A strange re-imagination of Daniel Defoe’s classic adventure novel Robinson Crusoe, told from the perspective of the lead character’s companion/manservant Friday, Man Friday is filled with provocative ideas about the gulf between a “civilized” 17th-century Englishman and a “savage” from the tropics. The intention was clearly to examine a classic race-relations story through the prism of post-Civil Rights era enlightenment—and, indeed, much of the picture’s content fulfills this goal, illustrating Friday’s initial amusement and subsequent disgust with Crusoe’s imperialistic attitudes. In the movie’s best moments, Friday drives Crusoe to distraction with common-sense challenges to concepts like money, sports, and religion.
Unfortunately, everything surrounding these insightful moments is awkward and borderline cringe-worthy. The acting by the two leads is erratic at best, with Peter O’Toole shouting most of his performance as Crusoe and Shaft’s Richard Roundtree vacillating between carefree ebullience and don’t-mess-with-me swagger. The picture gets bogged down in tiresome comedy bits, like a sequence of the men trying out various artificial wings during an attempt to escape the remote island on which they are marooned.
Worse, the story’s framing device, which is clever in conception but distracting in execution, destroys the narrative rhythm: At the beginning of the movie, Friday is back on his own island after his adventures with Crusoe, relating his tale through jokes and songs around a crowded campfire as the members of his tribe listen. It’s hard to get over the jarring image of Roundtree, wearing just a loincloth, singing English-language verse over a queasy reggae beat while he explains that the man he called “Master” was a crazy person espousing alien beliefs. If the guiding aesthetic of this film was revisionist authenticity, wouldn’t shooting these scenes in Friday’s native tongue and subtitling the dialogue have been a stronger choice?
Considering the dodgy lead performances and the story’s stop-and-start pacing, however, the stylistic choice of how to present language is really just the least of the movie’s problems. Case in point: The confusing and unsatisfying ending (which radically breaks from Defoe’s story) is a major tonal misstep. Man Friday is not without interest, especially since so few people know the movie exists, but it’s ultimately more of an offbeat curiosity than a lost classic.
Man Friday: FUNKY