Sunday, December 28, 2014
Robinson Crusoe (1954)
Luis Bunuel's 1954 Technicolor adaptation of Robinson Crusoe contains one astounding image: driven half-mad by isolation, Crusoe lights a torch and runs into the surf of the ocean crying out for help: the sky is stormy and an eerie half-light burnishes the waves and the turbulent clouds to the color of old brass. The torch goes out in dark, sinister waves and Crusoe, defeated, staggers back to shore. Defoe's 1719 book has never seemed to me suitable material for a film -- it is too static, there is no dialogue for much of Crusoe's period of the island, and the story is too infected with Puritan moralizing, albeit, perhaps, delivered tongue-in-cheek. (Irony is a rhetorical effect alien to the plain, matter-of-fact aspects of film -- particularly in the case of Bunuel's more or less flat affect.) For the most part, Bunuel plays it straight -- the film is blunt and direct and uncompromising: the picture begins with Crusoe clambering ashore on the desert island and ends "28 years 3 months and 19 days later" with the hero and Friday on a skiff being rowed to a larger ship at anchor a mile off-shore. Dan O'Herlihy plays Crusoe effectively -- he was nominated for an Academy Award for the film made by a Mexican production company largely in the jungles of southern Mexico. (The film is one of two that Bunuel made in English and his first color picture -- the movie's color design is fantastically beautiful: warm amber sand and the light over the island always bronze with humidity and storm, everything infused with the tint of the yellowish doubloons that Friday wears as a necklace.) The part of Friday was played by a young man from a fishing village who spoke no English. As the film progresses, we watch him actually learn English in order to converse with Crusoe. Bunuel's sober, detached, and almost indifferent film-style is an excellent counterpoint to O'Herlihy's scenes of desperate madness and hysteria -- this is particularly true in several sequences involving women's garments that Crusoe keeps in a chest in his cave: he reacts with horror to the emotions stirred in him by a lady's frock and, then, gazes lovingly at a scarecrow that he has fitted with a woman's gown. Later, when Friday prances about wearing a woman's dress, the look that Crusoe casts in his direction is sufficiently terrifying that both men are appropriately chastened and the clothing quickly hidden once more. Bunuel's surrealist impulses are vividly displayed in a short dream sequence involving the apparition of Crusoe's father, thirst, delirium, and ending with the castaway taking an axe to murder the old man: Bunuel stages the dream in a series of short shots, figures reclining or adopting peculiar poses, water ladled over everything since Crusoe is suffering from thirst, jump-cuts that jar the viewer; when he picks up a jug to drink there is a fat, hairy tarantula inside -- the effect is similar to the famous dream sequence in Los Olivados. There is documentary-style shot of ant-lions devouring hapless ants while Crusoe chortles to them as if at a drawing room party and parts of the rugged coast look like the place where the priests celebrated their doomed Mass in L'Age d'Or. A debate between Crusoe and Friday about theology ends with both men properly baffled; they seem to concede that they have been talking errant nonsense. Before finding Friday, Crusoe goes to a deep valley lined with cliffs to shout the Lord's Prayer -- he is desperate to hear another human voice. The death of Rex, Crusoe's faithful dog and only companion for his first ten years on the island is staged with startling verisimilitude and when the castaway departs from his prison he seems to hear the animal barking in the jungles of the impenetrable interior.