Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
In the mid-1960s, in the UK at least, a memorable part of children's evening TV was this adaptation
of Defoe's famous novel, spread over 12 x 25-minute episodes - available here on four video tapes.
Shot mainly on location in the Canary Islands, The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe boasts fine
locations and evocative camerawork. For many, it remains the definitive version for the small screen.
(Luis Bunuel may account for the big screen honours.)
The first episode of the series deals with Crusoe's shipwreck and initial landing on his island. Flashbacks within this and the other first few episodes bring his story up to date as he recalls his restless youth, then his apprenticeship as a law clerk, his running away, his capture into slavery, his adventures as a plantation owner and so on. This is an economic way of incorporating the progress of the original novel, which works well. Then the castaway's solitude is broken with the arrival of his companion man Friday, and their relationship grows. So structurally the series divides into four: shipwreck and arrival; the establishment of Crusoe and his cave home, initially with flashbacks; the rescue and education of Friday, then a brief epilogue, with the two of them writing his story back in England. This last section, with that of the first shipwreck, of course neatly bookends the main plot action. But what really binds all 12 episodes is the overwhelming presence of Crusoe, as narrator and author of his own story, his easygoing charm and inquisitiveness an ideal embodiment of youthful adventure.
Crusoe's sojourn on his unnamed island is a shipwreck experience. But it is also a moral education, forced on him by circumstance. In his youth he admits he is restless - "a rash young man, full of arrogance." He disagrees with his father about the path his life should take (a dissatisfaction which eventually leads him to leave home). He prefers fencing to a settled career and wants travel, variety and excitement. By the end of his ordeal, he has achieved inner peace and enlightenment before returning to civilisation with regret - "full of peace and fulfilment" as he puts it. His belated recognition that Friday is human, with feelings too, his stable regard for one place (the island) are signs of an emotional maturity - something conspicuously absent in his earlier years.
Before encountering his island Crusoe is always restless, itching to start, or to continue, his adventuring. On his island, when this process his denied him, his thoughts are forced into different channels. He is obliged to use his native skills to fashion his environment. His painstaking and detailed attempts at self-sufficiency have an immediacy that still impresses today. Albicoco's cinematography echoes his development, and the scenes Crusoe working with different materials have a peculiarly tactile nature. The hewing out of the canoe, building a chair, outfitting his cave, stripping the wreck - each process has a concern with texture, surface, light and shade that is, for want of a better word, beautiful. The black and white photography, the sand, the sunshine, the natural work materials, as well as Crusoe's own glistening body combine to create a sensual surface rare in television drama, amplified by the haunting score.
Crusoe's work has a distinct purpose as far as he is concerned: to keep him occupied. His aims though constant activities are logical. He wants to remain sane, a Christian, to make the best of it through the best use of his resources, surviving long enough to be rescued. Along the way, when alone, he has a few interesting observations to make on life, normally whimsical and predicated around nationalistic lines. The English, he suggests, enjoy their privacy (an irony apparently lost on him) or, as a race are not normally associated with cooking skills (until he proves to himself a culinary success). These opinions are by-products of his loneliness and only reflect something of Crusoe's abiding self-satisfaction. For a more extended discussion on living the viewer has to wait. In the novel it is the arrival of Friday that provides the moral crux, and so it proves of this adaptation.
For Crusoe - whose literal approach to civilisation and godliness is debatable ("Civilisation starts with trousers" he smugly asserts at one point) - Friday's arrival is both a relief and a challenge. As a companion, he alleviates loneliness but Crusoe's initial treatment of him as a servant, rather than an equal, is only rectified after Friday 'sulks' - a profound absence amplified by the simultaneous death of Crusoe's dog. Friday is clean, bright, reliable, and a worthy friend. The absence of any blameworthy attributes (excluding his understandable moment of sloth following Crusoe's bungled moral instruction), makes his assimilation to the 'English' way of life relatively painless and allows Crusoe's maturity to occur. As one sign of this, as he points out, the white man loses his remaining vanity and grows a beard. Friday's admission into 'civilisation' also allows a small debate to take place on the virtues of war, gold and religion. Such talk also serves to increase Crusoe's contemplation of the deeper issues and broadens his character. The two men's growing relationship and intimacy also carries implicit homoeroticism, one never made explicit.
Curiously, once seen, the English language version of this series is by far the most successful. Whether or not it was commissioned just for the BBC, I don't know, but a comparison with the original French-voiced production is a surprise. The memorable soundtrack is missing from the authentic series, replaced by one that's more jazz-based and, to these ears, far less evocative. Worse, Crusoe's distinctive voice and diction is that of a different actor. The tenor voice of Lee Payant's dubbing in the BBC version, encapsulates the tone of an intelligent, resilient Englishman. The conversational style of the narration (which occupies almost all of the dialogue outside of the flashbacks and the 'debates' with Friday) perfectly suits Crusoe's character and made his disappointments and introspection charming. The Austrian actor's real voice, for all his dramatic virtues, lapses back into anonymity. Worse, for this boy grown into an adult, Crusoe is no longer a friend to be revisited again and again.