The South Pacific is more strongly associated with the folklore of cannibalism than any place in the world. Captain Cook witnessed instances of cannibalism in New Zealand, and Captain Bligh was so afraid of cannibals on the islands that he stayed at sea to avoid them. Herman Melville wrote of cannibals in the Marquesas, but not reliably. 

Daniel Defoe placed his classic fiction, Robinson Crusoe (1719), on an island visited by cannibals. It was set in the Atlantic off the northern coast I’m south America, but it is the foundational work for a genre more commonly associated with the islands of the Pacific. There is much more to report on this subject but there are very few movies that treat it seriously. Below is a trailer for the earlier Crusoe film, which is more authentic to the book. Both the book and the 1954 movie were set on an island off of Venezuela, but the 1997 version was moved to New Guinea in the Western Pacific.

Robinson Crusoe  (1954)

Based on the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe and directed by Luis Bunuel (say Boon-yell).  Dan O’Herlihy plays Crusoe.  Bypassing the ornate personal narrative offered in the book on Robinson‘s family history and how he happened to be aboard a ship off the coast of Brazil on a mission to collect “negro slaves,” the film moves immediately to the shipwreck and the arrival of its sole survivor on the shores of a deserted island.  He is able to salvage a good deal of material from the wrecked ship before it slips off the rocks and submerges.  The first 18 or so years of Robinson’s solitary life with only a dog and a cat for company are condensed into about the first hour of the movie.

Near the end of that hour, he finds a footprint in the wet sand and then discovers a group of natives who have pulled up on the beach in canoes.  They are cannibals and have brought one or two victims with them.  He spies on their “entertainments” and is greatly relieved when they depart.  Walking down to the place where they built their fire, he is sickened by the unmistakable remnants of their feasting.  Now he lives with a new anxiety.  After a time, they return with two more victims.  Once again he watches from the trees, having concluded that it is not his place to interfere in the ways of their culture.  This time, one of the victims makes an escape and dashes off down the shoreline.  Robinson aids the terrified man and his two pursuers are killed.

Taking the man back to his “castle,” he begins to bond with him but is at the same time greatly frightened that his cannibalistic tendencies will turn toward his host.  His British enculturation comes to the surface and he teaches his eager guest that he is “Friday” and his host is “Master.”  Later, he luxuriates in the pleasure of having a servant once again.  Early on, he puts Friday in leg irons during the night, but then he repents and begs the man to be his friend.  There are English lessons and studies of the Bible.  This is a little bit of England outside the boundaries of Civilization.  This goes on for a decade until the cannibals return and everything changes.  No sooner have the cannibals arrived than a Spanish ship appears carrying a mutinous crew.  The mutineers come ashore with some prisoners.  They scare off the cannibals while Robinson frees the prisoners.  Now a plan is hatched to capture the mutineers in return for which Robinson is promised passage back to England with his man Friday.  The plan works and the castaways step into a cutter bound for their rescue ship.  Robinson looks over his shoulder at 28 years of memories.  This was Bunuel’s first color picture in English.  It was filmed in Mexico.

There was a more violent and much less authentic version of this tale made in 1997 with Pierce Brosnan. Except for the strange choice made by the makers of the Brosnan retread of Robinson Crusoe, where the fabled castaway island was moved from the coast of Venezuela to an island in the area of New Guinea, there are no good movies about New Guinea. It might be presumed that the makers of the Brosnan film felt that the cannibalism themes in their movie were better supported by the new setting.  New Guinea is well known for its history of cannibalism reaching into the 20th century. If you watch the relevant cable TV documentaries, or read Smithsonian magazine, it will be clear that this is not a matter of shame for people in the island’s interior but simply a continuation of traditional practice. Consuming an enemy’s body is called by the anthropologists, “incorporation.” Eat a hero and become a hero: you are what you eat.

The Hannibal Lecter movies

See Movie Archive for other films touching on the themes of cannibalism.

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