May 31, 2012

Almost everybody knows the story of Robinson Crusoe. Perhaps this is why screenwriter Walon Green and director Caleb Deschanel decided to monkey around with the classic novel by Daniel Defoe. (I don’t think Defoe’s name is mentioned anywhere in the credits.)

Crusoe is, therefore, only one version of the Robinson Crusoe story. For a more traditional (but subtly perverse) telling, see Luis Bunuel’s Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Walon Green, who also wrote the superb screenplay of The Wild Bunch with Sam Peckinpah, has made this Crusoe an American, not an Englishman.

So the movie begins in Virginia in 1808, where Crusoe (Aidan Quinn) is a ruthless slave trader. In his greed, he decides to charter one more ship to travel to Africa before the weather goes bad. But, as we all know, the ship never makes the continent. Crusoe is dumped, the only survivor, on a lonely island.

Here he practices his familiar survival techniques. And he eventually discovers the tribe of cannibals who frequent the spot. But in this version, there is no footprint in the sand, nor a loyal and obedient Man Friday. Crusoe trips across a native (Ade Sapara) all right, but this native is not inclined to Fridayesque submission.

Instead, Crusoe and the native hammer out a peaceful co-existence on the island. The movie has a wonderful scene in which Crusoe tries to teach his companion English. You know the scene from countless movies; the patient white man painstakingly points to dinner and says “meat,” while the savage scratches his head until he finally gets it. Except that in Crusoe, this traditional scene is turned on its head, as the native answers Crusoe with his own word for meat. If the native can learn English, why can’t Crusoe learn his language?

This is clearly a revisionist take on the story, and for the most part it is unforced and entertaining (and better than Man Friday, a 1976 movie that also turned the tables on Crusoe). Crusoe is a bit brief, clocking in at a little more than 90 minutes, and there’s some sense that the story has been skimmed.

Caleb Descanel has been a cinematographer on some visually gorgeous movies, notably another film set on an island, The Black Stallion. As a director, he emphasizes surfaces and simple ideas. And pretty pictures. Crusoe was filmed in the Seychelle Islands, a spot so breathtaking that you may wonder why Crusoe would want to leave.

Deschanel gets a peculiar performance from Aidan Quinn. Quinn is not well known, but he is one of America’s best actors (he was in The Mission and the recent TV version of All My Sons), and he’s quite offbeat here. When he hoists a glass of rum in the wrecked hull of the ship, his expression and his toast—”To me!”—suggest a crazy, inspired self-absorption.

First published in the Herald, April 6, 1989

It came and went, and seems to be forgotten now. It will make you want to go to the Seychelles, which I don’t think was the point of the exercise.