What a strange movie. And by strange, I mean that for a film by Luis Buñuel, it’s not really that strange at all.
An international co-production with an Irish star (Dan O’Herlihy), as well as Buñuel’s first film in color, Robinson Crusoe could pass as just another literary adaptation if you weren’t watching closely. It even opens with a close-up of the cover of the Daniel Defoe adventure novel about a 17th-century aristocrat stranded on a jungle island, and proceeds with O’Herlihy’s tony voiceover: “I broke loose and went to sea.”
That booming, first-person narration continues throughout the movie, even after the arrival of a native from a nearby island, whom Crusoe rescues from cannibals. Buñuel doesn’t much subvert the problematic relationship between Crusoe and his “subject,” deemed “Friday” and played by Mexican actor Jaime Fernández in what at times looks like blackface.
Of course, Buñuel is also willing to let O’Herlihy’s Crusoe look like a buffoon—especially in his attempts to recreate a bourgeois lifestyle on this island. (He’s initially inept at starting a fire, something his servants used to do for him.) Religion is also spoofed, as when Crusoe shouts Psalm 23 into a valley but isn’t comforted by his own echo, or when Friday, after a Bible lesson, succinctly poses the problem of evil: “If God is most strong, why he not kill devil?”
There are also a handful of visual touches that are pure Buñuel, particularly the way the screen is tinted red when Crusoe comes down with a fever and he hallucinates an image of his father floating, face up, in water. Overall, however, my guess is Robinson Crusoe is the rare Buñuel film that could have also been a part of television’s Family Classics. In its own dated way, it’s respectable.