Long before Tom Hanks found himself stranded on an island with only a volleyball for company in Cast Away, Daniel Defoe penned the definitive original that Luis Bunuel adapted for Robinson Crusoe (1954)—his first color film and significantly the first Eastmancolor film in America, causing Bunuel to shoot longer than usual. Produced for less than three hundred thousand dollars, the English speaking film enjoyed success—winning a number of awards in Mexico and securing an Oscar nomination for lead actor Dan O'Herlihy. Even Bunuel is fond of the film
Relying heavily on narration, Robinson Crusoe will never stand with the finest of Bunuel's canon, yet he finds ways to transform the simple mundane story into an ambiguous, provocative moral tale. Initially stranded on an island with only the ship's pet dog and resourcefully mining its supplies for survival, Crusoe gets seriously ill and surrealistically encounters his father during his delirum. The experience brings compels the castaway to question his motives, values, and very existence. Can he forgive his father or forgive himself, and what to what purpose has God left him in this spot? Crusoe is forced to question why he should continue, an existential dilemma central to Bunuel's oevre.
Before long, the cat births kittens without an apparent father—a mystery that Crusoe can never solve. He does creatively use his mental faculties to grow grain and use the flora and fauna to advantage, and finds a measure of solace for his loneliness from the Bible. Eighteen years pass without human contact, and Crusoe illustrates his existential adjustment by feeding an ant to a burrowing antlion in the sand (biological references remain a Bunuel staple). But now the castaway must worry about being down the rung of nature's food chain when he sees that cannibals are frequenting his island.
This leads to his eventual and long anticipated relationship with Friday (Jaime Fernandez), who becomes both slave and friend to the protagonist. This emphasizes the moral ambiguities of the film, as Crusoe intially feels far superior to the uncivilized man—amazed at his ignorance and appalled at his flesh eating lifestyle. He also fears his slave, but soon grows to admire his purity and loyalty and deeply appreciates his friendship.
Sexual desire occupies a much lesser place in this Bunuel film, but it's not entirely absent. Fashioning a scarecrow from an abandoned woman's dress, Crusoe gazes longingly at it for a few seconds. Note that it does serve its purpose and allows him to make the bread of life (his most satisfying meal). Later he instantly scolds Friday for cross dressing; his "beautiful hunting outfit" is not acceptable in his universe. While homo eroticism would seem like a natural component of a 28 year existence in isolation, Bunuel doesn't explore this overtly, and focuses more on bigger existential issues. Although the surrealist has made much stronger films, Robinson Crusoe engages the viewer and remains far more provocative than the more literal adaptation's of Defoe's classic. And we are all much richer for the recent DVD release of this and many other films from Bunuel's Mexican period (1946-61).