LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, U.S.N. (1966)
Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. has the curious honor of being the only film on which Walt Disney received a writing credit (though it’s debatable how proud he was of the film, choosing to use a nom de plume, Retlaw Yensid). Directed by Byron Paul, this film is pretty much what its awkward abbreviation-filled title would lead you to expect, with a chimp and explosions thrown in for good measure.
Lt. Robin Crusoe (Dick Van Dyke) finds himself adrift at sea after ejecting from his fighter jet somewhere over the Pacific. For more than ten minutes he flails around, reads from his emergency guidebook “Survival at Sea, And Like It,” and fights a tiny shark. The movie flirts with the idea of being funny, but settles on just having Dick Van Dyke act like a jackass for a bit.
The movie didn’t bother making any jokes here, so neither will I.
Eventually he lands on your stereotypical desert isle, starts building things out of coconuts, and grows a beard. Then he runs across an abandoned submarine containing a gun-toting space chimp. I’m making this sound way more awesome than it is.
Good lord, this shot belongs in a better movie.
Using bamboo and elements salvaged from the sub, Robin builds himself a little bungalow. It’s at this point that the movie truly begins to capture the pure monotony of being trapped on an island, as our hero chats up an animatronic bird, gets drunk with his monkey, and nurses the resulting hangover for 15 interminable minutes.
‘Cause kids love sad drunks, right?
Oh, and it turns out there’s a woman (Nancy Kwan) on the island too.
She tries to hit him with a stick, so Robin wrestles her to the ground and drags her back to his hut, because that’s obviously the sane thing to do. This is followed by an exhausting scene where he tries to figure out what her deal is using charades, since she doesn’t speak English. Except that she does speak English, she was just pretending she didn’t, just ’cause. Turns out her father Tanamashu (Akim Tamiroff), chief of a tribe on a nearby island, sentenced her to banishment and possibly death for not marrying some old dude.
Instead of just asking her what her name is, Robin decides to call her Wednesday. He informs her that she should stand up to her father, because women have rights (though getting to use their own names apparently isn’t one of them). Wednesday gets excited that she has rights, and brings all her sisters and cousins to the island to make a stand against her father.
“Votes for women, step in time…”
When Tanamashu finally shows up, Robin has a crafty plan to defeat him that involves using a loudspeaker and various other pieces of modern technology to talk out of a giant tribal statue while pretending to be a god.
It’s somewhat effective.
Seems less legit.
Things blow up. A guy gets strapped to a torpedo. A bunch of coconuts fall on Tanamashu’s head. Everyone concedes that women have rights. Hooray! But wait, Wednesday wants to marry Robin, but he doesn’t want to marry her. Naturally she tries to kill him. Sadly a helicopter shows up to save him before that can happen. The end.
For a film whose plot revolves around a group of women fighting not to be treated like second-class citizens, Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N. takes every available opportunity to undermine their cause. Take Wednesday’s first appearance. Within her first minute of screen time she’s in a fight with Robin. “You’re as strong as a man!” he chuckles with surprise and amusement. Despite his claims of her equal strength, he doesn’t take her seriously. And neither does the movie, for Robin quickly gains the upper hand, and ties her up.
“Ha, a woman who’s as good as I am at something, what a humorous oddity!”
Things don’t get any better when Wednesday’s sisters and cousins arrive on the scene. They are all eager to assert their natural human rights, but certainly not without going to Robin for help first. The girls are silly and undisciplined and need a man to show them how to protest. Even though the man in question is a buffoon who has spent the last month getting his ass handed to him by a chimp.
He’s just dripping with condescension.
Finally we arrive at the big protest. Our island suffragettes storm in with as much dignity as is possible while marching barefoot along a beach to “Anchors Aweigh.” In a different setting, Nancy Kwan’s solid performance would deliver a punch, but juxtaposed as it is between the ridiculously stereotyped island chief on one side and Dick Van Dyke grinning like an idiot while holding a monkey on the other, it’s hard to take it even slightly seriously. Topping it all off, a number of signs saying things like “Women Are People” are mingled with gag signs saying “Tanamashu is Big Rat Fink.” Presumably we are to assume that the one statement is equally as silly as the other.
Basically, I imagine old Retlaw Yensid prefaced his pitch for this film by saying, “Hey, folks, it’s the ’60s and it’s no longer possible to deny that women should have equal rights, but that doesn’t mean that the concept isn’t still an all-around laugh riot, right?”
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
Looking at only a rough overview, it’s baffling that this movie didn’t become one of Disney’s all-time biggest hits. It’s got a monkey threatening Dick Van Dyke with a katana, for shit’s sake!
How is it even possible to fuck this up?
But the novelty of all the fun moments wears off quickly, thanks either to poor comic timing, or just being insulated by scenes of endless boredom. Oh, and there’s also the fact that the film is shamelessly trying to ride on Gilligan’s Island‘s coattails. Seriously, Gilligan came out just two years before Lt. Robin Crusoe, and the movie has Dick Van Dyke desperately racing to out-bamboo-build The Professor. “Bet you never saw a bamboo message-in-a-bottle chute or a coconut abacus before!” screams the movie. “No,” the audience answers, “because those things are fucking stupid.”
That’s one kick-ass sextant, though.
- Here is a picture of Robin peeking into a hatch he found. Make of it what you will.
“Make your own kind of music, sing your own special song…”
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
About half of Tanamashu’s lines consist of unintelligible “ooga booga” noises. I’m just gonna leave it at that.
Sorry, that subtitle should read “makes racist noises.”
I’m not going to say that this movie doesn’t have its fun moments, they’re just too few and far between to really pack any punch. This movie is almost two hours, and that’s almost an hour too long. For optimal viewing, I recommend fast-forwarding to any scene where the monkey has a weapon or the racist caricature of a tribal chieftain is hitting someone on the head with a stick. The rest you can skip with a clear conscience.
Monkeys, Go Home! (1967)