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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Lord Jim
Lord Jim
Columbia/Tri-Star // Unrated // August 24, 2004
List Price: $24.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 24, 2004 | E-mail the Author
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When Lord Jim was first released, as a 70mm roadshow attraction in February 1965, critics somewhere surely must have referred to the picture as "Lawrence of Malaya." Both Lord Jim and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) star Peter O'Toole as a white man on a spiritual odyssey that takes him to an exotic people whose race, religion, and culture are misunderstood by condescending, self-serving whites who exploit them. Like T.E. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad's hero earns the respect of the culture he adopts as his own, helps them overthrow their oppressors, but in the end can never really be regarded as anything other than an outsider.

In Lord Jim, O'Toole's title character is an idealistic British sailor looking for adventure in the Indian Ocean. He becomes first mate aboard the S.S.Patna, a dangerously decrepit steamship bound for the Red Sea, with 800 Muslims on board making the pilgrimage to Mecca. On route the ship, badly skippered by a cowardly captain (Walter Gotell), is inadvertently scuttled just as a storm approaches. Panicking, the crew abandons the listing ship -- and its 800 passengers -- aboard one of her lifeboats. Paralyzed with fear, Jim joins his shipmates, but when their lifeboat reaches port, they are astonished to discover the Patna in the harbor; it had been salvaged and her passengers rescued.

The Patna's crew flees to the anonymity of the bustling Southeast Asian coastline, but Jim, overcome with guilt, turns himself in and subsequently becomes a pariah among British sailors. He becomes a drifter, but eventually rescues a shipment of gunpowder and arms purchased by Stein (Paul Lukas) that is nearly blow-up by saboteurs.

Impressed by Jim's bravery, Stein offers him the job of delivering the arms and gunpowder from Batu Kring to Patusan, deep in the Malay jungle, where the Bugis, the native people, are held in slavery by a sadistic Eurasian opportunist known as The General (Eli Wallach). Jim, looking for redemption, soon immerses himself in their cause, befriending young leader Waris (Juzo Itami, later the famous director of Tampopo and A Taxing Woman) and falls in love with a beautiful Eurasian woman known in the credits as The Girl (Daliah Lavi).

But even as Jim heroically battles the General and later criminals bent on stealing riches buried in the General's underground hiding place, he remains haunted and consumed by that horrible night aboard the Patna.

Lord Jim plays very much like a project intended for David Lean but quickly reworked for someone else. Such was apparently not the case, but writer-director Richard Brooks can't escape comparison owing to the myriad similarities to Lean's 1962 epic. The picture is well produced and poetic at times, but also clumsy and ham-fisted. Released during a glut of 70mm roadshow product, Columbia seems not to have had a lot of faith in the film, even as it was being made. The film seems choppy at times, and the model work (mainly the Patna) is grand but glaringly obvious, absurdly inadequate for a giant screen epic. In most cities Lord Jim played second-tier showcases, and in some large cities didn't play in 70mm at all.

The film abandons the book's multiple-narrator structure; early scenes have voice-over from Captain Marlow (Jack Hawkins, another Lawrence veteran), Jim's father-like mentor, but once that character's out of the picture, the film veers further from Conrad than seems necessary.

The business with The General and his booty is both conventionally melodramatic and overwritten. Referring to third act menace Gentleman Brown (James Mason, superb as a ruthless but intelligent villain), Stein warns Jim to "Ignore him!" "How," Jim asks, "do you ignore a fact?" The clunkiness of such dialog is somewhat balanced by occasional shrewd observations on human nature, especially that fine line between heroism and cowardice. Though it's all rather muddled in adapting Conrad's arguably inadaptable novel, overall the film is more successful than similar movies dealing with the same subject, such as Robert Rossen's dreary They Came to Codura (1959).

O'Toole is fine as another enigmatic idealist driven to the depths of despair and existential resignation, but the rest of the cast is problematic, an unconvincing hodgepodge of American, Japanese, and an Israeli actors playing the Bugis. Wallach tries hard but mostly comes off as Tuco with a buzz cut. Lavi is so exotically beautiful she's somehow more acceptably Eurasian, but German actor Curt Jurgens fairs badly in a part that plays like a cross between Peter Lorre and Dennis Hopper's role in Apocalypse Now. Itami is fine in his small part, but veteran character actor Tatsuo Saito's performance, critical to the film's last act -- is completely ruined by obvious dubbing -- his lines are looped by voice artist Paul Frees.

Video & Audio

Columbia TriStar's DVD is 16:9 enhanced but still a disappointment as Lord Jim's widescreen debut. There is glaring edge enhancement during the opening titles, and the film looks soft and its colors muted when it should look razor sharp. DP and co-producer Freddie Young, yet another carry-over from Lawrence, makes good use of Asian locations, but on big TVs this DVD is only passable, odd given the film's 65mm (Super Panavision) origins. Apparently, the film originally had an intermission, but the DVD is without one, and there is no overture, exit music and the like. The stereo sound fares better, though it's not especially impressive either. An alternate French track is included, along with optional English, French, Spanish, and Japanese subtitles.

Extra Features

The only extra is Columbia's annoying new "Play Previews" option, which in this case offers three trailers: Lawrence of Arabia (dog-eared, but 16:9), Bridge on the River Kwai (4:3 letterboxed), and In Cold Blood (also 16:9).

Parting Thoughts

Despite its many flaws, Lord Jim is earnest and engrossing, though never really a success, and its parts are superior to its whole.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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