The failure of Hollywood to make a great adaption of Daniel Defoe's classic shipwreck novel "Robinson Crusoe" is an odd deficiency that nearly ranks with the lack of a serious "Huckleberry Finn."
It is however, a story that has attracted TV producers-- including a lame TV movie with Pierce Brosnan, a failed series, and a host of foreign TV adaptions-- and was one of the early classics that attracted film makers in the silent era (a story that featured long stretches without dialogue was a PLUS to them, not the scary prospect it is to current studio execs).
Strangely enough, the best sound version of the story is probably the endearingly offbeat "Robinson Crusoe on Mars," now a Saturday afternoon sci-fi favorite on TV.
"RC on Mars" is far more faithful to Defoe than is "Man Friday," a simply dreadful politically correct 1975 movie with Peter O'Toole as an imperialist Crusoe, and Richard Roundtree as his rebellious slave. This one ends with a feverish Crusoe blowing his brains out! Not that the movie ever HAD any.
The new take on Crusoe is "Cast Away," which reunites Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis who last struck gold with "Forest Gump." Like their previous collaboration, "Cast Away" is a movie with an okay beginning, a great middle, and a disappointing third act.
Hanks plays Chuck Noland, a Fed Ex troubleshooter who lives his life by the clock and making people meet deadlines. But Chuck is suddenly thrust into a world where time has little meaning when his plane crashes (in a great, terrifying scene) in the South Pacific, and he is washed up on a desert island.
Chuck still has a prized antique watch that he looks at constantly, but only because it contains a picture in it of the girl he left behind (Helen Hunt).
In a remarkable 75 minute stretch that has no dialogue, only Chuck's comments to a painted volleyball he dubs Wilson, we see Chuck undergo a remarkable transformation from a slightly pudgy white collar middle manager to a lean survivalist machine.
Hanks is superb in a role that few of today's actors could pull off this well. Not just because of his acting technique, but because of his inherent likeability and a persona that projects solid integrity.
Robinson Crusoe is one of the great Christian novels of all time. "Cast Away" obviously does not have to live up to that standard; but unfortunately, the movie bends over backwards to avoid any spiritual introspection.
Unless Chuck was a hard core atheist, which isn't set up in the story-- and even if he had been, the rule about foxholes probably also applies to desert islands and ocean-bound rubber rafts-- he would probably call upon God sometime during his four years, if only to curse Him. Even that would have been more interesting.
This is especially strange from director Zemeckis, whose "Forest Gump" was considered by many to be a spiritual allegory (though I thought it overrated in that respect, and many others) and "Contact" which attempted to call a truce between religion and science advocates (though as I wrote in Credo at the time, the real message was that faith is okay, as long as you don't insist on it).
Now here, I am going to violate one of my cardinal rules of movie reviewing. Generally, I won't give away the ending of even a movie I despise, but in this case, EVERY trailer for "Cast Away" reveals that Chuck does, indeed, get off the island.
This leads to the year's most frustrating subtitle, when the words "Four weeks later" appear on the screen. What could have been a fascinating look at a man's readjustment to society and human contact after four years is brushed over in favor of a soap opera resolution about whether Chuck and Kelly will get back together.
"Cast Away" is quite entertaining, and well worth seeing, if only for Hanks' sensational performance. He is a near shoe-in for an Oscar, and it will be deserved. This could have been a performance to build a classic movie around, if only all spiritual considerations hadn't been deserted.