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By Phil Hall | November 24, 2004

During the past three decades, Luis Bunuel’s 1952 feature “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” has only been available in scratchy, faded 16mm prints for non-theatrical screenings. Due to a seemingly endless struggle over the rights to the film (at one point, five different entities simultaneously claimed the film), a commercial re-release, let alone home video presentations and TV broadcasts, could not be achieved. At long last, this elusive title has finally emerged in a long-overdue DVD premiere; it also received a much-needed restoration, bringing back the original Pathecolor hues.

But let’s be upfront and honest about this one. For Bunuel’s fans, most of whom only know this film by reputation, the production will come as something of a disappointment. Outside of a dream sequence where Crusoe’s father bathes a pig, there is absolutely to “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” which feels like Bunuel. One could watch the film without the titles and come away completely clueless as to the identity of the director. Indeed, the film’s original press kit (which is included in this DVD) makes no mention at all of Bunuel! This is not to say the film is bad, but rather it is simply not representative of the canon which includes “Los Olvidados,” “The Exterminating Angel,” “Belle du Jour” or the other landmarks of the Buñuel output.

If you can get over that, enjoy the show! “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” is actually a straightforward and vigorous adaptation of the Daniel Defoe classic. The film is extremely faithful to its source, though for contemporary audiences it may be too faithful for comfort – especially in the politically incorrect latter sequences when Crusoe gives thanks that Friday (Mexican actor Jaime Fernandez, in horrible greasepaint make-up and a wild wig) has turned up to be his servant.

If there is reason to see “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” today, it would be the astonishing performance by Irish actor Dan O’Herlihy in the title role. For two-thirds of the film’s 90 minutes, this is literally a one man movie and O’Herlihy pulls its off brilliantly. Crusoe’s mix of external and internal adventures, from the discovery of a dog which survived the shipwreck to him to the feverish dreams which reinforce his catastrophic dilemma to the discovery on the beach that he is not alone, is a rush of complex emotions which few actors could pull off properly. O’Herlihy achieves this brilliantly, and even goes further by making Crusoe something of a sexy guy (no mean feat, especially when Crusoe literally lets his hair down).

It is not surprising that O’Herlihy, who was not a major star prior to this film, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor when the film reached American release in 1954, but it is a shame that he never received another role to match this triumph. (For Oscar trivia buffs, O’Herlihy lost to Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” and faced competition from Humphrey Bogart in “The Caine Mutiny,” James Mason in “A Star is Born” and Bing Crosby in “The Country Girl” — this was easily one of the best years for the Best Actor race!)

Strangely, the film is being released on DVD as plain old “Robinson Crusoe” – this was not the film’s title in the original theatrical release, although the print used for this release has “Robinson Crusoe” as the title. But whatever you call it, it is a wonderful rediscovery.

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