Sony has released director Richard Brooks' 1965 screen adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim as a burn-to-order DVD title. The novel, written in 1899, centers on Jim, an idealistic young man who fulfills his dream of being a highly regarded officer on a commercial cargo vessel in southeast Asia. All is going well for him under the guidance of his mentor, ship's captain Marlowe. However, when an injury causes Jim to convalesce for an extended period, he ends up on a rickety freighter under the command of an unscrupulous captain who is transporting hundreds of Muslim pilgrims. When the ship founders, the captain and his cowardly crew abandon ship, leaving the pilgrims to face what appears to be certain death. To his own astonishment, Jim spontaneously opts to join them in order to save his own life. When the ragged survivors finally make port, they are shocked to find that the ship was rescued- and Jim and his fellow crew members are now tarnished as cowards. The tale delves into Jim's psychological woes caused by an omnipresent sense of guilt. In the film version, Jim (played by Peter O'Toole) attempts to regain some honor by willingly testifying at a legal hearing that he did indeed act in a cowardly fashion. This only brings him scorn from his fellow British mariners who accuse him of tarring them all with the scandal. Morose and plagued by guilt, Jim works at menial jobs on the docks, trying to fade into obscurity but his notoriety follows him everywhere. Ultimately, he meets Stein (Paul Lukas), an aging intellectual who hires Jim for a dangerous mission to secretly transport arms and ammunition to a remote jungle village where the people have fallen under the dictatorial rule of a local warlord known as The General (Eli Wallach). Stein hopes that the delivery of these weapons will inspire the long-suffering people to revolt against their oppressor. Jim, feeling his life is meaningless, readily accepts the mission, even though it is considered near-suicidal. Against all odds, he manages to get the weapons into the hands of the villagers. He is proclaimed a local hero for doing so and in short order he finds a new acceptance among these people who know nothing of his shameful past. He forms a romantic bond with a local girl (Daliah Lavi) and begins to train the local men as armed combatants. They engage the General and his forces in an all out assault from which they emerge triumphant. Jim is suddenly thrust into the role of local hero and is proclaimed "Lord" by the grateful villagers. A period of peace and joy comes to the area- until intruders from the outside world arrive who seek to take religious treasures from the temple by force of arms. Suddenly Jim is once again forced to summon his courage to save the local people from further exploitation.
Lord Jim was an expensive production back in the day and was heavily promoted as an equally prestigious follow-up to Peter O'Toole's back-to-back triumphs in Lawrence of Arabia and Becket. The project seemed to be a sure-fire proposition, given all the talent involved and the fact that Richard Brooks was a highly acclaimed director. Yet, for all the build-up, the production proved to be a flop with critics and a commercial dud. What went wrong? Viewing the film today, Brooks' own screenplay is rather schizophrenic and never provides a clear understanding of Jim. At the beginning of the movie he's an innocent Walter Mitty type (Brooks even throws in groan-inducing fantasy bubbles that appear in Jim's mind depicting him engaging in acts of derring do.) Then Jim becomes a relentless, morose symbol of self-pity before transforming himself overnight into a virtual super hero. (It is never explained how this simple ship's first officer is able to spontaneously concoct military strategies and invent innovative weaponry as though he were a 19th century version of 007's "Q"). O'Toole carries the gentle, angelic hero stuff to extremes and the New York Times' Bosley Crowther commented at the time that he looks as though he is perpetually about to burst into tears. Brooks also indulges in heavy-handed religious symbolism with Jim carrying out self-sacrifices in order to save the innocents around him. As with most films of this era, local native populations, though treated sympathetically, come across as the white man's burden. Jim's love interest, played by Daliah Lavi, looks like she stepped out of a Beverly Hills spa and in one absurd sequence is seeing ironing what appear to be curtains as he discusses committing suicide! (Keep in mind this is taking place in a remote jungle village in the 19th century so one wonders how big a priority ironing might have been.) There is also no indication that the virginal Jim ever compromises his Christ-like persona by consummating his relationship with the girl (who is never named.) That may be noble for Jim, but it sure as hell makes their on-screen relationship a bore. The battle scenes are exciting and well-staged and Freddie Young's 70mm cinematography is as gorgeous as you would expect, though it is somewhat diluted by the fact that Brooks films large sections of the film within the obvious confines of studio sets. Similarly, the pivotal scenes of a ship in a storm-tossed sea are very obviously shot with miniatures. There is an excellent supporting cast with Lukas giving a fine performance as Jim's father figure, James Mason as an aristocratic cutthroat who leads an expedition of thieves into the village, Curt Jurgens, especially good as a cowardly opportunist businessman and Akim Tamiroff as, well, a typical Akim Tamiroff character (i.e. an amusing low-life). If you can get past the fact that Eli Wallach, a Jewish guy from Brooklyn, plays the only Asian warlord with a hairy chest, you can enjoy his wry performance, though the character is poorly defined. Jack Hawkins makes brief appearances as Captain Marlowe and provides narration for the early scenes, though this device is promptly dropped by Brooks and never reappears.
The film is a quasi-epic that can't be called even a quasi-classic. It clocks in at 254 minutes, not exceptionally long if a film is engrossing enough, but at times the pace of Brooks' direction makes the story rather taxing to stick with. Nevertheless, Lord Jim looks better today than it did at the time of its initial release perhaps because it features so many talented artists who are no longer with us.