An American soldier near retirement is washed up on the shores of an uninhabited island in the South Pacific. He is the sole survivor of the nuclear war which has brought about the end of the world. As time passes, he builds up an elaborate fantasy world to cope with the severe loneliness…
Although ostensibly a science fiction film, writer-director Daniel Bourla has a broader agenda in mind here. The story opens with leading man Robert Strauss adrift on the ocean in a dinghy and rapidly making landfall on an island whose only inhabitants are an abandoned Chinese outpost and some scattered military equipment from both sides of the unseen conflict. There’s even a working radio, but it’s as worthless as the rusting jeeps and guns; there’s no-one left to call. In the beginning, Strauss keeps up a routine of flag-raising, patrolling the beach, taking inventory, personal grooming and early morning callisthenics, but it isn’t long before his routine starts to break down…
The first sign we get that Strauss is not coping is the appearance of ‘Friday’ (voiced by an offscreen Geoffrey Holder), an imaginary friend named after Robinson Crusoe’s native companion. Things are fine for a while, until ‘Friday’ complains of loneliness and Strauss creates ‘Friday-Anne’ (voiced by Sally Kirkland). Unfortunately, Strauss quickly becomes jealous of their relationship, and he throws them out of the hut which he has made their home. His next invention is a young boy and, when Strauss realises that the lad needs an education, he starts teaching a whole class of children. When they don’t do as he says, he lays down some rules, and this is where the audience gets its first strong indication of what filmmaker Bourla is going for here.
The rules that Strauss delivers are written on two chalkboards, one held in either hand while he stands on top of a pile of junk with his loose robe and beard flapping in the wind. Yes, any resemblance to Charlton Heston in ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956) is entirely co-incidental.
At that point, it becomes fairly evident that ‘Friday’ and ‘Friday-Anne’ were Adam and Eve, who are expelled from the hut (Paradise) after they taste of the fruit of the tree of knowledge (have sex). The religious analogy should have been obvious before really, what with the quotation from Genesis: 6 at the start of the film. The final act finds Strauss wandering about in a storm (which turns out to be acid rain) while the soundtrack attempts to encapsulate the entire political and military history of the 20th Century. We get recordings of famous speeches by real-life world leaders, offset by children’s voices and songs, including one by Joan Baez. Unfortunately, the sequence lasts over 20 minutes and could most charitably be described as interminable.
And that’s the real problem here; Bourla chooses to deliver a cut of 105 minutes and, with only Strauss on screen the entire time, it’s tough for an audience to really stay invested and remain on board. The film was shot in 1968 in Puerto Rico but didn’t get a release until seven years later and then only briefly. It’s a shame for Strauss, who after a long career as a supporting actor, really delivers an excellent performance.
And that’s not surprising when you consider the actor’s pedigree. He’d appeared twice for Billy Wilder; in ‘Stalag 17’ (1953) (for which he was Oscar-nominated) and with Marilyn Monroe in ‘The Seven Year Itch’ (1955). He also appeared in Elvis vehicles ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ (1962) and ‘Frankie and Johnny’ (1966) and TV gigs included ‘The Monkees’, ‘Get Smart’, ‘The Green Hornet’, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’, and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ He also had an occasional recurring role on popular sitcom ‘Bewitched.’ This film marked his final appearance, as he died of a stroke shortly after its release.
It’s surprising to learn that this could have been a far more prestigious production if Bourla had chosen to go in that direction. Both Lee Marvin and Zero Mostel were suggested for the lead and one producer made a definite offer of Jack Lemmon! But not surprisingly, that deal stipulated a colour film, and Bourla was set on black and white. If that seems an odd choice in the late 1960s, it may have been because he feared that the beautiful location would distract the audience from the story. His principal reason for rejecting Lemmon was his star status.
After its very brief outing at cinemas, the film was almost forgotten until it turned up on an obscure US TV channel many years later. Actually, it’s interesting to note the strong similarities the film shares with Darren Aronofsky’s controversial ‘Mother!’ (2017) which sharply divided audiences, and gave me the most boring two hours of my entire cinema life. Thematically, they are almost identical, and lawsuits have been started for less…
Sporadically interesting and with a strong central performance, but a film that desperately needs to lose a good 20 to 25 minutes of its’ running time.