoed back as he shouts the 23rd Psalm. When he "celebrates" his fifth year of solo survival by getting roaring drunk, he hears the voices of revelry as if his cave had become a tavern, but Bunuel keeps the camera fixed on his face, not even allowing us the illusion of company. The slow return to the reality of his isolation is devastating.
Bunuel's Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was only the second recorded screen adaptation of Daniel Defoe's novel (the first was a silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks). Perhaps it was the challenge of making a film from a novel where the hero is alone for over half the story that intrigued the director. Indeed, many later adaptations focus on the latter part of the novel, after Crusoe is joined by his Man Friday, the native he rescues from cannibals. Bunuel's adaptation is remarkably faithful to the novel and yet imbued with his own sensibility, directorial grace notes and evocative asides that elevate a sturdy adaptation of a classic adventure drama into a work of personal expression. Bunuel once related that he saw his father in a hallucination the night of his father's death, an image that he gives to Crusoe as a fever-dream nightmare. Where the novel is deeply founded in faith and religion as Crusoe turns to the Bible for comfort and strength, Bunuel subtly and wittily undercuts the religious message. "I wanted to show man's solitude, man's anguish in human society," he explained later. While Crusoe honors the Sabbath and tries to teach the Bible to Friday, the words come back hollow (as in the echoes of the valley) and he stumbles in a theological debate with the "savage" Friday, whose common sense questions go unanswered.
The central story of Bunuel's film is Crusoe's evolution as a human being. Bunuel doesn't hammer the point home, but the irony is not lost that Crusoe is shipwrecked while on a trip to buy slaves for South American plantation labor. When he rescues Friday from the cannibals, his desire for companionship and partnership is increasingly overshadowed by his European attitude of racial and cultural superiority to the black-skinned native. "Friends," he insists, but the word comes only after he has established himself as "Master." He uses power and fear to establish his dominance and ultimately imprisons Friday in the very chains he brought for slaves. His epiphany, a breakthrough of moral and human value over social power, is the film's great turning point. Even while the script maintains Crusoe's dominance, like feudal lord and loyal subject, Bunuel's imagery offers scenes of partnership and equality as they stand side-by-side in their endeavors.
When Adventures of Robinson Crusoe was released in the U.S. in 1954, O'Herlihy personally promoted his breakthrough role as best he could. In an interview with horror film historian David del Valle, he explained how he put up his own money for a Los Angeles run for the film and offered free admission to members of the Screen Actors Guild (who at the time were responsible for nominating the performance categories in the Academy Awards). According to O'Herlihy, the L.A. run lost money because its audience was largely members of the Screen Actor's Guild, but it paid off handsomely with O'Herlihy's first and only Oscar® nomination for Best Actor. He lost to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront but he was in stellar company, a veritable unknown in Hollywood competing with Humphrey Bogart, Bing Crosby, James Mason and Brando for the big prize.
Producer: Oscar Dancigers
Director: Luis Bunuel
Screenplay: Philip Ansell Roll, Luis Bunuel (screenplay); Daniel Defoe (novel)
Cinematography: Alex Phillips
Music: Anthony Collins
Film Editing: Carlos Savage, Alberto E. Valenzuela
Cast: Daniel O'Herlihy (Robinson Crusoe), Jaime Fernandez (Friday), Felipe de Alba (Captain Oberzo), Chel Lopez (Bosun), Jose Chavez (Pirate), Emilio Garibay (Leaders of the Mutiny).
by Sean Axmaker