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Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

Adventures of Robinson Crusoe(1954)

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While traveling on a ship meant for retrieving new slaves in the South Seas, Robinson Crusoe (Imitation of Life's Dan O'Herlihy) is shipwrecked and washed ashore a deserted island. Equipped with only the barest resources - wood scraps, raw clay, wild animals - he forges a new life for himself while dealing with the circumstances of becoming lord of a new land all his own. Fighting off loneliness and incipient madness with the aid of only dog and cat companionship, he finally finds another human in the form of a native, Friday (Jaime Fernandez), whose customs clash wildly with the Crusoe's Western upbringing. Nevertheless the two men reach a mutual understanding and forge out an existence together in the wild.

At first glance, you'd never guess that master surrealist Luis Bunuel was the director responsible for this lush, engrossing adaptation of the oft-filmed Daniel Defoe novel. His only film shot in English features a strong performance from O'Herlihy (who earned an Academy Award® nomination for his work) and, apart from an early hallucination sequence in which a fevered Crusoe is visited by his dead father, is devoid of the quirky flourishes one might expect from the man behind such films as Belle de Jour and The Exterminating Angel.

However, Robinson Crusoe makes much more sense when one considers that this was filmed during Bunuel's most productive period in the mid-1950s where he turned out several projects each year, mostly shot in Mexico. Most of the films from this phase of his career are spiritually-concerned melodramas like El, Wuthering Heights, and El Bruto, with Robinson Crusoe standing as the most prestigious and glossy attempt to address traditional, literary-based narratives from an alternative viewpoint. Furthermore, the man-as-god and man-against-nature elements foreshadow his short-form 1965 masterpiece, Simon of the Desert, which would make an excellent companion piece. Neither God nor the devil makes a direct appearance in Robinson Cruesoe, but this is hardly an existential piece; just as Crusoe salvages a Bible early in the film, he himself creates his own "new" Bible in the form of his onscreen narration which sometimes comes across as heavy-handed but across offers some nice, Bunuel-worthy bits of irony ("Now it can truly be said I worked for my bread"). Of course, biographers have also been tempted to read parallels between Crusoe and the director himself, who had been banished from Spain and was trying to find a new home going from one country to another, seeking shelter on some very large islands indeed. Fortunately casual viewers need not concern themselves with such weighty issues; as adaptation and as rip-roaring adventure, the film succeeds admirably and compares favorably with the far higher-budgeted Disney fare of the same period like Treasure Island and Swiss Family Robinson. Here's a Bunuel film even a complete literalist can enjoy.

Released by United Artists in 1954 (two years after its completion), Robinson Crusoe vanished from the public eye shortly thereafter and remained unavailable for decades. It's difficult to contest any aspects of VCI's "fully restored" DVD since filmgoers should be thankful that any elements survived at all. By and large the transfer is satisfying and features solid colors, though detail is often soft and blacks tend to fade out in some scenes more than others. Damage is evident here and there, though a great deal of reconstruction was undertaken based on a featurette included on the DVD. Though not up to the standard one would expect from a classic title from the majors (especially Warner's Technicolor restorations), Bunuel fanatics should be pleased to see the film looking as good as it does here, and commendations all around for finally reviving this important but rarely-screened piece of film history.

For more information about Robinson Crusoe, visit VCI Entertainment. To order Robinson Crusoe, go to TCM Shopping.

by Nathaniel Thompson