Saturday, February 03, 2007

Significant Cinema Series: LORD JIM

LORD JIM, directed by Richard Brooks, Columbia, 1965

"The truth? What is the truth? I've been a so-called
coward . . . and a so-called hero . . . And there's not
the thickness of a sheet of paper between them.
Maybe cowards and heroes are just ordinary men,
who for a split second, do something out of the ordinary."

courage. cowardice. honor. trust. loyality. self-sacrifice. pride. ambition. failure. weakness. forgiveness. redemption. respect. strength. leadership. honesty. deception. fear. darkness vs. light.

The themes of the classic film LORD JIM are so important, so profound, that I rank LORD JIM as one of my all-time favorite films.

Adapted from a Joseph Conrad novel, LORD JIM is the story of an idealistic Merchant Marine officer, James Burke, who--in a quick moment that changes everything--abandons his ship and disgraces himself.

When we first meet Jim he is a respected British executive officer, but an accident aboard ship demands that he go ashore to recover. While on shore leave Jim agrees to be the first officer for the horrible captain of an even worse ship, the SS Patna. They're transporting hundreds of Moslems on their pilgrimage to Mecca when a bad storm hits. Jim follows his captain's lead and jumps ship. I cannot begin to express here just what a big deal this is in the world of navel officers. You can't do worse than to abandon ship.

"Danger is never the barometer of an officer's conduct."

Despite the fact that Jim demanded an inquiry against himself and confessed to his wrongdoing, the incident aboard the Patna would be a huge stone around Jim's neck for the rest of his life. He had to run and hide, but the story of LORD JIM is how you cannot run from yourself or as Jim will later put it, "How do you hide with a stone the size of the Patna around your neck?"

"Some men never become heroes.
Some heroes can never become men.
Some men are lucky enough to become both."

Jim tries to become nameless, taking odd jobs in remote ports all throughout Asia. During a throwaway job Jim is seen as something special when he puts out a fire on a small boat carrying cargo for a new employer on a day job. It's through this incident Jim that becomes involved in delivering firepower in the form of arms and gunpowder to the native people of Patusan who are being oppressed by a brutal warlord. The employer is a local trader named Stein. Played by Paul Lukas, Stein develops a sort of father-son relationship with Jim. Stein has some wonderful lines such as, "There's is too much pride in your humility." To both Stein who supports the Patusan resistance as well as the people of Patusan, there seems to be no good reason for Jim to risk his life to help them deliver weapons or help fight the heavyhanded general who is ruling over them. However, as viewers, we know this is Jim's chance at redemption. As Jim later observes and tells "the girl" (his love interest played by a beautiful actress, Daliah Lavi), if you take "us" out of Patusan, what letters are you left with, but Patna.

"Who among us has not begged God for a second chance?"

I don't want to give away the details of how things unfold when Jim gets to Patusan, but it is there when he gets involved in the locals' resistance against "the general" (played by Eli Wallach above) that this film becomes terrific. I love Wallach's performance in this film because he is an admirable villain. Suffice it to say that the local people are so appreciative and enamoured with Jim that they give him the name "Tuan Jim" which means Lord Jim. However, he didn't tell his new devotees about his dark past and the act of cowardice he would like to forget. Yet, as we know, the past always comes back to haunt us or as Stein tells Jim, "We are only what God made us. Nothing more." A metaphorical as well as actual confrontation is inevitable and it finally comes in the form of a gentleman pirate named Gentleman Brown played by James Mason. I love the ending of LORD JIM.

Jim: "That Phantom's been with me a long time. It won't die."

Stein: "No son, not in the dark."

This is simply just a beautiful film. It was made in 1965 and shot in the most spectacular super panavision 70 mm. Richard Brooks (ELMER GANTRY, IN COLD BLOOD, many others) did a great job in adapting the screenplay from a wonderful novel as well as directing. Moreover, this film was lit by the famous cinematographer genius, Freddie Young. Young was the D.P. who won an Oscar for DOCTOR ZHIVAGO the same year as LORD JIM and, of course, he won an Oscar for cinematography for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA just three years prior. Like those lovely pieces of work, LORD JIM is one heck of a film to look at.

Naturally, one of the other things I adore about this film is Peter O'Toole's performance. I've always wanted to list this film as one of his many Academy Award nominations for actor in a leading role, but he wasn't nominated for LORD JIM. He was just three years prior with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) and the year before with BECKET (1964) and he would be up again just three years later with THE LION IN WINTER (1968), but I truly feel this stellar performance in the too underratd LORD JIM should have won him the Oscar.


"If I lose without honor, if at the last moment I
weaken then it's all without meaning. Wasted."

LORD JIM was the second Peter O'Toole film I ever saw. That was 28 years ago. I was ten years old and my Uncle John showed me the film. I own a DVD copy and I've watched it a few times since then, but just today I sat down and watched LORD JIM with my ten-year-old boy. It's a powerful enough film to cut across three generations . . . so far.


Previous "Significant Cinema Series" post:
THE GAME

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Blogger TParker said...

When I wasn't laughing at The General's awful fashion sense I was admiring his military prowess. I am a huge Eli Wallach fan and I think that like in 'How The West Was Won', he was the best actor in the film.

3:03 AM  

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