In the early 1950s, before he had become an internationally acclaimed auteur, Luis Bunuel was a prolific director in the Mexican film industry specializing in popular comedies and melodramas for the domestic market. Most of these were for producer Oscar Dancigers, who had ambitions beyond the local market. Dancigers had already produced Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), still considered one of Bunuel’s great films, so when he decided to make an English language film for the international market, he offered Bunuel the chance to direct the project: The result was Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954).
“I didn’t like the novel but I did like the character of Crusoe,” Bunuel noted later in an interview. And he must have appreciated the opportunity. None of his previous films had had a shooting schedule more than 28 days. For Adventures of Robinson Crusoe he had a luxurious three months to shoot his very first color film, for which they left the studio and went to Manzanillo, then a small Pacific seaport near Acapulco with a lush jungle interior. It was shot simultaneously in English (another first for Bunuel) and Spanish with an acclaimed young actor in the lead: Daniel O’Herlihy.
O’Herlihy first made his name as a star of Dublin’s Gate Theater (where Orson Welles also had his first stage success) and made the leap to the big screen in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and Orson Welles’ Macbeth(1948). Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, shot in 1952, was his first film lead and the first half of the film is essentially a one-man show. O’Herlihy doesn’t just carry the entire story with a largely wordless performance (his narration, which plays as if read from a journal, provides the audience’s need for dialogue) but presents the evolution of a man stripped of civilization and human companionship, from hope of rescue to resignation to his isolation. As in the novel, the film spans 28 years on the island and (according to the film’s own publicity notes) O’Herlihy had a wardrobe of eleven beards to mark his evolution.
Apart from a fever-dream where his father’s disapproval delivers an I-told-you-so monologue to the hallucinating Crusoe, O’Herlihy is the sole human actor on screen until the arrival of Friday (Jaime Fernndez) late in the film. He talks to animals rescued from the ship for companionship and, at one point, screams into a vast valley simply to hear his own voice echoed back as he shouts the 23rd Psalm. When he “celebrates” his fifth year of solo survival by getting roaring drunk, he hears the voices of revelry as if his cave had become a tavern, but Bunuel keeps the camera fixed on his face, not even allowing us the illusion of company. The slow return to the reality of his isolation is devastating.
Continue reading on Turner Classic Movies. Plays on TCM on Tuesday, February 21.
Also available on DVD.