Daniel Dafoe`s Robinson Crusoe
starring Pierce Brosnan, William Takaku and Polly Walker
written by Christopher Lofton, Tracy Keenan Wynn and Christopher Canaan
directd by George Miller and Rodney K. Hardy
I didn’t used to like Pierce Brosnan because I really don’t like pretty-faced male actors. But now after seeing him in three James Bond movies and watching his face and body age a little I am beginnig to like him more. In Robinson Crusoe I rather liked him. I loved him in The Tailor of Panama (with Geoffrey Rush), but that is another essay.
A little history: Daniel Dafoe was an 18thcentury British writer famous for a short number of novels including The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1717-18) which has become a classic children’s book in English; Roxana; Moll Flanders; and, A Journal of the Plague Year. Dafoe was among a small group of pioneer writers who invented the novel as a form of literature. Prior to the inventin of thenovel, which required a certain level of litecy amonght eh population in order to succeed, liteary expressin took the form of state drama for the masses and poetry among the elite.
I am reminded of other recent ‘Robinson Crusoe’-like movies. I mean, movies about people abandoned or stranded alone on deserted island is the South Pacific: Castaway(Tom Hanks), and Six Days, Seven Nights(Harrison Ford, Anne Heche and David Schwimmer). All I have to say is “Robinson Crusoe” and immediately my listeners will know that I am talking about a story of someone stranded, along, on a tropical island, probably a Pacific tropical island. It seems to be a common enough fear that fascinates us so much that we keep writing such stories.
This movie is also part of a recent move by film studios to re-make old films so that they are truer to the classic books that spawned the stories, such as Moby Dick (with Patrick Stewart), and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, among others. I am eager to see a re-make of Treasure Islandby Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson. The only film version that I know about and have seen is a Disney film from the 1960s that is far from true to the book.
Well, you know the story of Robison Crusoe. He is a man (a Scotsman - I wonder what it is about the Scots and the tradition of sailing around the world and settling in far-off places) who is shipwrecked on a tropical Pacific island. His crew is killed in a violent storm and he is quite alone. Salvaging what he can from the wreck of his ship this ‘civilized’ 18th century European white man has to discover how to live without all the accouterments of the life he knew. He has to find food, build shelter, repair his clothing, etc. This is not just a common theme in entertainment, but a fairly common topic of personal reflection among many people, I think. How would we fair outside of our own environments? Many of us would perish, I would guess.
Being isolated like that will drive a human mad. In Castaway Tom Hanks’ character begins talking to a Wilson volleyball (a great plug for the Wilson company - I guess Wilson paid for the privilege of being so featured) that he scavenged form the washed-ashore wreckage of his airplane as if it were a real person, just to create the feeling of company for himself.
Crusoe believes he is quite along on his island until one day he finds a footprint in the sandy beach. It is not his footprint. There is another man on his island!
This other man is a black Pacific islander come to Crusoe’s island by canoe for one reason or another. (In the movie it is a band of people come to the island to perform some rituals. I have read the book, but that was a long time ago and I do not know the exact reason that Dafoe gives for the other’s presence. Maybe on this point the movie is true to the novel. Who knows?)
Robinson Crusoe discovers the man, saves his life and names him “Friday.” And so to this day if we say “Man Friday” in English it is understood that we are talking about some kind of servant, because that is the social relationship that Crusoe assumed with Friday - a master-servant relationship, which seemed normal between a white man and a black man in the 18th century. By 18th century reasoning the white man was civilized and superior while the black man was a savage and a slave.
The movie gives what was, for me, an interesting picture of this white Scotsman and the ‘savage’ Pacific islander during an age of European imperialism and the human slave trade. One interesting scene between Robinson and Man Friday (William Takaku) early in their acquaintance has Crusoe trying to show the danger of mishandling a firearm - a symbol of the technical, and therefore intellectual and moral superiority of the European - by firing into a tree and killing a bat. Perplexed, Friday picks up a stick from the ground, throws it and accomplishes the same thing: dinner.
I also feel a little embarrassed by some of the interactions of the two. I sometimes wondered how often the two actors must have burst into laughter during filming, considering the difference in racial relations today. One scene occurs six months after the two meet. All along Crusoe has assumed that it is his responsibility to teach and civilize Friday - a benevolent yet imperial attitude reflecting the European idea of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ - and on this occasion he tries for the first time to broach the subject of God, and teach him the ‘true’ faith. (Friday by this time can speak and understand English passably well.)
Nevertheless, a strong bond develops between them that is emotionally moving even now. Each saves the other’s life at different times, and the story is a riveting tale of love and exile, friendship and endurance.