“It’s primitive as can be”: GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (1964-67)

A tweet making waves the other day from film director James Gunn reminded me of the many hours I wasted spent as a child watching the seemingly endless travails of the seven castaways on the TV series Gilligan’s Island. Being shipwrecked on a desert island with Mary Ann and Ginger did not seem such an ordeal to my pubescent mind, except every now and the group would be threatened by the arrival of – yep – CANNIBALS!

English professor Priscilla Walton observes that her first encounter with cannibals was also on her television, watching the enormously popular show. The series ran from 1964-67 over some 98 episodes plus occasional reunion movies.

Gilligan’s Island (GI) was a clever reboot of the first English language novel, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (even mentioning that story in the closing song).

“No phone, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury. Like Robinson Crusoe, they’re primitive as can be.”

Unlike Defoe’s story, Gilligan (Bob Denver) was not a lone survivor of a shipwreck but the hapless “first mate” on a little cruise boat, The Minnow. Gilligan, his skipper (Alan Hale) and five tourists left a tropical port for a three-hour tour, and instead were marooned on an uncharted island, apparently interminably. Various commentators with too much time on their hands have suggested that the seven castaways represent the seven deadly sins (e.g. Ginger was lust and Mary Ann envy). I’m not going near that one, fascinating as it is, because this is a cannibal blog after all. And cannibalism is neither illegal, nor one of the seven deadly sins. It just misses out on all the gongs.

Robinson Crusoe worried ceaselessly about his lack of company, eventually adopting Friday, a local ‘savage’ whom he rescued from a tribe of cannibals. He also spent a lot of the book and some of the movies worried about what to eat, and nervous that Friday might eat him. Like those of us marooned on this planet rather than an island, major preoccupations are always fear and appetite. Appetite is all about food and sex. Fear is about being killed and perhaps eaten.

The obsessions of Gilligan and the other all-white islanders were the same. Of course, it was the sixties, so no sex could be shown except for the movie star, Ginger (Tina Louise) who used her flirty charms to inflame and coax the men into various (non-sexual) activities. But – what did the castaways eat? Well, it was an island, so presumably the would eat sea animals, as well as various plants (including some that grew from a box of radioactive seeds in one episode). There seemed to be a lot of coconut pies.

Then of course, like Crusoe, there were the natives who, like most depictions of indigenous peoples until fairly recently, were assumed to be primitive savages and so, ipso facto, cannibals. No evidence was presented, and no one was ever eaten. From the earliest days of the movie, and well before, indigenous peoples who were being dispossessed by European explorers were declared cannibals, with no evidence needed other than their lack of “civilisation.” Think of movies like Cannibal Holocaust and the various Italian movies of that period, or old classics like Windbag the Sailor, Be My King, or the early racist cartoons like Jungle Jitters.

Sheer Eurocentric racism of course, as I suppose was the choice of the Irish name “Gilligan” for the show’s clown, a boy/man who is usually responsible for thwarting their rescue through his clueless blunderings. The “natives” were invariably people of colour wearing grass skirts with bone piercings in ears, noses, etc and horns on their heads. This probably is the image that springs to mind even now when a cannibal scholar mentions cannibalism in polite company – primitive savages who threaten our safety and bodies if we fall into their clutches. Of course, as Walton points out, the island was the traditional home of the “natives” – it was Gilligan and the castaways who were the intruders, introducing baffling technology and probably a few new pandemics to the locals. There’s a comprehensive study of GI Natives on a Gilligan fandom page. Yes Virginia, there is a GI fandom site.

But the cannibal has moved on. From the outsider who was only sighted by explorers or conquistadors, the cannibal has firmly come home and, since the time of Jack the Ripper who boasted of eating the kidney of one of his victims, the vast majority of reports of cannibalism involve people in urban cities and communities eating their neighbours. Generally, they are dismissed as psychotic personalities who know not what they do. That discourse has become ever less convincing, with cannibals like Fritz Haarmann or Armin Meiwes or even Jeffrey Dahmer all seeming to know exactly what they were doing. The ultimate example of the civilised, enlightened, urbane cannibal is of course Hannibal Lecter, who simply sees eating inferior or rude humans as no worse than eating pigs or fish. Unlike the other examples, Hannibal is fictional, but perfectly represents the cultural trend toward the modern, domestic cannibal.

So, who would the cannibals have been in a re-booted Gilligan’s Island? There are clues. While the men seem largely asexual (Gilligan and the Skipper could perhaps be considered bunk-mates, while the Professor is married to science and Thurston Howell III to Lovey and therefore to asexual domesticity), the women are given standard feminine stereotypes of the virgin (Mary Ann), the whore (Ginger) and the symbolic mother (Lovey). Barbara Creed‘s “The Monstrous-Feminine” emphasises the importance of gender in the construction of female monsters, and so it is not totally surprising that when people turn their fantasies beyond the wholesome storyline of the series, it is the gentle, subservient Mary Ann (Dawn Wells) who becomes the knife-wielding cannibal.

The 2002 comic strip Cool Jerk (above) depicted Mary Ann, or maybe a look-alike, as a cannibal named Mary Annibal. The Silence of the Lambs had swept the Oscars in 1992, and the sequel, Hannibal, had come out in a blaze of publicity in 2001.

Cannibalism on a desert island (or in an inaccessible place like the Andes) is a long tradition, and a rich source of humour. Above is the cover of the Horror Society’s Summer 2015 issue. Can you spot the Cannibal Holocaust reference?

More recently, James Gunn, the director of Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad and many others (and a known provocateur with a wicked sense of humour) suggested that he and Charlie Kaufman had wanted to restart “Gilligan Kimishima” as a cannibal movie. He tweeted an image of his entry in a Twitter trend that asked people to “pitch a movie with two pictures, no captions.” He juxtaposed the GI tribe with Theodor de Bry’s 16th century engravings of the Tupinambá in Brazil, a series of engravings he based on the sensational accounts of Hans Staden and Jean de Léry, both of whom gave graphic descriptions of cannibalism (hey, it sells books).

Gunn went on to explain that this was a true story. He and Charlie Kaufman had pitched a movie version of Gilligan’s Island to Warner Bros. in which the starving castaways would kill and eat each other. Unfortunately, the creator of GI, Sherwood Schwartz (and later his estate) refused to let it go ahead.

Such a shame. Of course, most of the original GI actors are now dead (Dawn Wells sadly died from COVID-19 just before New Year), but with modern artificial intelligence and deepfake technology, who says we couldn’t have a cannibal feast on an avatar Gilligan’s Island? It would at least be white meat.

One thought on ““It’s primitive as can be”: GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (1964-67)

  1. Pingback: Having old friends for dinner – YELLOWJACKETS (episode 1, 2021) – The Cannibal Guy

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