The principle of living that we define as civilization may call not for a hymn of triumph but for a dirge.
A group of natives from a South Sea island are washed up on an unfamiliar beach after a storm. In the middle of their cannibalistic funeral rites for a dead comrade, they are attacked by Robinson Crusoe, a white man who has been stranded alone on the island for years. He guns them all down save one. The remaining savage is taken to a stockade equipped with a hut, crow's nest, and elevated terrace. There Crusoe begins a crash course to civilize the man he names Friday.
Assuming a master-slave relationship, Crusoe teaches Friday the English language, eating manners, and ideas about property rights, sportsmanship, Christianity, and work. But the shrewd Friday has his own hidden agenda for this "master." He sets out to teach him a thing or two about the primitive vision of life. A battle of wits and wills sometimes subtle and other times violent ensues.
Man Friday is a compelling and intellectually provocative film. It was directed by Jack Gold (The Bofors Gun, The Reckoning, and the TV movie "Catholics"). Peter O'Toole is exceptionally good as the lonely, desperate, and uptight Crusoe. Richard Roundree registers well as Friday, the wise native who knows how to make the best of a bad situation. The movie contains a handful of very emotionally charged sequences, quite a few brilliant verbal exchanges, and some very funny comic scenes. The only serious flaw is the superfluous sequence about Crusoe and Friday's unsuccessful attempt to escape the island via their hand-crafted flying machines.
Man Friday has been spun off from Daniel Defoe's perennial favorite Robinson Crusoe (1719) which, in turn, was based on the real-life experiences of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor who was marooned for four years on the uninhabited South Sea island of Juan Fernandez. In Defoe's version, we see how Robinson Crusoe's self-reliance, courage, and ingenuity carried through twenty-four years of solitude on his island. Then he saves Friday from death at the hands of some cannibals and as master sets up a friendship with the savage.
Adrian Mitchell's screenplay turns Defoe's story into a fascinating parable about the interface between two very different cultures one supposedly "civilized," the other "primitive." The film is an entertaining and instructive work of art which touches on such important themes as race, religion, work, sex, education, and economics.