Robinson Crusoe (1902)
Another multi-scene interpretation of classic literature, this movie was released by Georges Méliès in the same year as “A Trip to the Moon.” It also deals with questions of colonialism, but where others have found traces of a critical approach in the former film, here it seems little has changed since Daniel Defoe’s day.
The movie begins with a depiction of Crusoe’s ship crashing, but surviving prints have very little of this – a brief flash of a man slumped over a rocky cliff, a wrecked ship in the background traces the impression lightly, though the Star Films catalog suggests we should see more of his struggle to survive. The next scene shows Robinson (Méliès) poling upriver in a raft laden with salvaged items, such as a barrel (the catalog suggests an entire scene is lost, in which we see him building the raft). Another scene shows him looting the wreck of the ship before all of it breaks up and drifts away. He locates survivors – a cat and a dog – who will be his first companions on the island. The next scene shows him atop a peak on the island’s mountainous terrain, lighting a signal fir to try to hail a passing ship. The ship sails by without stopping, however. (Once again, the catalog suggests something is missing, since two signaling scenes are listed). Now, Robinson, resigned to living long-term on the island, is shown hard at the labor of building a hut to shelter himself and his animals.
The next several scenes constitute an “action sequence” that changes the pace of the film. We see a group of natives, colorfully arrayed and wearing bones in their hair to indicate that they are cannibals. Again according to the catalog, there should be a kind of victory dance as they “give themselves up to further hideous rites and ceremonies” after devouring prisoners, but all we see is a brief flash of them before Crusoe arrives and rescues Friday (we are told in the catalog that he does this by frightening them off with his gun). Crusoe and Friday scamper off the set where we just saw the cannibals, Crusoe providing some rear-guard defense as a few brave cannibals try to rush them, and a fine red dust crashes down after the bulk of the savages reach the bottom of the cliff, presumably dislodged by Friday and Crusoe to slow pursuit. The next scene shows Friday and Crusoe running through a set at the top of the mountain, and Crusoe finds a hiding spot from which to pick off some of the pursuers with his gun. Now we see Crusoe’s hut. Friday climbs atop it and Crusoe again sets up to fire his gun as cannibals run onto the set. There is a brief scuffle before the scene we have ends, but the Star Film catalog assures us that the “remaining savages are…dispatched to the very last one.”
The next scenes depict Crusoe’s and Friday’s life on the island together. We see Crusoe attempt instructing Friday from a book, but he is more interested in playing with a parrot or with the other animals (which now also include a goat for milk). We see them construct a canoe and use it to explore the island, hunt for game in the woods, and weather a storm (for some reason titled an “Earthquake” in the catalog). Lightning flashes, the palm trees whip about wildly, and the hut is eventually blown over by the gale.
The final sequence shows us Crusoe’s escape from the island and return home. A group of “mutineers” land on the island with their officers tied up and bind them to trees. Crusoe and Friday untie the prisoners while the sailors drink and carouse, and they help fight the mutineers, and are granted passage aboard the ship once the sailors are again subdued. We see the ship arriving in Southampton, a celebration at the docks upon his return, and then Crusoe’s home, where he is greeted by his aging wife, his grown children, and new grandchildren. Friday, now dressed awkwardly as an English servant, is brought into the house, since he now has nowhere else to go. The set behind Crusoe opens up to depict the jungle setting of his home of many years as he relays the story of his adventures, and finally the scene fades to Friday and Crusoe, in their primitive garb, hovering triumphantly over the island.
For many years, only a couple of scenes from this film were known to have survived, both in black and white prints, and I have that version on DVD, and many readers may have only ever seen it. In 2011, a hand-colored print was discovered and that has since become widely available, and is the basis for this review. Despite frequent gloomy predictions (since at least the 1970s) that no new silent films will be discovered, due to the fragility of nitrate film and the lack of care in their preservation at the time, it always seems to me like if you wait long enough, everything is eventually rediscovered and/or reconstructed. Anyway, for fans of Méliès, this print of this colorful movie is a delight, as each scene benefits from the creative hand-painting of trees, plants, animals, and costumes from the past.
“Robinson Crusoe” has always had a problematic cultural legacy. It largely essentializes the European colonial project by depicting Crusoe’s domination of the natural world he encounters through his industry, technological knowledge, and, in the book, his piety. The relationship between Crusoe and Friday is central to this interpretation, and the story basically excuses slavery as a means of civilizing inferior races. Méliès seems to challenge none of this. His depiction of Friday as a black-face comic relief character gives him none of the dignity Defoe did, although he is occasionally brave in battle. The cannibals are typical savages, and there is no consideration of the fact that Crusoe is the alien, imposing his will on them on an island they have more claim to than he does. The elements of the island are all there as resources for Crusoe to exploit as he will, just as in the original novel.
I don’t want that to be the only takeaway, however, because like most Méliès movies, this is a delight to watch despite its problematic aspects. It’s nice to see that in addition to the many generic comedy/trick shorts he made in 1902, he did make another effort at a serious longer production besides “A Trip to the Moon.” In fact, while that one had more special effects, this strikes me as a more sophisticated attempt to adapt a work of literature to the screen. For all the comic relief, the story we see here sticks closer to the serious tone of its source material than the in that other movie. Instead of a team of goofy scientist/wizards, we get a man struggling to survive adversity and succeeding with dignity. To adapt a full-length novel to 12 minutes worth of static scenes, a lot of cuts had to be made, but those choices were made with care, and despite the inconvenience they always bring to the set, he worked with a large number of animals, who didn’t always know what was in the script. While the Verne adaptation is better known today, this one deserves credit as one of the first attempts to figure out how longer narrative drama could be shown to audiences through cinema.
Director: Georges Méliès
Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown
Run Time: 11 Min, 20 secs
You can watch it (the full version) for free: here (no music).