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LT. ROBIN CRUSOE, U.S.N. – The DVD Review

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Review by Sam Moffitt

Some movies stay with you.  People are constantly amazed that I can remember so much about movies but also what theatre I saw them in and under what circumstances.  Movies can be like songs in the memory, where you were physically and mentally and emotionally the first time you heard a song and how it takes on much more meaning than the musicians ever intended. The same with books, I recall at what point in my life I read certain books and where I was at the time.  And so, it’s the same with movies, for me anyway.

In 1966 my Father entered John Cochran Veteran’s Hospital in St. Louis, on North Grand, for brain surgery.  He never walked out of there.  We were visiting Dad before the surgery, at eleven years old I was already a die hard Movie Geek.  I used to beg my parents, my older siblings, anybody who had a car to take me into the city so I could see a movie.   Hardly ever happened, but on this particular visit to my Dad my Mom gave me a couple of dollars and told me to go see a movie.  Probably there was talk they didn’t want me to hear and I was already bummed out enough that going to see a movie sounded like heaven.

There used to be a wonderful theatre district on the stretch of Grand just south of the Veteran’s Hospital.  The Fox is still there and Powell Symphony Hall which used to be the Missouri theatre (or the St. Louis, I always get them mixed up. ) One of them was showing Sound of Music and I can remember passing that theatre and seeing the posters on our way to and from the Veteran’s Hospital.

So I’m guessing it was the Loews Mid-City that was showing Lt Robin Crusoe USN and that is what I walked down Grand Avenue to see that hot day in 1966.  It had to have been July or August as July 1966 is the official release date of Disney’s movie and August was the month when my Dad died.

I remember liking the movie a lot, for a lot of reasons.  To say I was troubled during that time would be a major understatement.  I was terrified about my Dad having to undergo brain surgery and my worst fears were made real when he died shortly after the surgery.

So Disney’s modern take on Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe, starring a major television star, Dick Van Dyke, just beginning to take steps to get to the next level of movie star, took my mind off the troubles my family was facing.

The movie starts on an aircraft carrier, The Kitty Hawk, CV-63, at sea and all hands on the flight deck in summer dress whites, waiting for the arrival of somebody important.  A Navy band plays and a Marine Corps rifle company renders honors.  A helicopter arrives and Dick Van Dyke steps out wearing clothes made out of woven straw and bamboo, clean shaven though.

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This is Lt Robin (Rob) Crusoe who then starts a letter to his fiancé explaining where he has been the last two years and providing the audience with a voice over for most of the movie.   Rob is a Naval aviator and we see his plane lose the engine, he bails out (in a terrific and realistic looking sequence) and spends quite a bit of time in a tiny little rubber raft, reading from  a  survival manual whose voice is provided by an uncredited Richard Deacon.

Deacon’s voice and Van Dyke’s character referring to himself as “Rob” are just some of the references to the then still in production and very popular Dick Van Dyke Show.  At one point Rob sings “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie” another reference to the show.

After floating around for a bit, losing his survival kit, hungry and thirsty Robin Crusoe washes up on the beach of a standard movie deserted tropical island.  He manages to survive with the expected slapstick problems,  then while exploring the island finds a beached Japanese submarine which just happens to have tools, blankets and all sorts of necessary items for survival.  It also is home to the standard Disney chimpanzee  which seemed to be a requirement for any 60’s Disney movie.  This one is an “astro Chimp” named Floyd. Rob speculates that his space capsule splashed down nearby, was not found and picked up and Floyd managed to get ashore and survive.  Rob helpfully tells us that astro chimps were chosen for their intelligence and stamina, almost as intelligent as a Navy Ensign.  Trust me folks, unless you’ve spent time in the US Navy you would never get the full effect of that joke.  Pretty snarky for a 60’s Disney movie!

Rob and Floyd build a nice little hut from plans on the Japanese submarine and settle in for a little house keeping.  Rob teaches the chimp to play cards and of course the chimp starts beating him.  Also on the submarine is a supply of what Rob assumes is a Japanese soft drink.  And of course Rob gets  drunk on the stuff, a not so funny joke now as the time of this movie’s production is when Van Dyke’s alcoholism started to seriously kick in.  The bottles have a sound effect whenever Rob opens one, a sort of cross between a champagne cork and a pistol shot, great sound effect!

