“I stood like one thunderstruck”: some reflections on Man Friday (1975)

“He was a comely, handsome fellow, perfectly well made, with straight strong limbs, not too large; tall and well-shaped; […] I made him know his name would be Friday, which was the day I saved his life: I likewise taught him to say Master and then let him know that was to be my name.” (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe)

Crusoe: “I don’t look upon you as a slave.”
Friday: “Then what am I?”
Crusoe: “You’re an ignorant savage!”
(Peter O’Toole as Crusoe and Richard Roundtree as Friday in Man Friday)

Introduction: Footprint in the sand

It is one of the most famous moments in English literature: “It happened one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition…”1 The sole survivor of a shipwreck a dozen or so years before and stranded on a deserted island, Robinson Crusoe had over time adjusted to his isolation and constructed shelters that would ensure his survival. It is a considerable shock, therefore, to discover he is not alone. The prospect petrifies him.

Published in 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is recognized as a literary landmark: one of the first great novels to create a realistic imaginative world, tell a fascinating story, point a moral, invest an ordinary character with the stature of myth, and invest this fictional tale with the impression of autobiographical authenticity. (It is worth noting incidentally that, in the novel, the discovery of the footprint does not occur until halfway through the narrative and Friday does not make an appearance in the text until 50 pages and two years after that.) Luis Buñuel had made an impressive film adaptation, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954) with Dan O’Herlihy giving an outstanding Oscar-nominated performance as Crusoe. However, in 1973, the poet and dramatist Adrian Mitchell had the idea of writing a play which re-told the familiar story from the point of view of Friday. In some ways it was part of a literary vogue of the time where classics of the past were being reinterpreted from a different perspective: for example, Jean Rhys’s novel, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), had revisited the story of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre from the perspective of Rochester’s ill-fated first wife, Bertha, and Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (1967), offered a new slant on Shakespeare’s Hamlet by seeing the drama through the eyes of two of its minor characters. Peter O’Toole had seen Mitchell’s play and liked it very much. With his production partner, Jules Buck, he had bought the rights for their independent production company Keep Films, securing additional funding from the television tycoon, Lew Grade. Jack Gold was assigned to direct.

Production and reception

Apart from some work in Shepperton studios, most of the filming took place over a period of five weeks on location in Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. At that time best known for his performance as a private eye in the title role of Shaft (1971), Richard Roundtree was cast in the role of Friday. By all accounts the filming went smoothly; and it was particularly memorable for Gold, for it gave him the opportunity to meet one of his cinematic heroes, director John Huston, who was a friend of O’Toole and who at that time lived near enough to join them for dinner one evening. On completion, the film was chosen as the official British entry at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, where it was well received, but it fared less well on release with critics and the general public. In 1978, Gold said that “we did Man Friday, in which in the Crusoe-Friday situation all Crusoe’s beliefs were challenged by Friday, and it was done as in a fairy tale and in song etc. It didn’t go down well at all.”2

Reasons for the film’s critical and commercial failure have been attributed to a variety of causes. Critics seemed to think the contrast between the two main characters was overly facile; audiences were thrown by its revisionist take on a classic tale; and critics and audiences alike were bemused by the film’s disconcerting mélange of moods and modes, as it moved between tragedy, comedy, song and dance, horror and despair. The distributors also had some trepidation over the film’s downbeat ending. Nevertheless Jack Gold, a fine director not given to blowing his own trumpet, declared that “I am very proud of the film”, which suggests that he felt he had broadly accomplished what he had set out to do.

A collision of cultures

At the beginning of the film and prior to his discovery of the footprint, Crusoe has been reading aloud from the Bible and particularly relishing the phrase about God’s giving man “dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” as if his situation on the deserted island strikes him as being analogous to that. Since Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Peter O’Toole had made something of a specialty of playing somewhat deranged or egocentric personalities with a tenuous grip on sanity and who believe they are monarchs of all they survey. This concept of Crusoe fits him like a glove. No wonder Crusoe is alarmed by evidence of another presence on what he believes is “his” island. When he sees smoke in the distance, he goes to investigate, but then will misinterpret what he sees. As in the novel, Crusoe thinks he has rescued Friday from cannibals, shooting them “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost”, as he says; and he believes he should thence be viewed by Friday as his saviour. “I have saved your life,” he tells him, and adds he will go on to “save your benighted soul.” However, as Friday tells his tribe what has happened in his flashback narration, a completely different picture emerges. Following a storm during a fishing expedition, Friday and his four companions have been washed up on the shore. Discovering that one of them has died from his injuries, they prepare a meal of the dead man’s body in tribute to their friend and “so we could take some of the spirit of that man to the future with us.” In fact, when Crusoe approaches with his musket, one of Friday’s friends with a welcoming gesture beckons him to join them, only for Crusoe to start firing.

