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Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Castaways, Part 2 (originally published 7/98)

Last week we were looking at movies in which characters are stranded on a desert island, a premise that has made "Gilligan's Island" a perennial favorite in television syndication. Its most recent incarnation on the big screen is, of course, "Six Days, Seven Nights," but, as we saw last time, the premise has been a favorite of filmmakers since the silent era. Here are some additional castaway films to look for on video.

"The Navigator" (1924). Silent comic Buster Keaton came up with an interesting variation on the theme with this picture. Instead of marooning shipwrecked characters on an uncharted island, he figured a way to maroon them on the ship itself. Keaton plays Rollo Treadway, a spoiled rich kid whose girlfriend, Betsy (Kathryn McGuire), has rejected his proposal of marriage. By chance, Rollo and Betsy mistakenly board an abandoned ocean liner that is subsequently set adrift by foreign agents. Since there's no crew, the couple must rely on their own pathetically limited resources to survive on the ship. Gradually the pampered Rollo discovers capabilities within himself that he never dreamed of, necessity being in this case the mother of maturity. Eventually they do end up on an island - populated by hostile natives - but by then Rollo is up to the task of acting as Betsy's protector. If you recall the variations on "The Admirable Crichton" that we considered last week, you'll note that Keaton has managed in this film to combine the ineffectual aristocrats and the resourceful servant of Barrie's play into a single character. Pretty sophisticated stuff for a film that's also a side-splitting comedy.

"Swiss Family Robinson" (1960). At its peak, few could touch the Disney studios when it came to adapting literary classics into entertaining family movie fare. This lively version of the beloved Johann Wyss novel is vintage Disney. When the Robinson family survives a shipwreck to take up residence on an uncharted island, they seem to get along even better than they would have back in civilization. They build themselves an extremely cool treehouse, the equal of anything the Professor ever came up with for Thurston Howell or the Skipper, and spend their days playing with the island's friendly animals. Relatively little of the original novel remains, the most radical departure being the addition of a gang of pirates who menace the castaways, but if you can forgive this lack of reverence for the source material you'll find yourself sumptuously entertained. For a more faithful adaptation of the book, you might try the 1940 version, starring Thomas Mitchell, which is also available on video.

"Swept an unusual destiny in the blue sea of August" (1975). For a while in the seventies, Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller became a sort of female Fellini, the darling of the critics and a cult figure among moviegoers with cosmopolitan tastes. As with much of her work, "Swept Away" brings a political consciousness to bear on the story it tells. Wertmuller's take on the island castaways premise is to turn it into a combination gender war and class war in miniature. Once again, this is an "Admirable Crichton" variation, with an upper class woman shipwrecked with a lower class man who was a deckhand on her yacht. Having set up a situation fraught with interpersonal tensions, Wertmuller methodically and pitilessly picks at each and every scab.

"Crusoe" (1988). We can hardly leave the subject of castaway movies without mentioning at least one version of Daniel Defoe's classic novel, "Robinson Crusoe." There are many variations on the book, such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s "Mr. Robinson Crusoe" (1932), but to my knowledge the only straight adaptation currently available on video is this recent production starring Aidan Quinn in the title role. Screenwriters Walon Green and Christopher Logue tell the story from the perspective of contemporary social consciousness, focusing on the relationship between Crusoe and the native warrior who becomes his companion.

We began by invoking the magical name of "Gilligan's Island," certainly the most ubiquitous version of the castaway premise. I should mention, I suppose, that some of the show's episodes can be found on video, but why bother buying or renting them? Just turn on the television, flip through the channels long enough, and you'll find the show. For a group of folks who were lost at sea over thirty years ago, they're not that hard to find.

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