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Shipwrecked on an uninhabited island, Robinson Crusoe fills his time in either building a shelter for himself, or by reminiscing about the years he spent at sea and the adventures that led him to where he is. The months roll by and the hardships become easier, especially with his herd of wild goats, the ship's dog and a friendly parrot to keep him company. But one day he comes across a strange footprint - friend or foe? Written by
In the mid-sixties, in the UK at least, a memorable part of children's evening television was this adaption of Defoe's famous novel, spread over 12 x 25 minute episodes. Shot mainly on location in the Canary Islands,Robinson Crusoe' boasts fine location work and evocative camera work and, for many, it remains the definitive version for the small screen.
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 a neat way of incorporating the progress of the original novel. Then his 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 the first shipwreck, neatly book ends' the main action. But what really binds all 12 episodes is the overwhelming presence of Crusoe, as narrator `author' of his own story, whose easy-going charm and inquisitiveness is an ideal embodiment of youthful ambition.
Crusoe's sojourn on his unnamed island is an adventure. But it is also an education, forced on him by circumstance. In his youth 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 fulfillment' as he puts it. His belated recognition that Friday is human, with feelings too, his stable regard for one place (the island), these are signs of an emotional maturity - something conspicuously missing in his earlier years.
When away from his island Crusoe is normally restless, itching to start or to continue his adventuring. On his island, when this process is denied him, his thoughts are forced into different channels. He is forced to use his native skills to fashion his environment to survive. His painstaking and detailed attempts at self-sufficiency have an immediacy in presentation which still impresses today. Albicoco's cinematography echoes this development, being full of detail and atmosphere, and the scenes shot of Crusoe working with different materials have a peculiarly tactile nature. The hewing out of his canoe, building a chair, outfitting his cave, stripping the wreck each process wears 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, amplified by the haunting score.
Crusoe's own values are straightforward: he wants to remain sane, a Christian, to make the best of it through the best use of his resources, and survive long enough to be rescued. Along the way 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. These opinions are by-the-by. As in many ways, Friday provides the moral crux of the book, so it proves of this adaption.
For Crusoe - whose literal approach to civilisation and godliness is debatable (`Civilisation starts with trousers' he 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' an 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, the white man loses his vanity and grows a beard. Friday's admission into civilisation also allows a small debate on the virtues of war, gold and religion. What talk there is serves to increase Crusoe's contemplation of the deeper issues' and in our eyes makes of him a less shallow character. The two men's growing relationship also carries implicit homoerotic possibilities but, unsurprisingly, this is 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 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 the Lee Payant's dubbing in the BBC version encapsulates the tone and manner of a intelligent, resilient Englishman. The conversational style of his 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.
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