Whatever the motivation of rescue, Crusoe’s action is sudden and brutal. The powerful visual emphasis given to the impact of the bullet carries the implication that Friday has never in his life encountered such an extreme example of the effect of violence. The image will resonate in his mind (it will recur in a nightmare and at a later point when Crusoe will ask to join his tribe), and in some ways will define the ensuing relationship and the conflict between the two men. This is emphasized when Crusoe has decided to teach Friday the English language (it is significant that he never for one moment considers learning Friday’s language) but is having some difficulty in explaining the difference between the meaning of “mine” and “yours”. Crusoe gives, as an example, “this gun is mine”. “Yes, Master,” replies Friday pointedly, “I know that.” Earlier, when he has been teaching Friday to say the name he has given him, Crusoe says, “You Friday. Me… Master.” O’Toole delivers the line with a thoughtful pause between the words “Me” and “Master”, as if momentarily deliberating on what to say. After all, Crusoe could have told him his actual name, but instead he chooses a name that, in his eyes, defines the relationship between them. This will be at the root of all the problems that follow, for it is an assumption of superiority that will prove to be a delusion.

“A fable for our times”?

Paul Newland summarized the main themes as follows: “The film effectively reverses the roles of Crusoe and Friday. Here Crusoe is a blunt Englishman while Man Friday is an altogether more intelligent figure. As such, Man Friday operates as a critique of colonization and Western imperialism, but also as an examination of contemporary race relations.”3 The earlier review in Time Out had taken a similar line but in a more hostile vein: “Turning the familiar Crusoe/Man Friday story on its head,” the review stated, “this version becomes a straightforward confrontation between instinctive lithe and beautiful Black versus repressed, guilt-ridden and mottled White: a fable for our times. But too seldom does this Crusoe become anything more than a one-dimensional knock-down figure, and O’Toole’s noisy strangled performance is disastrously wide of the mark.”4 Yet Defoe himself is not averse to knocking down Crusoe at times. Although the novel is narrated in the first person, Defoe does not always expect us to take Crusoe at his own elevated evaluation, sometimes implicitly puncturing his pomposity, particularly when his hero is taking a lordly attitude towards Friday’s religious education but finding Friday a more astute student than he had anticipated. When he is telling Friday how much stronger God is than the Devil, Friday counters: “But if God much strong, much might as the Devil, why God no kill the Devil, so make him no more do wicked?”5 Crusoe never does find a satisfactory answer to that one. And, whatever the Time Out critic might think of O’Toole’s performance, there is little doubt that O’Toole delivered the kind of broad strokes that Gold thought the material required. As well as song, dance and slapstick comedy, Gold said, the performance “had to have great touches of sensitivity and self-examination. He could do the gamut, there’s no question how efficient Peter was.”6

O’Toole’s Crusoe is nicely complemented by Richard Rowntree’s intelligent and well-conceived performance as Friday. It is striking, for example, how he is almost entirely serious in his scenes with his tribe, whereas the persona he adopts with Crusoe, particularly in the early stages, tends to be more ingratiating and playful, as if recognizing alertness and adjustment to his Master’s volatile temperament, which he has seen at first hand (and will again) will be vital to his survival. When he is back with his tribe, he can reflect on the experience and conclude that Crusoe has learnt nothing and should not be allowed to educate the native children and infect them with his “sickness” of “power and guilt and fear”. Friday might even have caught that “sickness” himself.

“A fable for our times”, i.e. the mid- 1970s’, as the Time Out review claimed? Not entirely. Although the material would inevitably evoke parallels with attitudes at the time to race relations and colonial history, Gold was insistent that this was not the primary aim. It was more important to him that he was dealing with a story that was set in the past, so that he could look more closely at the origins of prejudice through the meeting between single individuals and invite an audience to ponder: what is the problem? “It wasn’t intelligent white man and ignorant savage,” he said, “it was intelligent white man with a very intelligent and cultured, in his own way, black man.” Crusoe’s culturally conditioned assumption of supremacy (as opposed to equality, say, or even simple friendship) is thus misguided from the outset.

“Sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, but always […] entertaining”

Although Gold shared Adrian Mitchell’s left-wing sympathies and was in agreement with the political thrust of the material, Man Friday was never intended as a polemical film, more an adventure with moral and philosophical undertones. The trailer is revealing, for the voice-over narration says the behaviour of the two main characters is “sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, but always […] entertaining,” as if endeavouring to reassure potential customers. Audiences would (then and now) probably be tempted to assess the film according to how effectively it balances those three propositions, or whether one or the other predominates. The film undoubtedly has its funny moments. Crusoe’s appearance and surroundings are a sight to behold, skilfully replicating a moment in the novel when he concedes that his clothes “were wretchedly made, for if I was a bad carpenter, I was an even worse tailor.”7 The increasingly tattered flag in his compound sardonically symbolizes his diminishing moral authority. During his education of Friday into the ways of civilization, he tells him solemnly that “there’s nothing funny about England”, but he has difficulty in justifying that when teaching Friday what sport is about, particularly when the games are intercut with what seem to be quizzical reactions from Crusoe’s parrot, Poll. My favourite comedy moment (delightfully acted by O’Toole) occurs when Crusoe returns to his hut to be confronted by a newly baptized Poll who parrots the phrase “Hallowed be thy name” as Crusoe enters. He is so taken aback (“Did you teach him the Lord’s Prayer?” he asks Friday incredulously) that he seems blithely unaware that his two visitors on the island, Captain Carey (Peter Cellier) and his First Mate McBain (Christopher Cabot) are commanders of a slave ship and secretly eyeing up Crusoe and Friday as potentially lucrative captives.

Yet Poll’s fate is one of the film’s most shocking moments (and different from Defoe’s novel, where the parrot will accompany Crusoe on his final departure from the island). When Poll has croaked earlier, “I love you, I love you”, Crusoe has told it brusquely to “shut up”. Now when it repeats the phrase, a crazed and self-loathing Crusoe (“I am a vile king from a vile earth!” he rages) abruptly blasts it to pieces, its bloody feathers drifting ironically and reproachfully across a blackboard headed by the word “Civilisation”. Poll is the fifth victim of Crusoe’s murderous eruptions in the film, none of which is retaliatory. In his story Mitchell will describe this mood that afflicts Crusoe as “a great wave of anger-poison”8

The sadness comes from a man who is beginning to sense his own loneliness and hollowness. When he joins Friday on what Friday calls Sorrow Day, he is told, “You must stare into the dirt to see the faces of those you have lost”. When Friday does so, he can see the children of his tribe, but when Crusoe tries, he sees nothing, the inference being that he is staring into an abyss that is staring back into him. He begins to weep (and O’Toole always claimed that, at moments of extreme emotion, he could make his tears come out horizontally) and in long shot we see that Friday puts his hand on Crusoe’s shoulder to comfort him. It is a very moving moment not so much because of the gesture itself as the fact that Crusoe does not resist. Earlier he has recoiled with horror at the prospect of being touched by another man, but his self-protection is disintegrating. He has earlier said also that “killing myself” would be “a crime before God”, which makes the ending not just sad, but tragic.


When Gold said of Man Friday that “it was done as in a fairy tale”,9 one might query whether that quite comes across in the finished film. To achieve that extra dimension of fantasy, does it need a touch of surreal whimsy and zaniness to give it the kind of lift that a director like, say, Richard Lester (who was at one time interested in acquiring the property) or Terry Gilliam might have provided? How one responds to its flying sequences (liberating or leaden?) might influence whether one feels the film sometimes soars or remains earth-bound. Nevertheless, at the very least it offers a stimulatingly oblique and iconoclastic take on a venerated classic that prompts a re-examination from a modern perspective of the text’s assumptions about race, religion, colonization and so-called civilization. In this respect, the film it reminds me of most is Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, a radical and revisionist interpretation that is by far the most interesting and challenging screen adaptation of any Austen novel in my experience. “I like to think with all the things I’ve done,” Gold said once, “that people will come away with a little more awareness of life around them”. With that in mind, one can see why Man Friday was an important film for him; and why, despite audience indifference and the critical brickbats, he was proud to have made it.

Neil Sinyard

Sources Consulted
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (first published in 1719), Bantam edition, 1981.
Adrian Mitchell, Man Friday, Futura Publications Ltd, 1975.
Paul Newland, British Films of the 1970s, Manchester University Press, 2013.
Robert Sellers, Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, Pan Books, 2016.
Sheila Whitaker, ‘Interview with Jack Gold’, Framework, Issue 9, Winter, 1978/79, pp.38-41.

This is one of five pieces on British film posted on this site as a tribute to Network. Return to the introduction here: Tribute to Network.

  1. Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Bantam, 1981, p. 136. Originally published in 1719. All page numbers in this essay are taken from this 1981 Bantam edition. 

  2. Jack Gold, quoted in Sheila Whitaker, ‘Interview with Jack Gold’, Framework, Issue 9, Winter, 1978/79, pp.38-41. 

  3. Paul Newland, British Films of the 1970s, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013, p. 111. 

  4. Review, Time Out. My italics. 

  5. Defoe, p. 196. 

  6. Robert Sellers, Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, Pan Books, 2016, p. 215. 

  7. Defoe, p. 125. 

  8. Adrian Mitchell, Man Friday, Futura Publications Ltd, 1975, p. 139. 

  9. Quoted in Whitaker. 

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