Judge Bill Treadway's 100th full-length review is an epic adventure. Coincidentally, the film he reviews is, too.
High adventure that reaches across the world!
While the original Joseph Conrad novel remains a must for any devoted reader, there is much to savor in this 1965 Richard Brooks adaptation. Although he does drop some subplots and minor characters, Brooks retains faithful to Conrad's tone and message and also delivers an epic masterpiece of the highest caliber. Columbia's lovely new disc should help give exposure to a film that deserves reappraisal.
Facts of the Case
Peter O'Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia and Becket, stars as Jim, a man who wants nothing more than a life at sea. While serving on the Patna, one of Her Majesty's best ships, Jim and the crew encounter a major squall. Believing the ship is going to sink, Jim and four fellow crew members jump overboard. Unfortunately for Jim, the Patna makes it through the squall and reaches its destination intact. Jim and the other four men are charged with cowardice, a stigma that will haunt Jim for the rest of his life.
After his unfair conviction for cowardice and treason, Jim is given a new lease on life by Marlow (Jack Hawkins, The Bridge on the River Kwai). Marlow introduces Jim to Stein (Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine), a trader who specializes in working in faraway lands. Stein decides to send Jim to Patusan and run his trading operations there. Patusan is held in the grip of Cornelius (Curt Jurgens) and the General (Eli Wallach, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), two men who have held the natives captive. After a brief imprisonment by the General and a budding romance with Jewel (Daliah Lavi, Casino Royale), Jim escapes and signs on to deliver a supply of gunpowder to the rebel tribes of Patusan. Through his actions, Jim may find redemption and closure. Unfortunately for him, the pirate king Gentleman Brown (James Mason, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) is already present and not going down without a fight.
Of the many epic films of the era, none may be more maligned than Lord Jim. Many have taken it to task for not remaining completely faithful to the source material. While it is true thatLord Jim is not a letter-perfect adaptation of the original novel, one must at least try to judge a film adaptation on its own merits. Having read the Conrad novel, I admit that the task of adapting it for a film was likely difficult, if not impossible, since Conrad wasn't as occupied with plot as he was with the morality of his characters. Some may have questioned the choice of Richard Brooks as writer and director of Lord Jim, but I feel that there could not have been a better choice. Two of Brooks's specialties were literary adaptations and morality plays, both of which adequately qualify him to handle Conrad. His decision in going for an epic feel in his adaptation was a correct one, since there are elements in the story that suggest such an approach, but he also retains enough of the flavor of Conrad to make the film work. Likewise, he drops the slower, more meandering portions of the novel, along with some characters and unnecessary subplots; by doing this, Brooks allows the film to move quickly enough to maintain interest for those who have not read the Conrad novel. It is quite a long film at 154 minutes, but thanks to Brooks's dynamic scripting and direction, it is brisk and engrossing at all times.
The film has been compared to Lawrence of Arabia, and that charge is justified without being entirely just. The comparison becomes unfair when the audience expects Brooks's film to be exactly like the Lean film; it is more compact and too cerebral to be an exact replica. However, the comparison is justified insofar as Brooks, like Lean, crafts a film that balances action elements with human drama to transcend the standard conventions of an action epic. Brooks also features gorgeous scenery (shot by F.A. Young, Lean's longtime cinematographer) and carefully composed widescreen space, but there is genuine heart and emotion here, and a true fondness for the main character, just as in Lawrence.
The basic question both novel and film ask is what exactly the thin line is between cowardice and bravery. Just as Robert Rossen's film They Came to Cordura showed when it confronted this question, Brooks finds that there is not one easy answer. Instead, he shows the difficulties of situations in which circumstances can alter the perception of someone who believes he is doing the right thing when others do not share his perception.
For Peter O'Toole, Jim is the perfect role to follow up his sterling work in Lawrence of Arabia. There is no actor better at portraying fear and strength simultaneously than O'Toole, and Brooks taps brilliantly into that gift. Just watch how O'Toole uses simple gestures and quirks to suggest the inner turmoil of our hero, and note how well they work. He deserved an Oscar nomination for this performance, and how Lee Marvin's work in Cat Ballou was considered more worthy is a mystery.
The supporting performances are nothing to sneeze at, either. James Mason is superb as the sly, oily Gentleman Brown. Mason uses his natural charm and steady delivery to suggest a more three-dimensional villain than most films of the era were accustomed to. Equally memorable is Eli Wallach as the General; his sleazy charm and gruffness anticipate his breakthrough role in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly two years later. Paul Lukas finds sympathy and gentleness as the savior-like Stein, and Jack Hawkins continues his string of honorable characters with his work as Marlow. Daliah Lavi was primarily cast as eye candy in a string of films in the 1960s, which is why her superb performance as Jewel is all the more earth shattering. Her chemistry with O'Toole helps make their romance believable, and she holds her own among the heavyweight cast.
Columbia presents Lord Jim in a stunning 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Brooks chose the more expensive and higher-quality Super Panavision 70mm widescreen format to film his epic. The 70mm photography gives the image a crisper, cleaner look than standard 35mm, and that look has been beautifully preserved on disc. After seeing several lackluster Columbia discs in recent months, what a pleasure it was to sit back and see such a fine-looking transfer. Some have complained about the muted colors, but since that was the intent of director Brooks, one cannot call that a weakness. There are still some scratches and specks, but they are minimal. Grain sometimes appears, but never in overwhelming patches. This is a near-perfect transfer that has been long overdue for Lord Jim, and I am glad to have it.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. I imagine that Lord Jim was presented in stereophonic sound during the roadshow engagement, so the lack of a stereo mix is disappointing. However, Columbia's mono mix is excellent. The superb Bronislau Caper score comes through with no real detriment, and the dialogue is always clearly audible. Some defects that plagued the video edition have been eliminated, so the result is a clean, crisp mix.
The only extra content of note that Columbia offers up for Lord Jim is some theatrical trailers. Columbia remains true to form by not including the trailer for the feature presentation. Those featured are trailers for the other O'Toole epic of the era, Lawrence of Arabia, the future Brooks classic In Cold Blood, and the David Lean epic masterpiece The Bridge on the River Kwai. All are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
I would have liked to have an O'Toole commentary track, particularly since he holds Lord Jim in high regard among the many films he has made. His insights would have made Columbia's presentation even better than it already is.
Lord Jim remains one of the great epic films of the 1960s. Although some will fault it for not remaining completely faithful to the Conrad novel, this adaptation still works wonderfully as both an intriguing character study and an exciting adventure film.
Columbia's disc may lack extras of substance, but the studio has given us such great video and audio quality that I easily give the disc high marks. Don't just sit there reading this; go out and buy or rent it today.
Richard Brooks is acquitted of all charges. In fact, he is given a citation for managing to take a dense, almost unfilmable novel and turning it into a first-rate epic of the highest order.
Columbia is admonished for a lack of meaningful extras, but the lovely transfer almost makes up for it.
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