Imperial Eyes: Rhetorics of Empire Building in the Movie Robinson Crusoe

Essay 2014 13 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Comparative Literature



In this paper I analyze the movie Robinson Crusoe to understand the rhetoric of empire building and to stand at instances of appropriation that push the west to cherish superiority over the “other”. I focus on the discursive strategies used by the west to inferiorize the other race and to reduce them to cruel creatures. I start by dwelling on the representation of the “other” and the landscape and I focus on the production of knowledge as a tool used to inferiroize them. At the end I stop at some paradoxes within the colonial discourse that create ruptures in the western empire. I do that by questing signs of resistance that break the discourse of empire building and that reveal the ambivalent nature of the colonial discourse.

Keywords: Robinson Crusoe - Colonial Discourse - Empire Building – Orientalism - Film Studies


According to Matthew Bernstein, “Orientalism describes a strand of colonialist discourse in the ideological arsenal of western nations” (1997: 2). It is a system of knowledge about the “other” that leads to the creation of a structured dichotomy between the East and the West. It is what Edward Said calls “imaginative geography” (1978: 49) and which mobilizes him to push the question of Orientalism outside the precincts of academia into the arena of politics and ideology.

Orientalism as a discourse reflects many cultural anxieties by standing at the profound complexity of politics of dominance that finds the favorable environment to incubate and develop in western mindsets and also by focusing on the discourse and aesthetics of “Otherness” created by the West. It is a discourse that pushes many scholars to investigate the orient as an invention and a creation not only in terms of literary works but also in terms of cinematic productions.

Such idea of dichotomy between the East and West, between Self and Other pushes later to think of a dichotomy between female and male and hence pushes us to think thoroughly about their different contributions to the building of the western empire. However, binarisms have been criticized by many postcolonial critics who stress that the colonial discourse is not a homogenous entity but rather a heterogeneous entity that reflects the position of gender towards their empires.

Such difference in the contribution to the building of the western empire through discourse does not only pushes us to think about the ambivalence of the western discourse but also reveals that the representation of the “other” is by no means straightforward which problematizes the unity of the colonial discourse and gives a space for the “other” to resist and negotiate its position.

Despite the various types of media, I believe that the visual media has a great influence on the mind of viewers. So, because I am convinced that the images have a great impact on the viewers mind and in structuring the consciousness and the awareness of human beings, I find myself thoroughly involved in searching for how people perceive and conceive the world through producing and consuming images. The topic of my paper involves not only analyzing how people perceive and conceive ideas and messages transmitted in movies but also probing how and why the west produces knowledge about the orient and inferiorize the "other".

I deal in this paper with the representation of the "other" in the movie Robinson Crusoe produced in 1997 to know how and why the "other" is misrepresented in the movie and to know also the reason why the west distances itself from the orient by producing knowledge about the "other" and by focusing on the difference between "them" and "us". In other words the aim behind this paper is to hear another side of the story rather than the western Eurocentric production of knowledge about the east. I shall be evaluating the misrepresentation of the “other” and its land and try to understand the reasons for widening the gap between the east and the west.

In fact, the west is represented in the character Robinson Crusoe which reflects the misrepresentation of the "other" and the antagonistic feeling the west holds toward the "other". In this paper I deal with the movie through the eyes of a black slave. I start my analysis by focusing on the misrepresentation of the "other" and his blackness in the movie. My aim here is to stop at some instances of use and abuse of the "other" to know how the west builds its empire and hence remains aloof from inferiority. Then I analyze the western production of knowledge as a sign of mastery. I do that by analyzing some instances of western production of knowledge and by doing that I analyze the use and abuse of the “other” to fix it in their theatrical field of knowledge and remain masters of the world.

In this section I stand on the important instances of resistance mimicked by the slave Friday. I also show how the colonial discourse is shaky and has an ambivalent nature that weakens it and gives a space for the inferior "other" to mimic and produce a counter orientalist discourse which shakes the colonial enterprise and destabilizes the balance of power between the east and the west, between the superior white “self” and the inferior "other". In this paper I stand at some signs of resistance and the way they interrupt the movie from boosting the colonial legacy over the “other” and paradoxically support the inferior "other" and gives them power to resist and hence to survive.

The movie Robinson Crusoe is based on Daniel Defoe's classical novel Robinson Crusoe. It is directed by Rod Hardy and George T.Miller. It was first released in 12 June 1997. In this movie Robinson Crusoe escapes from Britten on a ship after killing his friend Patrique over the love of Mary. His love Mary urged him to leave for a year which he did. On his escape in the ship; a fierce ocean storm wreaks his ship and left him alone with no help or friend except the dog that he discovered later in the wrecked ship. So, finding him in an arduous situation stranding by himself on an uncharted island he started his "mission" for self independence; he seeks out a tentative survival on the island until he met Friday the tribesman whom he saves from being sacrificed to their "god".

