In Memoriam 1942 – 2013 “Roger Ebert loved movies.”

RogerEbert.com

Thumb wildlife

Wildlife

One never senses judgment from Dano, Kazan, Gyllenhaal, or Mulligan—they recognize that there’s beauty even in the mistakes we make in life. It’s what makes…

Thumb halloween poster

Halloween

Do you know the biggest sin of the new Halloween? It’s just not scary. And that’s one thing you could never say about the original.

Other Reviews
Review Archives
Thumb xbepftvyieurxopaxyzgtgtkwgw

Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

Other Reviews
Great Movie Archives

Reviews

Man Friday

  |  

"Man Friday" is an unfortunate attempt to make "Robinson Crusoe" into a fable for our times. It's unfortunate, first of all, because the film's earnest good intentions keep showing through, and second, because a straightforward remake of "Robinson Crusoe" itself, with this cast, might have been interesting. The movie's biggest problem is that it's acutely conscious of being made in the mid-1970s. It's based on a British play by Adrian Mitchell, who was apparently determined to turn the classic story into a vehicle for his own notions about black-white relationships, and every scene seems determined to function on at least three levels: as story, as instruction and as irony. Few movies can stand up under a load like this, and "Man Friday" certainly can't. Instead of a strong and direct story of a relationship between two men - and of a contact between two civilizations - we get scenes that actually look shifty; they're so concerned to cover all the bases. Instead of two well-developed characters, we get a couple of eccentrics: Crusoe as a fanatic and Friday as a savage of impossible nobility. Instead of a story of survival, we get a metaphor in which everything in the movie has to serve the ultimate, and murky, meaning. And instead of being entertained, we get a lesson. 

Advertisement

There's nothing wrong with movies that have something to tell us, but the filmmakers have somehow got to find a way to bury their message in their story, to make it seem to grow out of the characters' actual lives. "Man Friday" never does. And so Peter O'Toole and Richard Roundtree, who bring interestingly contrasting acting approaches to their roles, wind up absolutely at the mercy of the script. They can't project motivations because there are none, except the movie's determination to be ideologically consistent. And Mitchell's ideology is a curious one that raises a lot of questions. In the film's opening shot, we see Crusoe sitting on a beach and reading his Bible. Friday, in contrast, is participating in a pagan ritual. But after Crusoe "adopts" Friday and allows him to work as houseboy and jack-of-all-trades, their relationship gradually changes. Crusoe, the man of "civilization," becomes increasingly hostile, violent and maniacal. Friday, supposedly uncivilized exhibits all of the proper traits. He is understanding, kind, shrewd, warm, and generous. At the film's end, after Crusoe and Friday have somewhat improbably sailed to Friday's own island, Crusoe is rejected because his fears and passions might be transmitted to the island's children. 

What are we learning here? That Crusoe's civilization has made him neurotic, and that Friday's more natural state embodies the better human qualities? Or is it simply that Crusoe was off balance to begin with, and that Friday failed to save him? It's hard to say, and harder still because the characters themselves debate their situation at great length, inconclusively. Friday seems to learn English within a week after meeting Crusoe, which is fast going but not a moment too soon considering all the platitudes and sweet little speeches he has to make. The movie talks itself out, trying to resolve its situation with words and yet never finding a dramatic way to handle it.

Popular Blog Posts

Who do you read? Good Roger, or Bad Roger?

This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...

Netflix’s Terrifying, Moving The Haunting of Hill House is Essential Viewing

A review of Mike Flanagan's new horror series based on the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House.

"It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" Gets the Deluxe Treatment from Criterion

An epic essay on an epic comedy of the 1960s, now given deluxe treatment on Blu-ray and DVD by Criterion.

Once Upon a Time in Haddonfield: Revisiting John Carpenter's Halloween

Far Flung Correspondent Seongyong Cho revisits John Carpenter's classic Halloween.

Reveal Comments
comments powered by Disqus