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With: Dan O'Herlihy, Jaime Fernandez
Written by: Luis Buñuel, Phillip Roll, from Daniel Dafoe's novel
Directed by: Luis Buñuel
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 90
Date: 03/18/2013

Robinson Crusoe (1952)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Adaptation Island

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the eight or ten greatest film directors of all time, Spanish-born Luis Buñuel began his career like gangbusters in his late 20s with the shocking, stunning, surrealist short Un Chien Andalou (1928).

It was not until he reached his 60s that he captured the world's attention once more with a series of Mexican and French-financed masterworks that included Viridiana, The Exterminating Angel, Belle de Jour and the Oscar-winning The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

So what happened to Buñuel in the intervening years? He moved around a lot, making poorly financed or poorly-distributed films, many of which are AWOL today (with the exception of his 1950 film Los Olvidados). He even attempted a couple of English-language films, as if he were sticking a toe in the waters of Hollywood. Fortunately for all of us, he quickly pulled it back out again.

The second English-language film was The Young One (1960), which I haven't seen. The first, Robinson Crusoe (sometimes listed as The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe) was made in 1952 and released in the United States in 1954, hence VCI can correctly call their new DVD a "50th anniversary" release. At the time it was high enough on the radar to earn an Oscar nomination for its lead actor, Dan O'Herlihy, but it has rarely been seen since.

The 90-minute, full-color feature mostly plays as a straightforward adaptation of Daniel Defoe's novel, with Crusoe landing on his island and overcoming various obstacles for some 34 years. O'Herlihy is onscreen alone for roughly half the film, then plays the other half opposite his recovering cannibal friend Friday (Jaime Fernandez).

At second glance, the film is full of Buñuelian touches. Early on, we get a fever-induced dream sequence in which Crusoe's father visits him and taunts him with fresh water. In another, he uses a woman's dress as a scarecrow to protect his new crop of wheat; he walks away, then doubles back and fondles the hem of the garment.

Most of all, though, the film flirts seriously with atheism, which Bu�uel practiced in real life. Crusoe salvages a copy of the Bible and reads from it regularly, taking faith that God will protect him. Some time after Friday arrives, the two of them have a discussion about God and the Devil and temptation; Friday asks some basic questions that poke holes in Crusoe's faith. He paces for a moment, pondering, then finally bursts out laughing.

O'Herlihy competed against Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront) for the Oscar that year, and it was an equal contest. O'Herlihy puts himself through all kinds of physical and mental anguish in the process of playing Crusoe; he artfully captures the feel of years passing and growing more and more comfortable with his surroundings, but also less and less at home in his own mind. You can feel the gnawing loneliness in his eyes.

Robinson Crusoe doesn't reveal much of the sly old fox who directed That Obscure Object of Desire, in which every frame is permeated with his edgy sense of humor, while cheerfully poking holes in all the institutions he so despised. With Crusoe, you feel him wrestling with already established material, alternately winning and losing. But just because his personality isn't in every frame doesn't mean he made a bad film. In fact, this is the best Crusoe I've ever seen. Now that it's on DVD, it has a chance to endure long into the new century.

DVD Details: VCI has done a superb job on their DVD, restoring the faded color back to a new brightness, even if the quality of the color wasn't so hot to begin with (this was a fairly low-budget film). The DVD includes a 50-minute audio interview with O'Herlihy recorded in 1985, bios and filmographies, a reproduction of the original press book, a poster and a still gallery (presented, in the best VCI style, floating in a lagoon). This may be the finest disc VCI has yet produced.

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