Monday, May 19, 2008

LORD JIM (1965)

It's been a few years since I read Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim"; I liked it a great deal, but I remember it as a relatively dense novel of ideas buried in an obliquely told narrative, with a central character who remains a cipher. Custom made for Hollywood, eh? Peter O'Toole is Jim, an officer in the Merchant Marine on board the S. S. Patna. The narrator Marlow (Jack Hawkins) tells us that O'Toole had big dreams of glory, of being someone important, but all that is scuttled when the ship, carrying 800 Muslims to Mecca, is overcome by a storm at sea. O'Toole lets his fear get the best of him and imagines he sees the hold flooding. He and some of the other men abandon the ship in a lifeboat, leaving the pilgrims to a watery fate, but it turns out that the ship was only damaged, and it and its passengers survived. An inquiry is held and O'Toole confesses to desertion. Instead of a life of fame, he hides in anonymity and takes any job he can get. When he saves a small boat's cargo from fire, its owner (Paul Lukas) hires him to go upriver in the Malay jungle, with weapons and supplies, to help the natives of Patusan free themselves from a vicious warlord (Eli Wallach). The natives accept O'Toole as a leader and after a prolonged battle, Wallach is defeated, but a group of his cronies, led by Curt Jurgens, escape. With the help of the notorious Gentleman Brown (James Mason), they return to get hold of some precious jewels and O'Toole leads the villagers' defense. After the defeat of the crooks, O'Toole lets himself be talked into allowing them to leave unharmed, but Mason has a trick up his sleeve, leading to a final deadly and tragic conflict, with O'Toole sealing his own fate.

Made in the model of the David Lean period epics of the day (by Richard Brooks who also directed In Cold Blood and Looking for Mr. Goodbar), the movie does a nice job of condensing the action of the story as well as conflating characters, but it can't make up for the fact that the central character remains an enigma (as he does in the book). O'Toole was probably not the right actor for the part—I saw someone with a bit more physical bulk—but he's OK, though it often seems like he's still playing T.E. Lawrence, in the jungle rather than the desert. Wallach never seems as menacing as he should. The exotic Dahlia Lavi is wasted in a useless role as O'Toole's native love interest, and the usually reliable Mason is ill-used here. I did like Jurgens and Akim Tamiroff as villains, and Lukas, in his last major film role, is excellent. Most of the film looks very good, especially the scene toward the end of O'Toole and Mason meeting in the middle of a foggy river near dawn. I also like the sound of the wind chimes as O'Toole faces his fate at the very end. The story deals with the themes of fate, guilt, heroism, redemption, and responsibility, maybe a few too many things for what was marketed as an adventure film. It's also too long, with the first battle and its preparations in particular going on at tedious length. Not a bad movie, but if you have to choose between the movie and the book, read the book. [DVD]

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