It is the mid-seventeenth century and slave trader Robinson Crusoe (Dan O'Herlihy) is travelling across the Atlantic to buy slaves at his destination - but he never reaches it. The ship he is on is caught in a fierce storm and dashed on the rocks of a group of islands, with himself as the only survivor, unless you count a cat and a dog. He is washed up on shore, and seeks to find shelter for the night so he can wake in the morning refreshed, but after a few hours spent in a tree, he is feeling hungry more than anything else. With nobody to rescue him, Robinson must now learn how to exist on this new home - alone...
At first glance the straightforward telling of the classic Daniel Defoe tale of the shipwreck survivor might have seemed an odd choice for such a rebellious filmmaker as Luis Buñuel, and it can definitely be taken at face value as a simple adventure yarn. But there are questions about what we take for granted to be asked, and here the director, working with blacklisted screenwriter Hugo Butler (using a pseudonym), tackles what must have been a pretty complacent existence for Robinson, never challenging his way of life which included slaves and religion, by plonking him down in a place where none of that applies, no matter how he tries to make it do so.
For over half the film the only person we see or hear (he narrates) is O'Herlihy, so Buñuel was fortunate to cast an actor who can command the screen: the Irishman shows that he could have been capable of many more lead roles than he ever secured. He is ideal for bringing out the theme of loneliness as Crusoe's desperation for someone to talk to shows in his eyes until he finds that famous footprint in the sand of what he thought was a deserted island, but before that he must suffer, as if punished for his previous self-satisfaction, finding that the animals are no replacement for interaction with a human.
Of those animals, it seems the only ones he doesn't eat are the cat and the dog: it's a miracle there are any left on the place after he has been there a few years. Occasional moments arise for surrealism-spotters, such as the egg famished Robinson breaks open only to find a chick inside, or the fever dream he has of his father washing a pig and admonishing him, but otherwise Buñuel is not interested in the fantastical image, and has some serious issues in mind. That need for a companion is foremost, so when Crusoe saves a cannibal from his fellow tribesmen, he is delighted to have someone to share his life with at last.
Naming him Friday (Jaime Fernández), Robinson sets about "civilising" him, but his arrogance has not been entirely quashed, as soon he is treating this new arrival as his slave. Old habits die hard, but Friday's genuine decency has his new "master" (that's what he calls him throughout, because that's what he's been told to call him) enduring guilt pangs and after a while he sees the error of his ways. So Friday becomes his equal, and this being a Buñuel film, even has his new friend wondering about the validity of his Christianity by asking simple questions about God that he cannot answer. Yet for all the musing over how solid Crusoe's social tenets were, this never forgets to be an adventure story and can be appreciated as a reliable version of a beloved tale, one which even rivals the European sixties television series for its definitive nature. Music by Anthony Collins.