Involuntary solitude is a cruel and maddening circumstance. This is only one aspect of Robinson Crusoe but it's the centrepiece of Luis Bunuel's 1954 adaptation of Daniel Dafoe's book. And of course the ridiculous conceits of the ruling class receive some abuse from Bunuel in this exciting and amusing film of saturated, brilliant colour.
I really love this shot of Crusoe (Dan O'Herlihy) set finally to stomp across the waters to find the companionship he lacks. Bunuel gives more attention to the cat and dog that almost seem to be afterthoughts in Dafoe's book. In Dafoe's version, Crusoe flies into a rage when his beloved parrot speaks the recently deceased dog's name. His finding of the cat on board the shipwreck is shown to provoke a great deal more joy in Crusoe than in the book.
Dafoe's book gives many details of Crusoe's adventures before he becomes shipwrecked on the island, detailing his capture by pirates and his life afterwards owning a plantation in Brazil before finally going into the primary focus of the story, his survival alone on an unknown Caribbean island. Bunuel begins with this shipwreck but makes a point of mentioning that Crusoe had been going to Africa to obtain slaves for his plantation, a morally complicating detail that many filmmakers would have chosen to avoid. But Bunuel was right not to for how Crusoe's attitude toward human bondage is reflected in his attitude toward the native man, whom he calls Friday (Jaime Fernandez), and perhaps to his attitude towards nature in general as a thing over which he has dominion.
The Puritan Dafoe might have complained about Bunuel's emphasising Crusoe's compulsion to acknowledge hierarchy but the philosophical conflict is present in Dafoe's work. A scene where Crusoe is confounded by Friday's simple, logical question about God and the Devil in the book is reproduced faithfully.
"Well," says Friday, "but you say God is so strong, so great, is he not much strong, much might, as the devil?"--"Yes, yes," said I, Friday, "God is stronger than the devil, God is above the devil, and therefore we pray to God to tread him under our feet, and enable us to resist his temptations, and quench his fiery darts."--"But," says he again, "if God much strong, much might, as the devil, why God not kill the devil, so make him no more wicked?"
I was strangely surprised at his question; and after all, though I was now an old man, yet I was but a young doctor, and ill enough qualified for a casuist, or a solver of difficulties: and, at first, I could not tell what to say; so I pretended not to hear him, and asked him what he said; but he was too earnest for an answer to forget his question;
Faithfully reproduced except for the fact that instead of showing Friday to be worried and unsure in posing these questions he appears confident and clever, amused at finding a logical flaw in Crusoe's beliefs, and Crusoe appears absolutely at a loss. Bunuel also omits this follow up:
By this time I had recovered myself a little, and I said, "God will at last punish him severely; he is reserved for the judgment, and is to be cast into the bottomless pit, to dwell with everlasting fire." This did not satisfy Friday; but he returns upon me, repeating my words, "Reserve at last! me no understand: but why not kill the devil now, not kill great ago?"--"You may as well ask me," said I, "why God does not kill you and me, when we do wicked things here that offend him: we are preserved to repent and be pardoned." He muses awhile at this; "Well, well," says he, mighty affectionately, "that well; so you I, devil, all wicked, all preserve, repent, God pardon all."
Some might say Bunuel misses the point. Others might say that with this omission he presents clearly the problem which is only avoided by the assertion that God allows evil to exist in order to test humanity. Why should God need to test humanity if evil doesn't exist in the first place? The non-existence of this evil called sin is easy for someone in Friday's position to contemplate since he's only just now heard of it.
Bunuel also brings in Crusoe's disapproving father. Lacking the introduction with the young man starting in England, the father appears in dreams bearing, like the dream in Ascent to Heaven, Bunuel's talent for surrealism. The bearded and smiling father appears in the crude cave home on the island, upbraiding his son joyfully. Oddly dispersed throughout the scene are shots of the smiling father submerging himself under shallow water, possibly undergoing baptism, possibly drowning, the image being linked to Crusoe struggling in the sea just a few scenes before.