Rob writes two letters a day to his fiancé back home which he mails by dropping them in bottles into the ocean.  His attachment to his fiancé will come up again.

Rob and Floyd find a huge hollow stone tiki statue in the jungle, then the best being last they find Nancy Kwan (wearing a sarong better than Dorothy Lamour ever did!)  In basic “meet cute” fashion Nancy tries to kill Rob at every opportunity, in fact she pounds the crap out of him.

The real revelation at seeing this movie again is how good Nancy Kwan really is.  Seeing this movie in a St. Louis theatre on it’s original release I can recall a lot of whooping  and hollering during their fight scene as the camera catches a good glimpse of Nancy’s underwear underneath the sarong (shorts really, but still!)  And the crowd in that theatre included a lot of black people.  This was probably the first time I ever was around black people and I couldn’t help but notice they seemed to enjoy this movie more than the whites.  Is it really that funny or did they enjoy seeing a white man act the fool?  Probably both.

Disney rereleased Lt Robin Crusoe USN in 1974 and so I showed it , more than once on the television station I ran during my time in the Navy.  Was this movie one of the reasons I joined the Navy?  I can remember some comments from shipmate’s about this movie, which I’ll get to shortly.

Now about Nancy Kwan.  Not only is she drop dead gorgeous here,  it almost becomes her movie.  She easily steals every scene she is in, the woman just glows.  She does both physical and verbal comedy that is the equal of anything Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett or Doris Day was doing in the same time period.  In fact her material is funnier than almost anything Van Dyke does.  When she is on camera you really can’t look at anything else.  Even the chimpanzee can’t steal scenes from her.

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And we can easily believe she could wail the crap out of a guy the size of Van Dyke, even though he stands easily a foot taller than her.  At one point she grabs a samurai sword, courtesy of the submarine, and tries to use it on Rob.  Based on what we see here she knew how to use it and could have carried a martial arts movie.  In fact, based on what she does in this movie she could have carried a television situation comedy.  But was America ready for a sit-com starring a Eurasian actress in the 1960s?  Probably not, and that is a shame.  What might it have been called?  Love That Nancy?  My Little Geisha?

Rob names her Wednesday, we never do find out her real name.  After they make peace and she reveals that she can speak English and that she pretended not to just to have some fun and mess with Rob’s head (?) we find out her Father is a chief and a head hunter (a great bit of pantomime ).  Wednesday is basically in exile on this island, as her Father has a bad habit of feeding women to the sharks.  She was banished due to not wanting to marry the man her Father picked in an arranged marriage.  Rob tells her that where he comes from women have rights!  Rights to marry who they want, of course the movie never gets any deeper than that but you really don’t expect to hear a feminist statement in a 1960’s Disney movie!

Wednesday, of course, gets a major crush on Rob, which he does everything he can to discourage.  Always thinking of his girl back home and how he just cannot do anything so immoral as to exploit this innocent island girl.  In other words he behaves as no Navy man possibly could, especially an Officer!

Wednesday’s Father, Tanamashu, played by Akim Tamiroff, in his usual style as a vulgar, gross slob, has his people believing the giant tiki on the island is a God who speaks only to him, and that he will be coming to the island shortly.

Instead of Tanamashu a whole crew of island girls, all of them beautiful, show up and chase Rob around the island.  Here it almost becomes a version of Lil’ Abner!  All the girls are friends of Wednesday’s, all are tired of being ill treated and Rob gets talked into making them into an Army to fight Tanamashu.  And again, every one of these girls is beautiful, and Nancy Kwan still stands out!

The Japanese submarine yields up all sorts of stuff to help with defending the island, including a working generator (running on what fuel?) a PA system, lots of flares and explosives plus water hoses.  All this comes into play when Tanamashu and his warriors show up and Rob becomes the voice of the giant tiki idol to discredit the chief.

Then we get the basic Disney animated fireworks near the end, the same type of special effects seen in Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, familiar looking stuff.  After Tanamashu takes a ride on a Japanese torpedo peace breaks out and the girls do an island dance.  Rob makes the mistake of dancing with Wednesday, not knowing it is a marriage dance.

