Peter O’Toole as “Lord Jim”

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Richard Brooks (1912-1992) was a novelist (The Brick Foxhole, tamed onscreen as “Crossfire”) turned movie writer-directot with literary aspirations. He directed an uninteresting adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald “The Last Time I Saw Paris” and a deadly adaptation of (the I’ll grant unfilmable!) The Brothers Karamazov. IMO he did better with lesser literary properties: Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood, A Mule for the Marquesa (as “The Professionals”), Looking for Mr. Goodbar and two Tennessee Williams play adaptations: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth,” both starring Paul Newman paired with formidable presences (Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Page, Burl Ives and Ed Begley).

I’m not sure what is wrong with Brooks’ 1965 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel Lord Jim, which was shot partly in and around the ancient Khmer (capital of Angkor Thom with an impressive cast headed by Peter O’Toole (fresh from Oscar-nominated performances in “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Becket”), along with James Mason, Eli Wallach, Jack Hawkins, Paul Lukas, and Curt Jurgens. Though the title character is very laconic through most of the movie, a lot of Conrad’s florid garrulousness comes out of the mouths of other characters (and from Jim’s just before the end).

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For me at least, there is too much talk at the beginning and the end of the long movie, with Jack Hawkins mostly redundant (to the images) voiceovering at the beginning and O’Toole’s Jim with his surrogate father trader Stein (Lukas) arguing that he must be punished in the last part (before a spectacular Balinese funeral with Angkor Wat in the background). 1965 audiences probably reacted “Haven’t we just seen this?” —that is O’Toole playing a man alienated from his homeland, preoccupied with not seeming a coward, seeing himself as a messianic leader for “third world” freedom fighters: Arabs against the Ottoman Empire, some generic Southeast Asian group against a warlord-like white bandit not too different from the one in Heart of Darkness. Both T. E. Lawrence and Tuan Jim are more than a little delusional about their transcendent wisdom and how beloved they are by nonwhite forces who don’t seem able to organize their own battles. Both are disappointed by their failure to deliver on their promises without white European leadership and after suffering disappointment, commit kinds of suicide.

As a young merchant marine officer who jumped ship, abandoning 800 pilgrims being transported to Arabia, Jim is dishonored and seeks anonymity (Lawrence’s dishonor in his memoir and in David Lean’s movie was being sodomized by a Turkish officer (played by José Ferrer in the movie) and Lawrence’s quest for anonymity came later in his lifecourse than Jim’s. Jim is tortured by the general, but is not anally raped. O’Toole has something of the same mad glint in his eyes in both roles and the same overestimation of his ability to make what he wants become reality.

Eli Wallach chews up a lot of scenery as the chief villain, known as “the general” preying on the upriver natives abetted by Stein’s corrupted and cowardly agent Cornelius (Jurgens). Back at the mouth of the river, Akim Tamiroff chews up more scenery as the owner of various boats in Malacca, Schmober. Eventually, a smoother villain “Gentleman” Brown (a bearded James Mason in a bowler hat) goes upriver to detach treasure from Jim’s self-invented protectorate. There is an undeveloped romance with a native girl (an affectless “performance” by Israeli actress Dalaih Lavi) and more developed male bonding with a boy (Eric Young?) and the hunky son of the headman. I guess it makes sense that the headman and his son are of the same ethnicity, though it being Japanese is noticeable odd (Saitô Tatsuo as the headman, Itami Jûzô [who later wrote and directed “Tampopo” and “A Taxing Woman”] as his son).

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Having panicked once, Jim is determined to prove himself and does so with manic intensity (not the grim determination of the maligned Gary Cooper character in “They Came to Condura”). I recall Conrad’s novel being primarily about that, though the movie is something of an epic in the style of an American western of clearing out bad guys who are dominating peaceful good small-town people that happens to have Cambodian backdrops, which were shot by Freddie Young, who had shot “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” for David Lean in other climes.

If the movie was overshadowed in 1965 by “Lawrence of Arabia” (even though O’Toole had played a real ruler, Henry II, in between), now it is overshadowed by Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now!” a version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness with an upriver despot in, I think, Laos (filmed in the Philippines). And for me, the storm at sea pales against recent memory of those in “The Life of Pi.”

It’s impossible to consider this or any other movie in a vacuum. Alas for it, the associations it evokes are to better movies (including “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” for Wallach’s role). Somewhat unusually, rather than sagging in the middle, the middle of this movie that runs nearly three hours is better than the first or the last parts (IMHO).

The good-looking DVD has no bonus features except some theatrical trailers: not one for “Lord Jim” but ones for Brooks’s later “In Cold Blood,” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (the last also focusing on a delusional British officer far from home in Southeast Asia).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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