If Judge Bill Treadway were shipwrecked on a desert island, his first choice of DVD would be Survival Tips for Desert Island Living. But this would be his second.
The most fabulous hero in all adventure history!
Seaman Robinson Crusoe (Dan O'Herlihy, Odd Man Out, Macbeth) is caught in a raging sea storm. He awakes to find himself shipwrecked on an island. The island is uninhabited, and Crusoe finds himself alone, possibly forever. So begins the story of Robinson Crusoe, a story intimately familiar to all those who have spent time in the company of the wonderful novel by Daniel Defoe. In 1952, Spanish director Luis Buñuel brought the novel to the screen. Marking his English-language debut, the film remained on the shelf until 1954, when United Artists picked up distribution rights.
Luis Buñuel was one of the greatest cinematic minds of all time. The majority of his work was in the surrealist mode; some of his masterpieces in this vein include Un Chien Andalou (1928), L'Age D'Or (1930), The Exterminating Angel (1962), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1973), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1979). Those films may tell you what to expect from his adaptation of the Defoe novel. While there are some typical Buñuel touches, particularly within the dream sequences, Robinson Crusoe is a surprisingly accessible film for Buñuel. It can be easily enjoyed by those turned off by his surrealistic works, yet devotees of those films will love the style he brings to the film. Watching the film today, one realizes that Buñuel could have been a completely commercial director if he had chosen to be.
The film he has created is a visual and visceral experience like no other. Working with Technicolor for the first time in his career, Buñuel makes the most of the wide range of colors offered by the palette. The lush exteriors and locations are so vivid and convincing that it is difficult to believe that this was filmed entirely in Mexico. Buñuel uses the visuals to create another character to the story, albeit a silent one. Buñuel and co-writer Hugo Butler (credited as Philip Ansell Roll) take the basic story and emphasize the moral conflicts of being a castaway struggling to survive. Most adaptations tend to concentrate on the adventure aspects of the story. Buñuel goes further, creating a richly textured film that leads the audience to ponder human moral responsibilities, even in isolation. Defoe's novel dared to raise such questions, but Buñuel digs deeper, particularly when escaped slave Friday (Jaime Fernandez, Guns for San Sebastian) arrives on the island.
The center of the film remains Irish actor Dan O'Herlihy, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work. O'Herlihy, a fine actor, made a name for himself in Carol Reed's 1947 masterpiece Odd Man Out. His American film debut came in Orson Welles's adaptation of Macbeth, but stardom eluded him. Perhaps it was best that stardom never came, because it is that very anonymity that helps make him so convincing and believable as Crusoe. He is in accord with the cardinal rule of acting: keeping the performance steeped in the reality of the situation. He doesn't overact or reach for easy sympathy, instead slowly building emotional responses in the viewer. He has to maintain the film all by himself for over half the running time, and he does it with supreme skill and grace. If it hadn't been for Brando and On the Waterfront, I believe O'Herlihy would have won the Oscar that year. In fact, I think he should have won it anyway. It's that good a performance.
VCI presents Robinson Crusoe in a full-frame transfer that recreates the original theatrical presentation. Robinson Crusoe has never been available on home video in any form, so until now the occasional airing on public television was the sole exposure of the film; I remember it playing late on a Saturday night on PBS. As I recall, the print was an ugly sight, with washed-out color and lots of scratches, specks, and blemishes peppering the image. VCI's restoration is nothing short of incredible; they have come very close to recreating the film's original visual scheme. The original 35mm negative no longer exists, but dupe copies still exist. Those dupe prints were subjected to a frame-by-frame restoration from which a tape-based master was created. Colors have been restored to their original boldness and vibrancy, and many blemishes and imperfections have been eliminated. A few scant specks still remain, but that may be a defect within the source material.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The soundtrack has also been given a rigorous restoration. Previous prints suffered from tremendous amounts of hiss, crackling, and poor cue edits. VCI's restoration has removed most of the problem areas from the soundtrack, offering a nice, clean-sounding mix.
VCI has offered some intriguing extra content for this 50th anniversary edition. The film's original theatrical trailer is featured here. Look at the shoddy visual condition of the trailer as a revelation of how brilliant VCI's restoration of the film is. An extensive photo and poster gallery is included, as are biographies of star O'Herlihy and director Buñuel. The best and most impressive extra is a 52-minute audio interview with Dan O'Herlihy. This was recorded in June 1985 by critic and historian David Del Valle as the first in a series of interviews. Over the course of this interview, O'Herlihy covers all the bases: how he got into acting for a living; how his film career began; working with Orson Welles, Carol Reed, and Buñuel, among others; and how he procured an Oscar nomination despite relative obscurity. What joy and vigor O'Herlihy demonstrates when answering Del Valle's questions; I dare anyone to find an audio interview that is more spellbinding than this one.
How good it is to have Robinson Crusoe on DVD at long last and in such glorious condition. Luis Buñuel's film remains a forgotten masterpiece that deserves reappraisal and rediscovery. Dan O'Herlihy's performance is a masterpiece of quiet tension and guile. This remains the best adaptation of the novel to date. Now that we have this beautiful new disc, all other shoddy prints can be burned and buried forever.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• Audio Interview with Actor Dan O'Herlihy
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