Robinson Crusoe fights both nature and extreme isolation in the remote island till he finds Friday. This way Robinson Crusoe gets a friend and starts his Christian mission in civilizing the man and educating him to bring him from his dark barbarous side of life to a civilized life. Later we find him teaching Friday theology and giving him lessons about the Christ and the true god. Then they fight together the savages which created problems later to Crusoe in the sense that he was obliged to fight them when they attacked him. So, he had to defend himself against the “savage” tribe which used the island to sacrifice tribesman to their gods. Robinson Crusoe and Friday's relations changed from Master-Slave to mutual "respected friendship" despite their difference in culture and religion.

Crusoe and his loyal "servant" Friday dealt with hungry cannibals, wild cats, starvation and many other plights they faced and which reflected the exotic view of the land and its inhabitants. At the end we find that both Robinson Crusoe and Friday decided to return to Friday's tribe which considers him as a dead person. There, they were both captured and Robinson Crusoe was badly treated by the natives but despite all that they did, they did not kill him because they have their ideals not to kill an ill person. Later they organized a fighting between Robinson Crusoe and Friday where one of them has to kill the other to remain alive.

Both of them could not kill each other but at the end Robinson Crusoe asked Friday to kill him surrounding for him. Friday refused at the beginning but when he was convinced by this tragic ending and was on the verge of killing him a British slave trader shoot him and killed him instead. Friday died on the spot and Robinson Crusoe was rescued and returned back to his country where he was blessed by happiness and children. Robinson Crusoe gets sad about the loss of his "friend" Friday and thinks about him and about the ordeals they underwent.

1-The Representation of the “other” in Robinson Crusoe

I start analyzing the movie by analyzing the misrepresentation of the land in the movie Robinson Crusoe. The land is depicted in the movie as an oriental exotic land where exotic animals and "cannibals" live. It is a virgin land, a virgin territory which is unexploited. It is represented as a land that waits for the Christian civilization and enlightenment to explore it, exploit it and tame it down with its "creatures". In fact it is represented as uncivilized place; it is a dark continent of the world. The land is represented as an oriental land that is entirely different from western European world which fixes the stereotypes and prejudices about the orient as an exotic land. Such representation is based on orientalism that Said defines as a "style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between "the orient" and (most of the time) the "oxidant" (1978: 2).

We can understand that orientalism is a science that creates knowledge and stereotypes about the orient and these stereotypes create a kind of difference between the western "I" and the "other" and hence make a kind of asymmetrical relationship between the east and the west. A west that is superior at the expense of an inferior orient and this gave the westerners the opportunity to create or produce knowledge about the orient. The movie does not only misrepresent the land but also dehumanizes the "natives" as barbarous, cruel and uncivilized as opposed to the noble civilized westerners and that is reflected in the character Robinson Crusoe. The natives are deprived of their humanity; they are no more than animals, savages and cannibals. However, Robinson Crusoe is represented as a pious civilized man. He distinguishes himself from the barbarous natives and as Peter Hulme says in his book Colonial encounters: "So that paradigmatic manifestation of cannibalism finally allows Crusoe to clearly distinguish himself from others" (1986: 198).

I think that the excessive scenes of brutality and cruelty of the natives give him a space to establish his own identity and create a dichotomy between himself and the "other". The movie holds a colonial discourse and this is revealed in the beginning as soon as Robinson Crusoe starts exploring the new exotic island. So, as he discovers that he is alone in the island he considers it as his kingdom. He starts developing his life and planting and even controlling the boarders of his kingdom and this is revealed when we find him wandering in his "territory" and where he would later discover the savages and rescue a slave that he names Friday.

In addition to that the movie represents the western colonial discourse as a homogenous discourse: a discourse of power and triumph over the backward natives. So, as soon as he discovers the cruelty of the savages who are sacrificing native people to their "god" he takes upon his responsibility saving him and he manages to do that. So, despite their outnumber he was able to defeat them and hence liberate Friday from his plight. This discourse of triumph and power remains predominant in the movie as he starts to tame down the slave Friday. The slave on his turn prostrates to him as he saves him but more than that he puts Robinson Crusoe's foot on his shoulder as a sign of weakness and subservience. It is an adventure that Robinson takes as he finds the native footprints and as peter Hulme says:



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Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University – Faculté des lettres
Robinson Crusoe Imperial Eyes Empire Building Postcolonial literature



Title: Imperial Eyes: Rhetorics of Empire Building in the Movie Robinson Crusoe