Saturday, July 14, 2007

39. US director Richard Brook's "Lord Jim" (1965): Conrad's treatise on fear, heroism, cowardice and death

Imagine a movie where the hero turns into a coward and switches back to a hero. You begin to question your own yardsticks of what makes a hero and what makes a coward.

I have seen this US-British co-produced film three times over the past 30 years and each time I loved it and wanted to see it once again. What has attracted me each time are the spoken words and depth of the subject (you could say it was the screenplay) more than the direction. The subject of the film must have attracted director Richard Brooks who was essentially a screenplay writer who later became a director. He knew the merits of a strong script with philosophical lines taken from Joseph Conrad's book Lord Jim. Coppola was to use the related original material (Conrad's Heart of Darkness, another related tale narrated by Conrad's fictional character Marlow) in his Apocalypse Now for the Brando scenes several decades after this film was made and mostly forgotten.

What Brooks does not realize is that lines like "it only takes a split second to make a coward a hero or turn a hero into a coward" and "every sinner wants a second chance at redemption, without realizing he is damned for ever" are philosophical lines that one expects to hear from very literate individuals. Here, in Lord Jim, the lines are often spoken by the dregs of society. Jim, of course, we are told by the narrator (Jack Hawkins' Marlow) was philosophical, dreamed of heroism, and was a gentleman.

The film is made up of three distinct segments: 1. The "sinking" of SS Patna 2. The liberation of Patusan ("Patna" + "us" make up the name Patusan, remarks Jim to his love) and 3. The battle with a group of scoundrels (led by James Mason's 'Gentleman' Brown) with some fine speeches on honor, death, and fear.

Each segment could stand alone but together the film adds considerable worthiness that exceeds the action and plot, the elements that most viewers use to judge a movie. The lesser characters in the film add color and counterpoints to the script. Christian Marquand's French Captain who defends Jim's "cowardice" with the words "fear can make us do strange things" or Paul Lukas' Stern who compares his dead butterfly collection with the "wonderful, perfect human beings that God created" or the native who wonders why some pray to one god instead of a host of Gods are a few examples of dialogs that force you to reflect on what you heard.

The film's subject covers several religions. The fervent Muslims on the way to Haj survive the storm. The Christian Jim prays to his God. The Buddhists pray to Buddha. And the natives pray to their array of gods (a touch of Hinduism?). Yet, the film is not a religious film. But faith in God is underlined at every stage.

Conrad was Polish and a seaman before he became a writer. Brooks is an American. O'Toole leads a cast that is predominantly British. Daliah Lavi is Israeli, Marquand is French, Jurgens is German...The film is truly international.

Brooks not only wrote and directed the film but this was the first film that he produced. The film proved to be ideal for O'Toole reprising his roles of Lawrence of Arabia and Becket, roles that draw thin lines between cowardice and heroism and consequent attempts to redeem oneself. The film is not great cinema--but will remain for me a major literary work (Lord Jim, with many ties to Heart of Darkness, both works of Joseph Conrad) adapted for the screen with some delightful performances from O'Toole, Mason, Wallach, and Marquand and commendable photography by Freddie Young.


Unknown said...

i think the book is interesting thus far. conrad is a little hard to follow though. i think f f copola definitely used some themes from lord jim as well in apocalypse now. the two stories are related by marlow.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Finally watched it last night... and enjoyed it thoroughly. I agree with you that it's not great cinema but it definitely has its moments. Peter O'Toole's part surely reminds one of his mesmerizing portrayal in Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. I was moved by movie's spiritual elements. I think Brooks tackled the religious sentimentalities of different groups (Islam, Christianity, Budhism, and Hinduism) really well. I was shattered by the movie's ending. I couldn't have imagined a more apt ending to Jim's tale. Now, I plan to watch Becket soon. I would surely want to come back to Lord Jim after few years... it might help me access the movie at a different level. I was also thinking to give Conrad's novel a go.

Jugu Abraham said...

Do read both the Conrad's novels, "Lord Jim" and "Heart of Darkness," Murtaza. I have not seen Brook's most talked about films "In cold blood" and "Something of Value"--I have only seen his westerns and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and they were just above average.

However, any screenplay writer dealing with Conrad and Dostoevsky (Brook directed 'The brothers Karamazov') is no pushover. Not having seen his best films, I rate him high as a scriptwriter who could deal with complex subjects, but not so much as an outstanding director. "Heart of Darkness" proved to be the fulcrum of the script of "Apocalypse Now'. As my commentator Squelsh (above) stated, Coppola must have gained much from "Lord Jim" (the book and the movie) to develop the Marlon Brando sequences in his film.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

I will read them most definitely, now that you have recommended them. Another book of his that I have heard a lot about is Nostromo. Have you read it? If I am not wrong, Ridley Scott's "The Duellists" - which I had the privilege of watching only recently (again thanks to your recommendation) - is also based on a book by Conrad?

I had watched "Apocalypse Now" a couple of years back... perhaps I will have to watch it again to appreciate it truly. But, I think I can still relate the pain experienced by Brando's character in the movie to that of Peter O'Toole's character in Lord Jim. I have also heard a lot about Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. I think it was the book that invented the non-fiction genre. I would surely love to watch Brook's adaptation of the movie. Btw, what's your take on Brook's version of Dostoevsky's "The brothers Karamazov". I recently watched Petr Zelenka's version of The brothers Karamazov. Even though I haven't read the novel yet, I found the film quite interesting. The treatment that Zelenka gives to Dostoevsky's novel is what really got my attention. I would very much like you to watch it and analyse it.

Here's the IMDb link for it:

Jugu Abraham said...

Conrad is a great writer--some close friends and cynics attribute this to the cosmic coincidence that we share the same birth-date! Levity apart, I am constantly amazed at the variety of subjects Conrad has dealt with in depth through his novels. The strains of tragedy, self-doubt and constant attempts to place his characters within the matrix of geography and a greater universe always grip me.

Though I am equally a great fan of Dostoevsky, I have have yet to read "The Brothers Karamazov"--at this point of time, my favorites remain his other two works "The Idiot" and "Possessed."

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

These days I use the android version of kindle to read classic novels (which are available for free download). Actually, I stay in South Delhi while my college is in North Delhi (Rohini), and so I have to commute (by Metro) over 50 kms daily. More often than not, I use the time to read these classics. But, I am an unusually slow reader (partly because I have this strange tendency to enjoy the prose more than the plot itself, and partly because I only started reading good literature about 3 years back).

I got so enthralled by The Idiot that half way through it I decided to give Kurosawa's adaptation a go. After watching the movie I somehow lost my hunger for the novel. However, I will surely finish it off, but perhaps at a later date. I read Father Sergius (on your recommendation) and felt blessed. Like you, I too was amazed by Tolstoy's incredible range. Now, I plan to check out the likes of Conrad, Joyce, Hardy, etc. starting with Conrad's Heart of Darkness.