Here is where this movie loses me, in 1966 and every single time I’ve watched it.  Rob runs like hell to get away from Wednesday, pissing her off naturally and getting chased across the island by the girl posse.  Out of nowhere a Navy helicopter arrives, picks up Rob and Floyd (who Rob admits is more valuable than himself) all while Wednesday and her girl Army chuck spears at Rob.

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One of the helicopter crew admits that Rob must be really special as these girls don’t want to see him leave.  Which leads us back to the beginning on the aircraft carrier.  The punch line to the whole movie is the pomp and ceremony is for Floyd’s benefit and no one cares to hear Rob’s story.

When I was 11 years old I could not figure out why Rob would want to leave?  To get back to the Navy?  Quite frankly living on a tropical island with Nancy Kwan was just about the most wonderful situation I could imagine!  It still sounds wonderful!  I’m guessing Disney could not allow a white man staying and living with a Eurasian, even one as beautiful as Nancy Kwan.  This was meant to be a family movie after all, but still, Rob and Wednesday are technically legally married according to the local customs, so Rob is in fact deserting his bride at the altar, help me out here, am I right or what?

Every time I showed this movie on board the USS America I got comments from ship mates as to what a moron Robin Crusoe was to leave such a hot setup.

It does however lead to what is probably the unhappiest ending of any Disney movie ever made.  The final image is Rob, alone on the flight deck of that carrier, ignored by his own comrades in arms, looking as if he just now realizes what he has lost.  Good!  Quite frankly anyone who would pass up life with Nancy Kwan to get back to living on an aircraft carrier (even if it is in Officer’s Country) deserves to look and feel like a fool.

Disney’s dvd is really bare bones, there is a generic preview of Disney live action comedies like the Apple Dumpling Gang and Escape to Witch Mountain, and nothing else.  Both Dick Van Dyke and Nancy Kwan are still with us so a deluxe edition with their commentary would certainly be a treat.  Allegedly Van Dyke, who made this film during the summer hiatus from the Dick Van Dyke Show, was not happy with the finished product.  Word is that he told his cast mates and crew on the show to not bother seeing it.  Not sure if that’s true and if it is that is a puzzlement.  Van Dyke and everybody else connected with Lt Robin Crusoe USN have nothing to be ashamed of.  It is a sweet natured, good hearted movie in the grand Disney tradition.  And it did what any good movie is supposed to do, it took my mind off my troubles for a couple of hours and showed me things I had never seen and dreams I did not know existed. I will always associate this movie with my Father’s last days and how it cheered me up when I really needed it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if somewhere there were an alternate ending where Rob gladly stayed on that island and lived the good life with Wednesday?  One can only hope.

And an interesting bit of trivia.  Lt Robin Crusoe USN is the only movie in Disney’s entire history that Walt Disney took a credit on as a writer.  In the  credits you will see Story by Ertlaw Yensid  (Walter Disney backwards.)

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1 Comment

  1. scott Shepard

    October 2, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Dear Tom,

    Enjoyed your comments. I was about eight when I saw this film in the theater, and I was mesmerized by it at the time. As hard as it is to imagine now, I liked Nancy Kwan, but I was fascinated by Robin Crusoe, as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke. I just thought it was a great story. I was hooked as soon as he was on the rubber raft. Dick Van Dyke was also so charming and so tidy, even in island rags.

    Years later I found the weaknesses only a little bit weak, but it is curious to me how caustic the critics are. That movie did just what it set out to do.

    I have never been surprised that Crusoe left the island. You guys tease him, but Crusoe had a sense of duty, honor, and commitment to his fiance. He could not live with himself if he stayed in the garden of Eden. I respect that.

    Look at it this way: he had several days being chased around by Nancy Kwan. That is more than any of the rest of us will ever get. I can’t get out of my mind the image of Wednesday holding onto his boot, as Crusoe is lifted into the sky. Painful? Absolutely. But that is the point. If Crusoe is going to be an American of honor, he has to go. He has to be willing to make some kind of sacrifice. I mean, it is not like he is charging over a hill into gun fire. He’s going back to Ohio.

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