by William H. Benson
September 28, 2000
Marooned on a deserted tropical island seems to be a favorite theme for writers and other story creators. These stories promise adventure but do not always deliver.
The first survivor story I read was The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. Eleven-year-old Alec Ramsey finds himself on an Atlantic island with a wild black Arabian horse. They work together, survive, and eventually Alec learns to ride the Black. After two weeks they are rescued, and Alec takes the Black to his home in New York and rides him in the races. It is a good juvenile story and was made into a movie in 1980 starring Mickey Rooney, as the horse trainer.
The grandfather of all survivor stories though is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, written two plus centuries ago. It has all the ingredients of an adventure story. A shipwrecked young sailor is tossed onto the shores of a desert island in the Caribbean, and there he lives for more than 27 years until he is in his fifties. He marks the years one by one, celebrating on September 30th, the anniversary of his arrival on, what he calls, the Isle of Despair.
After many years, a native from another neighboring island joins him on his deserted island, and Robinson names him Friday. The two are eventually rescued, and Robinson travels back to his home in England and marries and has children. It is a great classic, well-worth reading again.
Daniel Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe was loosely based upon a real life story–that of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor in the South Seas who quarrelled with the ship’s captain about the seaworthiness of the ship. The captain promptly dumped Alexander off, at his own request, on one of the Juan Fernandez islands, 400 miles west of Chile. He lived there alone for 52 months until another captain rescued him.
Then, in the 1960’s there was Gilligan’s Island on television. The captain and his first mate, Gilligan, aboard their boat, the Minnow, take a cruise with a professor, a movie star named Ginger, a millionaire and his wife, and Mary Ann. A storm blows up, and they end up on a deserted tropical island. The weekly thirty-minute shows were typical sit-com humor, but none of the cast seemed overly concerned about getting off the island. In fact, they all got along. Looking back at those shows, the adventure seemed lacking.
Recently, I read that Tom Hanks has completed a new movie that will open in December. In it he plays Chuck Noland who flys a plane that crashes in the Pacific leaving him stranded alone for four years on a tropical island. Tom Hanks lost fifty pounds to play the role.
Weeks ago some 40 million Americans tuned in to watch who would be the final survivor on Cutthroat Island. One by one the participants were voted off the island until only Richard Hatch remained, and for this daring feat, he won $1 million. Unfortunately, I was one among a select group of Americans who did not glue myself to the television to watch an episode from beginning to end. Staring at scantily clothed Americans parade around in water on a tropical island did not catch my attention, for where was the Robinson Crusoe-like adventure?
Despite the show’s popularity some dared to speak out against it, calling it “the basest form of human voyeurism” and evidence of “the inanity and emptiness of American television.” One guy commented in Newsweek that “it was just a dumb game with a ludicrous prize that fundamentally was about strangers exhibiting bad manners and bad behavior toward each other.”
A lady said, “Does anyone else have a bad taste in her mouth after watching the much-heralded Survivor finale? . . . watching the prize awarded to that smirking, arrogant Machiavellian antihero by the very people he despised and manipulated was a bitter pill. Survivor II? Think I’ll pass.”
Fred Friendly, a former television executive, years ago commented on the quality of American entertainment. “The television and movie industry makes so much money at their very worst; why would they ever want to be their very best?”
For Alec Ramsey, Robinson Crusoe, and Alexander Selkirk, survival was about finding food, water, shelter, and a way back to civilization, but for Richard, Rudy, Kelly, and Susan, it was about shrewdness and duplicity and winning at a hokey version of office politics played out in knee-deep water on their own Isle of Despair. And where was the adventure in that?